How to be resilient
How are you at bungy jumping? Even if you’ve never actually stepped off a cliff strapped to a giant elastic band, it’s likely you’ve needed the skill at some time. Being able to bungy jump through life’s pitfalls is one way of describing resilience, the ability to regroup after a setback, trauma or grief.
It could be the job you missed out on, the date that went badly, the crucial soccer goal that got past you in the final. Or perhaps you’re dealing with a loved one’s death, a business disaster, retrenchment or the fallout from a serious car accident.
Everyone faces adversity, big and small. How you recover from those events and move on to life’s next set of challenges will have a huge impact on your wellbeing.
Resilience is now being seen as so important for good mental health that it’s being taught in schools all over Australia, encouraged in our business leaders and fostered in whole communities who have been through the trauma of fire and flood.
Founder of the Sydney-based The Positivity Institute, psychologist Dr Suzy Green, says there are many ways to define resilience, but in essence, it’s your “bounce-back-ability” when facing adversity. “(Resilience) is a word that is thrown around a fair bit — it is a hot topic at the moment and there has been a lot of research around it,” says Green.
“Yet even in the scientific literature there is still debate as to whether it’s a process or an outcome. Basically, it’s that capacity to bounce back when life throws a curve ball. These are the people who get knocked down but they can pretty quickly pick themselves up, and they do that in a variety of ways.”
But, she says, resilience is not about being happy all the time. Being sad, disappointed and upset when events take a downward turn is a normal emotional response to tough situations. It’s a problem, though, when these more negative emotions go on for too long and prevent you from functioning and moving ahead. Being resilient is crucial to your mental health, as it can prevent psychological distress and mental illness.
“Curve balls are part of life, and having the capacity and skills to catch them, rather than drop them, is essential to maintaining wellbeing even through trying times,” says Green.
Certain personality types and qualities, including extroverts and optimists, have been shown to be the most resilient people, but even if this isn’t you, you can still learn skills and strategies to help you cope next time life takes an unexpected turn. Following are five ways to boost your resilience, from experts in the field.
1. Change your mindset
How you perceive setbacks is crucial to how you will move through them. Resilient people tend to view life’s speed humps as challenges they can meet and manage rather than as disasters. “One of the key things is how you view that challenge or that trauma in your life,” says Green. “The people who do bounce back tend to see it as something that they can, and will, manage and get through.
“To learn to think differently, particularly when bad things happen to you, is a skill that can be taught. And it can significantly affect how you view a trauma and help you in being resilient through a trauma.”
A retrenchment, for example, although an upsetting event, can be an opportunity to change course in your career. “How can we get you to look at this not as a disaster but maybe as a challenge, which you can use your resources and talents to get through?” Green asks.
Rational emotive therapy is a technique that helps to identify unhelpful thought patterns and challenge those automatic negative thoughts that spring to mind all too readily. A series of questions might help you shake out your thinking, including, “How is this helping me, to think like this?” or “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
According to Green, research has also shown that learning anxiety management techniques, such as breathing, relaxation and visualisation practices, will also aid resilience building.
2. Create a coping toolkit
When faced with stress or a problem, most of us turn to coping mechanisms to deal with the crisis. However, not all of these strategies are helpful ones. University of Melbourne psychologist, Associate Professor Erica Frydenberg, has extensively researched coping skills for children, adolescents and adults, identifying useful strategies and those that are not so useful.
She says that, to be resilient, you need to gather a toolkit of coping strategies that will help you feel you have the capacity and the resources to deal with a tough situation. “Having that extensive toolkit, being able to draw on past experiences and being able to draw on the help of others is likely to make you resilient,” she says.
Useful coping strategies include dealing with the problem, focusing on the positive, turning to others for help, finding ways to relax and unwind, and exercising.
Topping the unhelpful list is self-blame, along with ignoring the issue, drinking or smoking to relieve stress, and worrying about the problem. “The worst thing you can do is to start belting yourself up and going mad at yourself, because that doesn’t improve how you cope,” says Frydenberg.
“You can use self-reflection, but always say ‘What would I do next time in that situation?’ You reflect on what went wrong and you build up your helpful coping strategies,” she says. “It’s important see if you could have done things better, but the worst thing you can do is to beat yourself up. Knowing yourself, accepting yourself and improving yourself are key factors.
3. Assess spheres of influence
Associate Professor Frydenberg also believes most of us have pockets of resilience; that is, we’ll cope well in some areas of our lives but not all. By assessing which spheres are working well, you can work on the ones that need addressing.
