Resilience – An essential work/life skill that can be learned and developed
Here is a safe bet. Anything you are ‘good’ at, has meant you have devoted time, energy, focus, practice to raise your skill at it. We can use the same thinking regarding developing resilience as it is absolutely something that can be developed through practice, focus, devoting time and energy. In the same vein, if you do not practice something, why should you expect to have skill at it? And then, why give yourself a hard time for not being as competent as you would like?
Resilience relates to our abilities to withstand challenges and setback or ‘bounce back/forward’ from them. This post draws on insights from neuroscience and psychology to raise understanding about our brain and the tangible actions we can take to develop or maintain resilience to meet tough times. There are the more familiar tips at the end but without the knowledge of the brain and how it works they may not have the impact they could for us.
We start by exploring a few insights about the brain that are essential when considering how to develop/maintain resilience.
I will make a bold statement about the first element: it is one of the most impactful things you could do to improve or impair anything you are doing, for most of us it also happens to be one of the simplest to take control of. SLEEP! The vast majority of us reading these words will require about 7-8 hours sleep a night - regularly. Sleep has an incredibly wide range of effects on the brain and our body. I could easily use the rest of the post to explore them. Let’s just say that every single organ and process in you is affected by the amount of sleep you get both positively and negatively. This can have a knock on effect on your ability to plan, prioritize, manage your emotions, forget, remember, learn…..Ultimately if you have had enough sleep you will be better at reflecting on challenging situations and learning from them, or planning for future ones and in the moment being able to manage difficult situations. Not having enough sleep will have the opposite effect.
Even though your brain is only about 2% of your body weight it will use up about 20% of all the oxygen and calories (in a form of glucose) you consume. What is more, the brain can’t store these calories in the same way your body does, meaning it needs a regular supply. No! That does not mean you can now justify why you can gorge on rubbish all day long as you are a ‘thinker’, all the other messages you have heard about a good diet still stand. What it does mean is if you are not fuelling yourself well/regularly (including hydrating yourself) you are not giving your brain the basic ingredients it needs to help you make sense of and deal with your internal or external world. If you skip breakfast, are too busy to stop for lunch, you are putting your brain at a massive disadvantage. You will still appear ‘human’ and be able to speak, move, make decisions but these will be far more likely to be controlled through habit, routine, and instinct rather than conscious or objective thinking and decision making. Not having fuelled/watered our brain adequately will exacerbate these effects and work against our ability to meet difficult times with agility of perception, thinking or behaviour, vital for supporting our resilience.
Many researchers in neuroscience estimate 40-80+% of what we do in a regular day or regular situation is controlled by our habits/autopilot! This is a huge amount, which makes sense when we consider conscious thinking/decision making uses up vast quantities of the fuel the brain receives compared to areas that operate from habit. These areas are not only far more efficient in their use of calories, they also have a vastly larger capacity to deal with information and control responses. From this position we can begin to understand why the brain prefers to run things on autopilot, to a certain degree as quickly and as often as possible, to protect the conscious resources for when it really matters. The reason this is so essential for developing or maintaining resilience is that we should reflect on how our habits are helping or hindering our ability to deal with challenging situations. Do we have one way of managing stress or dealing with challenge and is that appropriate? How do we catch ourselves before we fall too far into a hole mentally? Or then pick ourselves back up again? Professor Google can provide us with many techniques to follow and practice, but we will never search for them, read them, focus on them if we haven’t recognised for ourselves that there are habits that need adjusting.
Think of conscious thinking on one side of a pivot and emotional reactions/instincts on the other side. We have already read there is a limited amount of fuel for the brain, which encourages us to operate on autopilot as often as possible. Now putting emotions into the mix, we should understand that if they are evoked they will win the battle for limited resources. The pivot will tip in their favour and they will take control of our perceptions, thinking and behaviour. This may mean we distort our view of a situation, focus on all the issues/problems/setbacks/things we are lacking in. We may believe we are powerless to change things and fail to act when we could or take steps to alter things for the future.
Building on our knowledge of habits we should make plans to support our resilience through actions (mental and physical) before we find ourselves in a challenging or emotional situation. When we are in the situation, our emotions/instincts and habits will take over and leave conscious thinking without the much-needed fuel required. We could think of emotions making the brain ‘hot’ and when it is in this ‘hot’ state our objective and conscious thinking is somewhat offline. In a ‘cold’ or calm state we could think through scenarios, ways to adjust or mitigate situations and our reactions. This gives the brain new, more helpful steps/habits to follow when we are next in the ‘hot’ state and how to get back to a calmer, in control place. Let’s repair/prepare the roof while the sun is shining!
What to do
- Recognise perceptions, thoughts, behaviours, people, situations etc that help you and those that do not. This could be stopping for a moment throughout a day and asking if what you are doing right now is having a positive or negative effect on you. Use insights gained to help you adjust things. We will always have options available to us which could mean changing things in the physical world and if that is not possible currently, we could adjust things in our mental world through how we interpret situations.
- Monitor and recognise progress we make. Research suggests it is not end points that motivates us but being able to see we are moving towards them, so get good at spotting this movement or lack of it, which should get us to keep going or try things differently. Use the term ‘not yet’ rather than ‘I can’t’ to help encourage continued actions and belief things can improve.
- Spend time focusing on positives, options, opportunities, your skills, and strengths etc to balance our brains strong tendency to spot all the issues and negatives and then spend more time focusing on these.
- Take responsibility and accountability for improving your situation even in small ways and don’t just wait for the ‘cavalry’ to come and save us.
- Get clarity on what is happening, why, how, when - our brains need some sense of understanding to feel calm and in control.
- Challenge yourself to find hope. The absence of hope is getting into the world of clinical depression, not what any of us seek in our work or home lives. The ability to flex our thinking and behaviour can provide short- and longer-term relief from stress and inform actions. This might mean focusing on small and short-term factors in some situations or the broader and longer-term in others. Recognising things could be worse and being grateful for what one has can also be useful.
- Take care of the basics such as giving your brain the core things it needs to help you, such as sleep/fuel/water. Prioritize tasks and take action to complete them.
- Develop healthy habits and routines that make you happy and productive. This could mean creating and supporting new emerging habits, as well as dismantling or adjusting existing ones.
- Use others, we are hardwired to be social. Speak with others and share your thoughts, ask for help to get new perspectives and ideas. Help others to boost our own self-esteem.
- Identify role models to help us in our development. Anti-role models can also provide valuable guidance of what we shouldn’t be doing.
- Use resources, there are so many things available to help develop/maintain resilience. We just need to recognise the value in finding them and then using them when needed.
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