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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.