How To Learn Resilience

The good news is that whatever your level of, let’s call it, ‘natural’ resilience you can improve or develop it. Your level is not fixed, unless you want it to be of course!

Below, I offer eight types of techniques to help you learn resilience but please note a few points at the juncture:
one size does not fit all – no one way, or even one combination of ways, suits all. It really is a personal journey. The best advice is to try those which appeal and see if they suit you.
you’ve got to do it – nothing will work without regular practice for a period of time. You will know how long you need by how you feel as you practise.
growth is incremental – it can be slow but will happen, if you put in the effort.

1. Counter unhelpful thinking

when a setback appears in our lives we seem to compound it with our thinking. We so easily fall into one, or more, traps which are unhelpful to us. The ones I find most often in people are:
labelling – attaching to yourself and/or to other people a label such as “I’m a total loser”, “I’m useless”.
filtering – only or mostly focusing on the negative, such as noticing only the failures you and others have experienced.
blaming – assuming you are responsible for any bad event or that other people are responsible for your errors .
black and white thinking – unable to see the grey shades or anything between all or nothing in your assessment of situations.
leaping to conclusions – either assuming you can see what the future holds even though there is no certainty at all, or that you can read other peoples’ minds and therefore know what they are going to do.
generalising too much – spotting a pattern from only one piece of evidence or one event.
emotionally reliant – believing that as you feel a particular thing, what you think is true.
discounting – ignoring anything good you have done or thought or any good that has happened or been said to you.
going to extremes – either blowing things up out of all proportion with catastrophising thoughts or totally minimising what has happened.
arguing with reality – if you want something that life or people have not or cannot or will not give you, then you will be disappointed. You will lose the argument.

Observation of yourself without any judgement on yourself is an important step towards increasing your resilience. So, consider whether any of the above is your natural or automatic response, even in part, to events that happen. If so, consider asking yourself if this thought process is of any value to you today or is it leading to more stress for you. If it no longer serves you well, then it’s time to change it.

2. Encourage helpful thinking

You know that thoughts are vital because without thought nothing is spoken or done. Of course, thoughts can be inspiring and uplifting, or sad and depressing. It’s said we have about 70 000 thoughts every day and about two thirds of these are negative ones. The grip of negative, unhelpful thinking on us all is a tight one. But it can be lessened by gently, compassionately working on ourselves in a variety of ways and if we do this for three weeks or so our brain will become far less inclined to think in this negative manner. We can reboot our brain.

If you feel the restrictive power of negative thinking try these techniques:

Noticing the language you use in your thoughts and speech is a great way forward as it shows you what changes to make to eradicate negativity. Words such as “should”, “must”, “ought” and similar can hinder the growth of your resilience as they make you feel guilty or a failure. Behind these words is often a desire of hope to be perfect – this is self-limiting because nobody is or will be perfect.

If you use these words, then think about which words you could use instead.

Here’s a couple of examples to show just how easy it is to alter the energy and dynamic of a phrase:
“If I get this….” could be replaced by “When I get this…”.
“I’ll never be able to…” could be replaced by “What do I need to do to be able to…”.
“I’m useless at…” could be replaced by “I may be useless at this now, but I’ll get much better at it…”

Other helpful thinking includes:

It can be difficult to accept what happens to you, especially when you cannot change what has happened, or has happened, or is about to happen. This is when you need to focus on what you can control – your response.

When you notice a negative or unhelpful thought imagine a large “STOP” sign in bright red lettering. And then a large arrow redirecting you off this path or road. It’s directing you to another path or road signposted in big golden colours “ACCEPTANCE”. The aim here is to stop yourself becoming entangled with negative thoughts. They appear, but you can choose not to allow them to entangle you in them.
Whenever you are facing a challenge, always remember that you have a choice. Look at the choices, select one, follow it and accept the responsibility for any outcome. Remember the old Zen story about someone doing battle with this monster called Fear. When asking Fear how he could beat such a mighty warrior as Fear he was told: “Although you can’t stop me from speaking to you, you can choose to act upon what I say or not.”

Equally important as acceptance in this battle to control your thoughts is gratitude. Fortunately, hunting the good in your life is enjoyable, easy, and simple. Here are two techniques that help boost your gratitude levels:

Each day for three weeks or so write down three (or more) things you are grateful to have or have had in your life. You might include people, memories, pets, food, utilities, sunshine or anything you feel has brought forth that feeling of gratitude.
Write a letter or an email to a person a day for five days or so who are or have been special to you in some way, outlining why you feel that way about them. You could do the same face-to-face with people of course. Select a different person each day for five days at least.

