The New Normal Requires Resilience and Adaptability

Unrelenting change at unprecedented speed. This is the environment that federal government employees have encountered for the past two years; a landscape that included a pandemic and its residual effects. It was a novel event with no playbook that taxed the workforce in unique ways. And yet, the challenge was met, although not without cost in terms of personal stress.

Ask yourself, and your colleagues, how you have handled the numerous and complex challenges you faced. Two skills will emerge: adaptability and resilience.

There will be another “pandemic.” How can we challenge ourselves to continuously sharpen our adaptability and resiliency skills so that can respond effectively?

These are not new skills

When we learned to walk, as toddlers, we were learning to adapt. Moving the body’s weight from left to right and back again. Moving from carpet to bare floor. Managing a slope or, amazingly, a step. As important as it was to learn to walk, it was even more important to learn how to constantly adapt. Along the way, we were also learning resilience — whenever we took a tumble and recovered, each time we wobbled and found our balance again.

As a species, we have been adapting and practicing resilience for our entire history. Every migration to a new region — hotter or colder, drier or wetter — as well as every invention, from the stone axe to the iPhone, is proof of the human genius for adaptability.

In our adult lives, especially in our careers,  we have all been challenged to adapt, repeatedly, in both minor and life-changing ways. So, it’s important to recognize this amazing talent we have, the ability to change our thinking and behavior in response to changing circumstances. Think about a recent challenge that required you to adapt. What did you have to change? How much effort did that change require? Recognizing past successes can prepare us mentally to meet the next challenge.

Develop your adaptability and resilience muscle

Adapting isn’t always easy. Some challenges feel like a serious threat – say, when the workload explodes, or a team member drops out, or when a family member falls ill or a friendship ends. When we feel threatened, our bodies respond with higher levels of cortisol, the well-known “stress hormone” that allows us to function above our normal energy level. We can think of cortisol as the “sprint” hormone.

But what if the challenge persists? What about long-term threats? The body is still responding to stress by over-producing cortisol. Over days, weeks, or months, this physical response can disrupt sleep and concentration; it can damage blood vessels and impair the body’s immune system. None of us can sprint through a marathon. The stress response can be adaptive to short-term threats, but eventually, it is the opposite of resilience.

Resilience starts with the body’s physical needs — ensuring the necessary levels of nutrition, sleep, and exercise to promote physical health. Building emotional and mental resilience requires something additional. Brain scientists have the answers. We can learn how to recover from stressful incidents, reduce stress, and deepen our “resilience reservoir” in just 60 seconds — by using a few simple, brain-based and evidence-based strategies and techniques.

We can stay ahead of coming challenges by preparing ourselves to respond most effectively. At a time when we need to be in top shape both mentally and physically, increasing our “resiliency reservoir” needs to become part of our normal self-care practice. Here are two exercises to strengthen the resiliency muscle.

Exercise 1: Fall Down, and Mindfully Get Up

There are three aspects to resilience: We fall down. We get up. We move forward.

ACTION: Recall a time when you suffered a loss and recovered. Acknowledge that you survived. You had a fall, you had the drive to get back up, and then you moved forward. The next time you recover from a loss (and there is always a next time), repeat this process with awareness. Remind yourself that you are still standing. You are actually stronger. You know “how to bounce back and bounce forward.” You will see some positive changes begin to emerge:

  • The recovery process speeds up.
  • You can train your brain and your body to recognize that they don’t need to go into “flight, fight, or freeze” mode.

We do not have to overreact to a threat or setback. By changing our stress response, we conserve precious energy to harness our critical and creative thinking skills, strengthen our power to focus, and improve the quality of our work.

Exercise 2: Write Your Post-Crisis Stress Away


  1. Begin by deeply relaxing. Slowly yawn, stretch, focus on your breath, close your eyes, and think of something or someone that instantly brings a smile to your face. (Choose whichever thought works for you.) As you begin to feel relaxed, let the feelings envelop you.
  2. Remaining deeply relaxed, recall the stressful events and feelings of a recent crisis situation, without judgment.
  3. Write down just one of your most worrisome, troubling memories, and then write down something different you might do the next time.
  4. Write down something positive that happened — even though the end result was not exactly what you wanted.


Write down the troubling outcome: “We should have moved faster to convert to a virtual environment. We should have better anticipated what the team would need to make the transition seamless. It created more stress than necessary.”

Write down your response: “Even though we didn’t fully anticipate the resources our staff would need to work remotely, the transition kept many people safe. Gradually, we made the necessary adjustments. We are better positioned now to understand the needs of  a 100% remote workforce.”

Answer each of your worries this way, in writing. It is a powerful exercise that will help you shift from habitual rumination to conscious reflection. Your brain will thank you — and your resiliency reservoir will increase!

To learn more about how to develop resilience and adaptability as tools for personal and professional growth, sign up for our next expert delivery of course 4080: Fostering Accountability, Adaptability, And Resilience.

Written by:
Linda Cassell
Leadership & Management
Media Type:

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