Developing Greater Personal Resilience
Emotional resilience is considered by a number of psychiatric professionals as the reason why some people might experience distressing life events and come out the other end relatively unscathed, while others might develop clinical depression or other forms of mental illness. Personal or emotional resilience protects us from mental distress and mental illness, in the same way that our physical resilience – our bodies’ ability to recover and ‘bounce back’ protects us from illness and allows us to heal from injury.
Everyone experiences different challenges and hardships over a lifetime. Some events that can seriously undermine your coping ability can include the death of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, personal illness, or professional events – such as being overloaded with a difficult job, or dealing with bullying and harassment in the workplace. The trials themselves don’t define you as a person; what does characterize you is how you respond to stress and adapt to trauma and adversity. Whether you can continue, despite sadness or anxiety, to fulfill your obligations and succeed with goals. A resilient person is not held back from achievement by difficulties.
The culture around you, your values, and your background might support or hinder the development of personal resilience. While there is basis for the belief in a genetic component to mental illness, also factors such as how you were raised, and what you have experienced also seem to play a role. However, even if you have a history of depression in your family and have been raised with parents who role modeled bad stress management and fell apart whenever things weren’t going their way, you can still develop key skills that will make you a more resilient person.
During times of anxiety and trauma:
Going about your daily tasks might seem impossible at the time of a distressing occurrence, but simply lying in bed with the covers over your head for week after week isn’t going to pay the bills. Moreover, while you let the rest of your life slide, all you are doing is generating more time to focus on what is upsetting you, making it more emotionally significant, as you devote all your time to it. Getting out of bed, taking a shower and heading in to work or school and actually concentrating when you get there, or washing your dirty laundry and vacuuming your floors are all fantastic ways of reclaiming some brain space from the issue or event gnawing away at you and distracting yourself. If you persevere, it will get easier.
Try to eat well and keep moving. Grabbing a miso soup from the local sushi place to sip at your desk or a take away salad or some fruit for lunch is often just as easy as grabbing some junk food. No one expects you to be cooking amazing meals for yourself at stressful or busy times, but ensuring that you choose to eat, and making sure it’s nutritious, quality food will improve your brain function, your ability to manage stress and will hopefully stop you from becoming unwell.
If you are managing a particularly busy time, keeping moving can be easy, but often people dealing with difficulties will avoiding everyday activities. Incidental exercise (the exercise you get in everyday life, rather than going to the gym or for a jog) can be a great way of avoiding becoming trapped in despair, and prevent the onset of clinical depression. Keeping busy, keeping moving – even if it’s doing the housework and walking to the supermarket can shift how you experience your own thoughts. The chemicals produced by your brain when you exercise allow you to feel more hopeful and focused on finding solutions; rather than feeling ‘stuck’.
Sleep is your friend. If you can force yourself to sleep at least 7 hours sleep a night, you can overcome most things. Night time rituals, like choosing the same time to go to bed every night, or settling yourself into the same position each time, can aid sleeping. I find using meditation techniques to stop my busy brain going into over drive the minute my head touches the pillow to be helpful – things like naming the mental distraction, followed by clearing my mind, every time a rogue thought occurs, over and over until sleep happens. Valerian, chamomile tea or warm milk may also be useful.
Compartmentalize any grief or trauma, keeping it away from your professional life, if possible. This might sound impossible, but, for example, falling apart and weeping at your desk because you are going through a divorce is the easiest way to commit career suicide I can think of. While I strongly advocate distracting yourself from your pain and keeping going as much as possible; rather than bottling it up and having it spill out at inappropriate times; see a counselor, talk to a trusted friend or arrange a specific hour a day in which you can cry all you want to, then when that is done, dry your tears and go on with your life. This isn’t about being harsh or denying that you are going through a tough time, this is ensuring that you have a life, a professional reputation and a job when the tough time is over, or you are feeling less distressed. Keeping your grief or crisis out of at least some areas of your life is the fastest way of recovering.
Tips for developing personal resilience for life
Just as a few positive events don’t indicate that your life will be full of sunshine and flowers forever, a few sad events and setbacks don’t indicate that your life will be nothing but misery and disappointment. Maintaining a sense of perspective rather than catastrophizing allows you to stay in touch with reality, and not add to your woes by exaggerating them until they take up all of your attention. Pay attention to when you are thinking gloomy thoughts and challenge yourself to think is a more balanced, rational way.
Optimistic people usually have better mental and physical health. Our attitude defines so much about our lives, and the good news is that optimism can indeed be learned. Choosing to focus on the silver lining to each storm cloud, having gratitude for life’s blessings and celebrating your individual skills and strengths can shift you out of the doldrums and into a more positive frame of mind. Being positive and believing in yourself means that you look for solutions to problems and feel able to cope during times of adversity.
Investing time in building solid relationships with others – family, work colleagues and friends – actually makes you stronger and more resilient. Having others ‘on your side’ who like you and believe in you helps your ability to like and believe in yourself. Another benefit of strong relationships is that having others around whom you trust can help you keep things in perspective. However, as a warning: ‘fair-weather friends’ or ‘frenemies’ – who don’t add value to your life can add to your stress levels and take up the time you could be devoting to healthier relationships; so socialize positively and mindfully.
Self awareness is so important when it comes to mental health – the capacity to observe your own moods and pin point where they are coming from is very useful, as is the ability to understand your own motivations. The more you know yourself the smarter and healthier your decision making will be. Also, getting to know yourself means you are better able to respond to challenges quickly and decisively and know how to prevent the same problems reoccurring.
Lastly, having a sense of pride in your achievements and a sense of self worth – is a powerful quality that will really help you in life. Developing a sense of self worth can start with something as simple as regularly spending time doing things you are good at and are passionate about. Genuine self esteem is based on real achievement – so by engaging is our passions and using our skills ensures we will regularly be achieving – adding to our sense of confidence and power over our lives.