Archive for coaching resilience

Challenging the Tetris Effect

If you have ever played the computer game Tetris you will know it can become addictive.  A game as simple as lining up blocks of the same colour can consume hours of time.  That is why an invitation to university students to be paid to play Tetris as part of a research study was irresistible.  The study reported that even when the students stopped playing the game they saw Tetris blocks everywhere they went.  If they were shopping they were mentally lining up cartons of the same colour. If they were out running they were rearranging bricks on walls so that the colours matched.  Their brains had become wired in just a few days to see a world in which Tetris was the new reality.


The relevance of this to non computer game players is that it reflects how we operate in many spheres of our lives, if we give enough time to something, the way we view the world is shaped by that experience.  Test it for yourself: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a colour. Open them and the colour you first see in your surroundings will be the colour you were thinking of.


Shawn Accor in his book The Happiness Advantage, translates this phenomena to the workplace; to show how lawyers trained to critically analyse evidence in court, found they applied the same techniques out of court, when questioning their children. Or, auditors with the ability to spot an error on a tax return would use the same skills to identify errors in their partner’s cooking. Unsurprisingly they did not receive a positive response for the use of their expertise; but all they were doing was continuing to scan the world for further evidence of their skills in action.

Once we have established our reality framework, we develop a spam filter which quickly puts into a junk folder anything which does not accord with what we have decided is our reality. If our filter is scepticism then any experience that confounds our scepticism, is more easily put into the junk folder than examined as contrary evidence.

This argument would seem to support the  ‘I am what I am’ school of thought, where once we establish a position it does not change.  That would be true if we could not move items out of the junk folder, but we can, and do.   Consider what happens when you buy a new car.   Suddenly every car on the road seems to be the same colour and model as the one you now own. Those cars were there all the time but when your framework was your previous car, they were invisible to you.

The importance of being able to challenge our established (and partial) reality, particularly if it is one shaped by an expectation of  difficulty and negativity becomes particularly important when we are under pressure.  Given that resilience is fuelled by adaptability, how can we adapt our thinking?


One answer lies in accessing the power of thinking more optimistically, through letting into our reality evidence that there are things in our life that are ‘good’ even when times are tough.  The idea of recording gratitude each day for the small things in our lives has been well established in the positive psychology literature, but the advice to write 3 gratitudes daily is often not backed up with the ‘why?’.  Psychologist Robert Emmons, whose research is behind this advice has shown that people who commit to the discipline of recording three things each day that they are grateful for, become more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better sleep and even have fewer headaches than control groups.  So gratitude makes you feel better about yourself, but beyond this, people who show up as more optimistic set themselves more challenging goals, persist in the face of difficulty and cope better in stress situations.  Optimism is valuable for achievement, determination and dealing better with the pressures of our lives.

To develop the practice of gratitude as a means of developing an optimistic mindset requires practice,  and we are often resistant to committing to developing new habits, when the old ones are familiar, but there is evidence it is worth the effort:

  • In scanning the day for 3 things that you are grateful for (no matter how small) you become more skilled at noticing, so your reality framework expands.  At the same time in noticing what has been good, what has been frustrating, annoying or disappointing changes its position in your reality.
  • Even doing gratitude for a week leads people to feel happier and less depressed at three month and six month follow up points according to a study by Professor Martin Seligman (the pioneer of positive psychology).
  • Once your brain has expanded its perception through the daily habit, you don’t need to write it down your brain will start doing the work for you, as part of how you see the world.
  • You can take the practice of gratitude further by writing about a positive experience. People often think of journaling at times of difficulty because there are well established health and psychological benefits from writing about strong emotions, but researchers Chad Burton and Laura King showed that happiness is increased by writing about positive experiences.


You may never have played Tetris. You may be immune to computer games, but it is likely that at times you are seeing the world through a view of reality shaped by particular experiences.  By increasing your access to alternative data  you will increase your resilience to deal with the demands on you.



Ten Tips for Building Resilience

Resilience is a quality which  people often believe is something you have or you don’t.  We can all think of people who seem to deal with whatever life throws at them.  We also often know people who seem to collapse when faced by difficulty.  But is DNA the differentiator?