Here’s a thought to ponder. Any upset, unease or distress you feel is not caused by what happened 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago. It’s caused by your thoughts, feelings and physical discomfort of the moment. These you can control, and forgiving yourself as well as others is a key aid here.

Holding onto grudges and regrets boosts your anxiety level, your feeling of being helpless and your dislike of yourself because you are the key player here. When your start to be disappointed in yourself or in others or in life ask yourself, with as little judgement on yourself as possible, the following questions for a couple of minutes in turn:
“What are you disappointed in, and why?”
“Just how much of this is your responsibility?”
“If some of it is your responsibility, ask yourself what you could do to avoid this feeling in the future?”
“Can you fully forgive yourself?”

So many people believe they should be better than they are, and even perfect. Try to view yourself as a work in progress and know that nobody is perfect.

Facing your fear
If you feel fearful or discomforted about anything, study how your body reacts. You might sweat, breath quickly, have a racing heart, feel sick or other responses. Just examine yourself when fear visits you and observe how you are. Then act in one of the following two ways, both of which allow you to take control of the situation:

Slow your body down by breathing slowly, fully and with control for a minute or two.
Admit to your fear or discomfort by saying aloud or in your head “I am afraid of…..”. Then say slowly an affirming statement such as “I am free from fear, relaxed, safe and in control of my emotions” a few times.

If your people have a low level of resilience, you probably feel very passive and go along with others or with life even if you don’t wish to or feel it’s best for you. Again, the best way forward here is to notice this tendency without adding any judgement to it and then to rephrase your initial response in a more assertive manner. This will probably mean telling people who make unreasonable demands on you “No” in a polite, but firm, voice. If this is not easy for you, I suggest you practice what you wish to say aloud in front of a mirror a few times so you become comfortable with saying the words you wish to say.

Of course, the more assertive you are, the fewer times you will need to be assertive.

Be reflective
Knowing your strengths allows you to use them more easily. This exercise helps you in this by asking you to be still and bring to your mind a time you overcame a difficult challenge, and then to focus on each of the questions in turn for a minute or so:
“What did I learn about myself from this experience?”
“What personal strengths did I use to help me at this time?”
“How can I bring these strengths more into my life?”

Keeping a diary in which you write how your view yourself (your life, actions, likes, decisions, interactions with people, etc) each day will allow you to identify trends. For example you might detect:
if and when you avoid taking responsibility for things when they go awry or if you take responsibility when it clearly is not your fault
if you hide any emotions such as sadness, anxiety, worry beneath more defensive ones such as anger
In doing this exercise over a few weeks you might also develop the ability to express what you learnt about yourself, other people and/or life during the day.

3. Learn from past stressful times

Of course, stress heavily influences the direction your thoughts take, so here’s some simple exercises that will help in this regard:
Think of a time when someone helped and encouraged you when you doubted yourself. Just be still, quiet and immerse yourself in these times for a few minutes.
If you feel stressed write down what it is you’re thinking and ask yourself these questions:
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
“Can I live through this time?”
“What would I advise someone going through a similar situation to do?”
If the thought persists, spend 15 minutes or so and write about it. Write without inhibition or consideration. Just write whatever appears in your mind. Do this daily for two weeks. Then read what you have written over this time and notice the changes that have occurred.
Sit still, close your eyes and imagine your body filling with warm, calming, soothing golden light (or liquid) which gently evaporates or dissolves away all your stress.
Sit with these following questions for a few minutes once a day for a week:
“What kinds of events brought me most stress in the past?”
“How did these affect my body and mind?”
“What did I learn from these times about myself and how I relate to other people and events?”

4. Relax more

Strengthening your relaxation response calms your mind and body which is vital in boosting resilience. Fortunately, there are many quick, easy ways to do this such as stroking a pet, singing, dancing for a few minutes, as well as adopting a form of meditation – a popular one currently is mindfulness.

Being mindful is defined as being fully engaged in the moment without any judgement at all. It’s a marvellous way to reduce the effects of stress, to reduce the likelihood of becoming stressed and to show what depth there can be in life.

Here are a few simple breathing exercises that will help you to be more mindful. Please remember that there’s no right or wrong way to do any of these. And it’s not about getting anywhere – it’s about being. Being present. Fully. And without any judgement. If thoughts come along during these exercises just escort your focus back to your breathing and its effects on your body. Why not do one, or more of these exercises every hour during the day?

