The pandemic and lockdown have put a strain on everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. Kim Tasso looks at the role of resilience in overcoming difficulties, and how you can improve your own resilience
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has shown us that we are able to accommodate enormous pressure and change when required, but also that the impact on people can be severe. While working from home has brought many benefits, it also took its toll – people felt disconnected, unsupported, alone, stressed, and even depressed. We have only now started to see the full impact of these changes on people.
In this article, I look at the concept of resilience, how resilience makes us better able to navigate future shocks, and how to improve your own resilience.
What is resilience?
Psychological resilience is your ability to cope with stress and adversity – whether through bouncing back, not being affected too negatively or developing better strategies to cope in the future. It’s not about being immune to stress, or always being happy, but being able to recover quickly from difficulties.
Resilience is a process rather than a personality trait, although scores on psychometric scales for things like anxiety, depression, vulnerability to stress, assertiveness, positive emotion and self-discipline may be indicators of resiliency.
Resilience is a two-dimensional concept spanning both the extent of the adversity, and the degree of positive attitude or behaviour adaptations required to adjust. So, two judgements are involved: the significance of the adversity or risk; and the adaptation required.
Most research shows that resilience is the result of individuals being able to interact with their environments, and the ways in which they promote wellbeing or protect themselves against risk factors – whether by themselves, or supported by their relationships or organisation’s policies.
There are three fundamental characteristics that set resilient people and organisations apart:
- a capacity to face reality
- an ability to find meaning in testing times
- an ability to improvise and innovate new strategies for coping with adversity.
Why is resilience important?
Mental Health UK asks us to imagine each person carrying a stress bucket. Things will fill up your bucket: problems with relationships, work or money. Some people have large buckets – they can continue to function while bearing heavy loads. Other people are more vulnerable – they have smaller buckets – and so are quickly overwhelmed. Resilience helps you to cope better, regardless of the size of your bucket.
If people are not resilient, they will suffer during times of change, stress or adversity. Minimal impacts may be under-performance and reduced productivity, but more seriously, this can lead to mental illness such as depression, and even physiological problems when the immune system suffers.
So, increasing resilience is important for performance, productivity, and mental and physical wellbeing.
How can you improve resilience?
There are many techniques.
The American Psychological Association offers many ways to develop resilience – including acceptance, being self-confident and decisive, taking regular physical exercise, and getting enough sleep.
Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who specialises in building resilience in young people, offers the ‘7 Cs’ model of resilience: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control.
Others talk about the importance of resilience skills such as self-awareness (part of emotional intelligence), attention to the moment, letting go physically and mentally, and accessing positive emotion.
But I’d like to concentrate here on just four techniques for building resilience.
1. Regulate your emotions
Emotional regulation is part of our emotional intelligence (EQ).
We learn to regulate our emotions when we are children, with guidance from our carers. When we perceive a threat – such a change in status or security – our bodies trigger a stress response known as ‘fight, flight or freeze’.
We improve our resilience if we take a few moments to recognise what emotions we are experiencing (and why – the triggers), and to self-soothe and take control. Sports psychology expert Timothy Gallwey created the STOP technique:
- step back
- organise your thoughts
- proceed when you know your best course of action.
It’s like the grounding techniques used by therapists – to bring your focus to what is happening to you physically, instead of being trapped by your emotions or thoughts that are causing you to feel anxious. A lot of mindfulness techniques use a similar approach.
When we fail to regulate our emotions, we may act impulsively and unpredictably, which may cause concern and stress among those around us and reduce their confidence and trust in us.
If we see something negatively, this will affect our emotions and behaviour. A way of addressing this is to try to reframe the situation in more positive terms, to make us feel better and cope more effectively.
During the COVID-19 crisis, many people framed the situation in very negative terms – which is, of course, justified, given the loss of life and identity, and the awful impact on our families, work, home and futures. But we can look at the same thing through a more positive perspective: it offered the chance to reconnect with family and home life, and provided time to learn new skills and read, and space to reflect on what is really important to us. If we are not careful, we can lapse into distorted thinking – black-and-white thinking, overgeneralising, catastrophising and personalising. This can make small problems seem much bigger, and reduce our ability to overcome them.
Reframing also gives us a sense of agency – the feeling that we have some control over how we feel. If we simply dwell on the negative aspects, we are more likely to feel like victims, and unable to do anything to help ourselves.
But resolute positivity or negativity are not the only options. In positive psychology, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen found that employing both optimistic and pessimistic strategies achieves the best results. She calls this “mental contrasting”: focusing on a desired outcome while maintaining a realistic view of the challenges and obstacles that might arise. In her studies, mental contrasting was the only approach which had a direct correlation with achievement.
“A problem shared is a problem halved.” There’s truth in the saying. We need to reach out – even if we aren’t the Four Tops! – to other people for support. We must learn to share the load with family and friends. We will then feel less isolated and more supported. I suggest that you start by writing a list of all the people you know and care for – and take the first step by contacting them to talk. You don’t have to outline or share your problem or feelings immediately – although it will help. The simple act of connecting will make you feel less alone and more able to cope.
Sharing really is caring – for yourself as well as for others.
4. Reflect on realistic goals
Reflection is a vital element of learning. It also helps with resilience.
Think back to the many times you have coped with adversity. Consider how you coped in the past with what seemed like insurmountable problems. Think about what strategies and strengths you used in the past to navigate difficulties.
Reflect on whether the current crisis will have an impact next month, next year, or even next decade. We need to find meaning in the situation – and think of meaning in the future, too.
This often means setting goals for what we want to be or achieve. But be realistic. Don’t demand too much of yourself – set sensible goals and break them down into bite-sized pieces. I’m reminded of the Chinese saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Then take time to explore the different options available to achieve those goals. When we are stressed, we shut down our creativity. We need to relax to let our ideas flow.
While we are on Eastern ideas, there’s something I discovered in my counselling training: the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, which is the repairing of ceramics with gold. A break in an item is considered as something which should be highlighted rather than hidden. There is beauty in both the break and the repair. By being resilient – by picking up the pieces from a disaster and recovering – we can become more beautiful as people.
The best-selling book The Road Less Travelled (Arrow, 1990), by psychiatrist Dr M. Scott Peck, suggests ways in which facing our difficulties – and suffering through the changes – can enable us to reach a higher level of self-understanding. The book starts with the sentence: “Life is difficult.” It is inevitable that we will face challenges and adversity. So we must develop our resilience in order to move through those times quickly and effectively and become better people, who are more able to face problems in the future. “Per ardua ad astra” is the motto of the Royal Air Force: “Through adversity to the stars.”
I have recorded a 10-minute video covering these ideas on resilience, available on YouTube.