“We talk so much about resilience but, honestly, to be resilient in all situations is a big ask,” she says. “You might bounce back in a work situation but then fall apart if your relationship is in difficulty. Or some people are corporate successes but, when it comes to dealing with kids, they have difficulties coping. So this universal resilience — the person who can cope with everything — is a very ambitious goal.”
Rather, Frydenberg suggests that you consider how you are coping in different spheres of your life and figure out ways to improve your weaker areas. “It’s always good to look at your successes, and people who are miserable often forget the times when they do well,” she says. “Recognise the things you’ve done well and build on those.”
4. A problem shared
Being resilient is not about being so strong and stoic that you resist asking for help or that you ignore problems. Part of being resilient is knowing who to call on for assistance and creating a network of people who can offer you support.
Sydney psychologist Lyn Worsley has devised a novel approach to strengthening your support network and building your resilience skills through her Resilience Doughnut. The doughnut model has two rings. A smaller one, on the inside, considers how you view yourself, your abilities and the people around you. The outer ring of the doughnut represents your seven key areas of strength: your partner (or parents, for children), skills, family, finances, peers, education and community.
Using the model, you focus on just three of those strengths, to work together to help flood the inside of the ring with positivity and create a turning point for yourself. “Those three strengths are the most positive areas of your life, so by focusing on those, you flood the inside, or how you think about yourself, with positive messages,” says Worsley, director of The Resilience Centre in Sydney.
By joining a basketball team with a friend and your sister, for example, you’ve collected three areas of strength together — a skill, your family and friends. “It doesn’t take away the work problem or fix the boyfriend issue,” says Worsley, “but it gives you enough positive feelings about yourself to say, ‘I can actually gather a different perspective and it’s not the end of the world.’
“I don’t think you have to force it. (This approach) just naturally advocates that you find where the ordinary, everyday magic is happening in your life and you just do more of it.”
5. Just do it!
One place you’re likely to require resilience is at work, whether it’s to deal with a difficult boss, cope with a demotion or manage a huge workload. University of South Australia researcher Dr Peter Winwood, an expert on resilience in the workplace, says that, generally, the more stressed you feel because of work, the more likely you’ll stop doing the things that help you to relax.
“People give up their exercise, their contacts; they become reclusive, they start to eat too much comfort food, they start to drink too much,” says Winwood. “All those things they do to comfort themselves in a high-stress situation will only make things worse.”
He says it’s crucial for your health and wellbeing to act rather than wait for the inclination to take stress-busting action. “Those behaviours which are destressing and lead to recovery from stress are within your conscious control — you can choose to do them,” he says.
“The common thought is: ‘I have to feel like it before I can do it’, but it is absolutely the other way around. Start doing it and you’ll feel like it!” Instead of slumping in front of the television after work, make a decision to put your tracksuit pants on and head straight out for a walk to get the heart pumping. Or come home and shower, because heat on the skin causes the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, a relaxant.
“You could have a meal with high levels of tryptophans, such as red meat, which stimulates the release of serotonin, which is again an anti-stress thing to do,” says Winwood. “Breaking that cycle is the key and you can do it if you want to, because even if you didn’t feel like doing it at first, when you did it, you changed the whole system.”
He also says it’s important to have a job that’s is in line with your basic values system, and making a decision to change tack can be worthwhile. “Am I going to keep on doing this work where I feel miserable and am slowly going down the gurgler?” he says. “Or am I going to get a different job where I earn less money but can stay healthy and feel much less stressed?”
The Positivity Institute, www.thepositivityinstitute.com.au
The Resilience Doughnut, www.theresiliencedoughnut.com.au
The Resilience Centre, www.theresiliencecentre.com.au
Check your work stress levels with the Resilience at Work survey ($9.95), www.workingwithresilience.com.au
Adopt Dr Suzy Green’s tips and practices for a resilient household and family:
Don’t expect it to be a sunny, shiny day every day — we all know there will be grey days. Try to apply the same principle to life.
Remember, nothing stays the same. Each day is an opportunity to do something different, even if it’s just changing your attitude about the challenges you face. Think, for example, “I will find a way to get through this.”
You’re only human! That means you have both strengths and weaknesses. Try to spend more of your time focusing on what you do well rather than what you can’t do well. Increasingly, research is showing that focusing on your strengths will energise you and increase your chances of success in meeting your goals.
It’s not all about you all the time. When things go wrong, there is often a multitude of reasons why. Taking personal responsibility is important when appropriate but try not to beat yourself up unfairly, and practise self-compassion.
Learn to live by the old serenity prayer: Change what you can, accept what you can’t change and learn to know the difference.
Carmel Sparke has been writing about health issues for more than 15 years as both a freelance and staff writer. She is also associate editor at the parenting magazine Mother & Baby.