How Do You Know When Your Resilience is Low?


While resilience is a trait many of us are born with, it is also a state of being and can fluctuate depending on our life situation at any point in time. Our resilience may erode slowly overtime if we are not bouncing back from normal stress and pressure. Or, it can drop quickly after experiencing a significant emotional event or a particularly stressful period. Knowing your current state of resilience can help you determine whether to carve out extra time for resilience enhancing activities.

There are a lot of instruments on the internet that claim to measure resilience. Unfortunately, resilience is defined very differently by various researchers and I find these instruments not very useful. Instead of relying on a series of questions, the U.S. Department of State’s Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience identified common behaviors we see in people with low resilience. Not everyone exhibits the same characteristics, which range from mild to severe in nature and can last for varying durations. Being able to identify these characteristics in yourself and others can help you determine whether you should engage in resilience enhancing activities or need to assist others in addressing their own resilience.

These characteristics are also common in some mental health conditions such as depression, so if you have these characteristics for a long period of time (usually more than six months) or if the severity of one or more interferes with normal functioning, consider seeking assistance from a mental health professional.

  • Irritability/Anger: Being quick to anger and irritable is a very common characteristic of low resilience and often leads to conflict in the work place. When my resilience was low after serving in Iraq, I found myself being more combative with peers and quick to fight about an issue. As I rebuilt my resilience, I became much more patient and collaborative with peers.
  • Persistent Illness: One of the most frustrating characteristic of low resilience is constant illness. Since our immune systems are depressed when our resilience is low, we cannot fight off the viruses and bacteria that naturally bombard our systems. I normally never get sick, but for two years after I left Iraq, I seemed to catch every bug and had constant stomach ailments. Once I bounced back, I rarely got sick again.
  • Becoming Isolated or Over Clingy: As our resilience diminishes, people can either start to isolate themselves from other people or become too dependent on having family or friends around them. As a classic introvert, I stopped socializing and making new friends when my resilience was low. Unfortunately, by isolating myself, I cut off an important way to enhance my resilience which is to build a social support network.
  • Moodiness: As resilience diminishes, there can be a change in our body’s hormones that causes mood swings. It is also very hard to control our emotions. We can experience extreme highs and lows, sometimes several times a day.
  • Overreaction to Normal Stress: When a car cuts us off on the highway, most of us are slightly annoyed. A person with low resilience may overreact and become enraged. I’m an avid scuba diver, which is a mildly stressful sport. When my resilience was low, I struggled because my anxiety was so much greater than normal which meant I used my air too quickly and was unable enjoy the dive. I was overreacting to the normal stress of diving.
  • Easily Depressed/Crying: Some people with low resilience find they feel sad a lot and cry more easily than they used to.
  • Trouble Sleeping: Trouble sleeping is extremely common among people with low resilience. Many of us focus on how to sleep better without realizing that instead we need to enhance our resilience. For two years after leaving Iraq, I rarely slept more than 4 hours per week. I thought it was just part of growing old but once I bounced back, I started sleeping much better and when my resilience is high, I sleep great.
  • Poor Memory: Low resilience has a significant impact on our memories. I studied French right after I left Iraq and it was horrible. It was impossible for me to remember the vocabulary I needed to learn and I failed in my studies. Luckily, as my resilience improved, so did my memory.
  • Risky Behavior: When our resilience is low, we tend to lose some social control and may find ourselves over drinking, spending too much, or taking reckless risks in relationships.
  • Lack of Hope: The most troubling characteristic of low resilience is the lack of hope, the lack of a vision for the future. This can sometimes evolve into despair. This makes it hard to plan and problem solve and can manifest as cynicism and a lack of caring.

By understanding these characteristics, you can look for these behaviors in yourself or ask a trusted friend or family member to help identify the behaviors, and get a sense of your own resilience on any given day. For example, when my resilience starts to erode, the first behavior change I notice is I start to have trouble sleeping. When that happens, I prioritize resilience activities until my sleep improves. Take some time to identify how you behave when your resilience erodes so you can make sure you rebuild your resilience as soon as possible.

What behaviors do you experience when your resilience is low?

This blog does not represent official policies of the Department of State or those of the U.S. Government.

Beth Payne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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This was a really informative article. What resources do you suggest to help build resilience? What activities build resilience?

Amy Gault

Hi Beth – great article! Could you point to any resources for the ‘resilience enhancing activities’ you referenced? Thanks!

Lisa Garcia

Irritability, poor memory, lack of hope, those are my tell-tale signs when my resilience is low. Oddly enough, my sleep pattern seems undisturbed.

Bonnie Boone

I found the article thorough and well written but would like a follow up article on how the author or others can rebuild resilience in a practical way without seeking mental health guidance. What say you? Readers–what do you do that helps? One thing that helps me is to scan my life and recognize the blows that brought me down and to “pat myself on the back” for recovering without turning to drugs or alcohol and to give myself a little slack for bad days without harsh self-condemnation as overachievers are prone to!


A good reminder that EAP is available to all OPM employees. EAP offers free mental health counseling with providers all over the US. They also host free webinars and other free programs that can reduce stress. That includes free legal and financial assistance.