“Resilience” is a term that is bandied about a lot at the moment – but what does it actually mean? The dictionary definition is about bouncing back from difficulty but for me it’s not just about bouncing back, but also always feeling strong enough to handle whatever life throws at you next.
I’ve learnt a lot about how to build my resilience over the years (often the hard way!) and I would like to share what I have learned with you. The most important thing to know is that we all have what we need within us to be resilient. It can sometimes seem that other people are” more resilient” but the reality is that those people have simply learnt how to access it better than others.
We all have the inner resources to deal with difficult situations that are thrown at us, we just don’t always know it. Twelve months ago, none of us knew we could survive a global pandemic and, tough as it has been, we have… However, we are weary, and it does take its toll, so I feel like now is a time for me to revisit my Resilience Toolkit and share what I find with you…
Recognising that I could rewire my brain
“I am too old / stuck in my ways / long in the tooth to change” is something I hear a lot, but I am here to say – that simply isn’t true. There is a whole heap of evidence that “neuroplasticity” (the brains capacity to literally change the pathways to new ones) is possible at all stages of life.
I first discovered “brain retraining” a few years ago, whilst searching for an elusive “cure” for ME/CFS. Whilst it hasn’t cured me completely, it has most definitely helped me manage my symptoms and ability to cope with stress in a way I had never before thought possible. This led me to researching and reading a lot more about neuroplasticity and our brains ability to adapt. Now, I am no scientist, so I won’t attempt to explain it in any more than layman’s terms…
Our brains are amazing at recognising and repeating patterns, which are formed by everything we think, feel and experience. These then form repeatable pathways in our brain, so it’s ready to react in the way it knows keeps you safe (our brains are all about survival). It is possible to create new pathways by repeating new thoughts and behaviours. If you focus on the positive, your brain is more likely to access the positive when it needs it and conversely if you focus on the negative, you will cultivate a more negative experience.
Disclaimer: this is not just “toxic positivity” but it is about a realisation that there is scientific evidence to show that by focusing on what is going well in life, rather than what isn’t, you can literally change the way your brain functions and therefore how resilient you feel when the sh*t hits the fan.
There are a lot of books out there about neuroplasticity, if what I have said today has piqued your interest, then please go and read what the experts have to say about it.
Here are some of the practical things I have done, to help nurture my resilience…
Taking notice of how I am feeling
Not as easy as it sounds in this busy, crazy world – but finding ways to tune into how you are actually feeling emotionally and physically is so important. Our world is full of distractions, ways to numb how we are feeling and to fill our brains, so we don’t notice what’s really going on.
Everyone has their own warning signals and the key is to notice them as soon as possible before they develop into anything further. These are a few practices I have found to help:
- Noticing my emotions – if I am finding myself in a repeating pattern of being really short fused, tearful or anxious, this is usually a sure sign that something is out of balance for me.
- Quick mindfulness exercises – I have free apps on my phone with 1- or 3-minute guided meditations on them but sometimes it’s just a few deep breaths. I do also practice longer mindfulness meditations regularly which help to rewire the brain (but more on that another time).
- Gentle stretches – first thing in the morning, to ‘tune in’ to my body. If there’s an ache or a pain I try to work out what it’s telling me I have overdone physically or mentally
- Reflecting in a journal – I resisted doing this for a long time but have found journals with prompts in them really help me to notice what’s going on for me
- Schedule it in at work – back to back meetings or video calls can be exhausting and also give you no time to reflect on how you’re actually feeling. I block out some time each day to give myself a quick “How am I feeling” review.
This seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But for so many of us, the reason we are feeling less resilient than usual is often down to the fact that we haven’t taken care of our body and mind as a matter of course. That means that when the unexpected is thrown at us, we struggle to cope with the stress and pressure. It feels “too much”. So often, self-care is used as a treatment for stress but in reality, it needs to be used as a preventative measure to be truly effective.
For so many years, I would work myself into the ground, feel frazzled and then go on a spa day as a “cure”. I would miss most of the spa experience fast asleep in the corner! Self-care doesn’t need to be the grand spa days (good job, as I write this during pandemic lockdown!), it can be truly simple ways to support your body and mind.
Here are my top ‘self-care practices:
- Creating a healthy sleep routine
- Switching off my phone / social media apps
- Listening to relaxing music
- Walks in nature
- Meditation / breathing exercises
- Tidying up (sounds like a chore and it can be, but if I combine with some music, it becomes fun and for me having a more ordered space helps me to relax)
Reframing my thoughts
This can be a bit of a touchy subject with some people and I want to make something clear right now – it’s ok to feel whatever you are feeling. In fact, it is really important that you take notice of how you are feeling and don’t supress it. All emotions are valid and have a message for you. But what about when negative thoughts keep recurring, spiralling out of control or are no longer serving you?
We are hardwired to have negative thought patterns, it is evolutionary and is what kept us safe from being eaten by a bear back when we lived in caves and all we had to worry about was food, shelter and staying alive. That hardwired negative bias wasn’t designed for worrying about all the small things that we do in everyday modern life. It can lead us to feel weighed down, stressed, and burnt out.
Once you recognise that you are not your thoughts, it is easier to detach yourself and reframe them. Slowing down and noticing that you’re in a negative thought spiral can be the first step to reframing.
This isn’t about my nemesis toxic positivity (“just think positively and everything will be better”) it’s about gently switching that negative bias to the positive and therefore feeling that bit lighter in yourself (and retraining those neural pathways we talked about earlier). Here are some examples for you:
- “I am a failure” becomes “I am learning”
- “why does this always happen to me?” becomes “what is this teaching me?”
- “there is too much uncertainty right now” becomes “I can control what I do, even if I can’t control what else is happening”
- “I am stuck at home” becomes “I am safe at home”
Can you see how they just feel that bit different and can stop that spiral into negativity?
The steps to achieve this:
- Recognize you’re having a negative thought
- Identify what triggered it
- Challenge it (is there proof? Is it really true?)
- Reframe to a more positive phrase
Talking about it
Recognising that you need to talk to someone about how you are feeling can be really difficult but also really quite liberating. To find someone who is willing to hold space for you and listen can be such a relief.
One thing I have found – particularly since I have become a Coach is that when you talk things out, amazing things can happen:
- You can recognise what you’re thinking isn’t necessarily true or helpful
- You can unlock thoughts and ideas you didn’t know were lurking in the back of your mind
- You can identify some of your thoughts and feelings, which can help let go of them
- You can start to see things from other peoples’ perspectives
- You can create a bit of a plan if you want something to change
Whether it’s a trusted friend or colleague, a therapist, or a coach, talking about what’s going on for you right now can be super helpful. Finding the courage to talk about it can be tough, but when you do – that’s when the shifts start to happen.
Asking for help (and actually being willing to take it)
For a long time, I thought asking for help was a weakness, whether that be at work or at home. My perfectionist tendencies meant I told myself I had to keep it together for everyone else.
This simply isn’t true, the greatest of leaders don’t do everything solo, they recognise where they need help and they take it.
Emotional and practical support are truly important parts of being resilient as humans. We are pack animals, we are hard wired for connection and meant to love and support one another. It’s how we have evolved and survived.
So, the next time you feel like you need to hold it together for everyone else, remember that its more than ok to ask for help, its essential.
These are just some of the ways I have built my resilience over the years. There are many others, and as a subject close to my heart, I am constantly reading, researching, and implementing new techniques. I work with many clients on finding ways to build their own resilience (we are all different, so it’s important to not just use a one size fits all). If you would like help building your resilience then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via social media.