The answer seems to be that DNA plays only a small part.   A greater contributor is what people have learnt that gets them back into balance when things are tough.  That means that a life without challenge, as much as it may seem attractive, does not prepare people well when the bad times hit. What  is valuable is to to be able to identify and access recovery resources, so that the time under stress is reduced.

Steven Southwick, Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and Dennis Charney, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai Hospital in NY have recently published the results of 15 years work  on resilience.  Its’ value is that they have identified factors which allow people to lead successful lives  even when experiencing life stress. Their work looked at  people living under extreme difficulty including prisoners of war, victims of abuse, pe0ple living in inner city poverty and first respondents to 9/11.  They compared those who had developed depression under stress, and those that did not, to try and discover what differentiated them.  The answer lay not in DNA, but in behaviours which one group used, and the other did not.

  1. The value of the  behaviours is that they are equally relevant to individuals dealing with any stress in their life which is knocking them off balance.  A willingness to face reality with a sense of realistic optimism.  That is a big ask, but being able to accept rather than deny what has happened,      perversely helps people to deal with it.  Whereas, the energy that goes into denying, blaming, avoiding or unrealistic hoping, holds back the    process of recovery.
  2.   Recognise what you do and do not have control over.  People stress themselves by wanting to exert control in a situation where it is not possible to do so.  By developing actions  based on what they can change and what they cannot, a sense of agency returns.
  3.   Seek support.  The Yale research showed a strong relationship between how extensive an individual’s social network was and how well they     coped with stress.  Talking with friends, or seeking out others who are in the same situation and can empathasise is important to recovery,     because feeling supported allows the release of the oxytocin a compound connected to feeling attached to people, which counters the harmful effect of stress chemicals on the body.
  4.  Exercise.  We know we should, we often don’t want to when feeling stressed, and yet it also acts to counter the effects of harmful  stressor     chemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine.
  5. Sleep.  As Scarlett  O’Hara  said in Gone With the Wind as her life say in ruins,  ‘tomorrow is another day’.  A good night’s sleep can put the world into a different perspective, and when sleep is   difficult, exercise is a natural way of inducing tiredness.
  6.  Eat well.  When stressed, it is easy to neglect one’s diet, or to turn to junk food as comfort.  The value of good nutrition is that it helps boost the    immune system.  It is also a signal to the self, that you are worth taking care of.
  7. Learn about simple meditation techniques. Mindfulness is an increasingly commonly used way of helping people deal with difficulty.  It focuses     on helping you to focus on the present moment – not what catastrophe may happen tomorrow, or what terrible thing happened yesterday, but    what is happening right now.  In the process thoughts become less powerful and the body responds.  Books such as those written by Jon Kabat   Zin, Mark Williams and Michael Chaskalson all have simple mindfulness exercises that can be built into everyday life.  Or seek out an introductory   class.
  8. Do something that takes you away from the issue.  The ‘you’ facing the difficulty is very aware of that person, but there is real value in staying       connected with the other ‘yous’.  The you that can enjoy dancing, having a laugh, being creative, watching a sport.  It is important to experience     the pleasure  that those other ‘yous’ can offer even while you are living with difficulty. The more we can hold the multiple ‘yous’, the more     resource you have available to help you.
  9.  Create meaning.  What helps people get beyond the difficulty is being able to create meaning from the experience.  What can you take from this     experience that you can use going forward.  It is what makes it possible for people to talk of having experienced the ‘best of times and the worst  of times’ in the same experience.
  10. Write about it.  No one else needs to see what you write.   The act of writing down how you are feeling, thinking and behaving, acts to help            change those thoughts, feelings and behaviours.  Putting it out there, enables you to look at it in a different way than when it is in your head,  and to access new thoughts and feelings.


If you are reading this list because you are aware that you have lost your resilience, then read it again and identify the one thing in the 10 that you could imagine doing, and commit to it as an experiment, noticing the difference it makes to your sense of your self and your situation.

Once you notice a shift, it will encourage  you to experiment with other of the tips – all of which have been road tested by people like you.


Carole Pemberton is an Executive Coach and Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster Business School.  She has a particular interest in coaching to help rebuild resilience.