Slow breathing – sit still and allow breathing to be normal. Then breathe in and out slowly and with control. Fully expand your chest, abdomen and stomach on the in-breath and contract each in reverse order on the out-breath. Aim for between four and six such breaths in a minute.

Breath awareness – sit still and do two shoulder shrugs with deep breathing. As your breathing comes back to normal, breathe in through your nostrils and out through slightly pursed lips. Focus on the breath going in and out – its temperature and its effect on your nostrils, tongue, lips etc. Do this for a minute or more.

Body awareness – sit still and do two shoulder shrugs with deep breathing. As your breathing comes back to normal, breathe in through your nostrils and out through slightly pursed lips. Focus on any changes you notice in your chest, abdomen and stomach as you breathe in and out. Do this for a minute or more.

Mindful breathing – clasp your hands together behind your head. Sit still and do two shoulder shrugs with deep breathing. As your breathing comes back to normal breathe in through your nostrils and out through slightly pursed lips. Then just notice any movement, sensations, etc, in your hands, arms, head, back, body – just notice. Do this for a minute or more.

6, 8,10 breathing – sit still and do two shoulder shrugs with deep breathing. As your breathing comes back to normal breathe in through your nostrils and out through slightly pursed lips. Breathe in with control for a count in your head of 6, hold the breath for a silent count of 8 and then exhale with control for a silent count of 10. Do this for a minute or more.

If your work evokes a stress response from you, know that you can promote mindfulness whilst you work. I suggest the following simple tips:
focus – do one task at a time.
reflect – at the end of the day reflect upon and appreciate your achievements of the day.
schedule – set a schedule for your work that is sensible and plan ahead. Do not allow procrastination to appear in your work.
say no – don’t take on more than you can do – you might need to learn to say no more often.
do it – if you have committed to something, be sure you do it and by the agreed time.

5. Laugh more

Feeling joyful and laughing aloud are truly wonderful medicines for your body, mind and soul. Here are three easy and uplifting exercises to help employ this underrated weapon in your progress towards building enhanced resilience.

Laugh aloud for ten minutes every day for two weeks. This might be by watching or reading something you find funny or by bringing to mind a funny memory.
At the end of the day write down the three funniest things that you have seen, heard or thought during the day. Write in as much detail as you can and your reaction to each one. Try to include why you found them funny. If nothing amusing occurred, go online and find some clips that make you laugh.
Make as many strange noises with your mouth as possible – e.g. clucking with your tongue or make your lips make a popping sound.

6. Indulge in pointlessness

This sounds odd, but works rather well at building you willpower and resilience. Try it for a week and see if it suits you. Do a non-productive, even pointless but slightly challenging task for a couple of minutes every hour, such as a jigsaw puzzle.

7. Build a support network

Sometimes life delivers too much for us to handle alone. When this happens it’s important to remember that it’s not a weakness to reach out for help. In fact, knowing our limitations, asking and accepting support nurtures us and strengthens our resilience.

I believe having a caring and supportive relationship with other people is the number one factor in growing resilience. Such relationships encourage trust and love as well as offering role models encouragement and reassurance.

This support may be in the form of people (such as family, friends, work colleagues, civic or church groups, or fellow enthusiasts in an interest) or professional organisations. Whatever it might be, the knowledge that it is there is reassuring. You might reflect upon who you are connected to and who you would turn to if a difficulty appears. You could easily build this network by contacting family and friends on a regular basis, ideally seeing them face-to-face as often as you can.

Another way to build your resilience in this regard is to be a support and of assistance to others. It may seem strange at first, but sharing other people’s burdens not only builds a sense of connectivity between you and others, but it also boosts your sense of value in yourself.

Two tremendously easy way to attain this are:
to engage in a random act of kindness to a stranger, such as opening a door for someone, buying a cup of coffee for the next person to be served in a cafe, offering to carry someone’s shopping to their car. Each day presents many such opportunities to be kind to others .
to volunteer to help a local charity a great way to feel this connectivity and gain a sense of worth.

8. Look after your body

You can bear more challenges and wear difficulties with more ease and grace when your physical body is being cared for. To this end the importance of a nutritious diet, good sleep and regular exercise cannot be overemphasised – these keep your body and mind sharp and ready for circumstances which will test your resilience. The good news is that there is much great, practical information and advice on each of these online, in magazines and so on. I offer you here just two pieces of advice on each:

Diet – to reduce stress I recommend:
eating the following: oatmeal, oily fish, eggs, dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, strawberries and red peppers. And to avoid refined sugars, white carbs and caffeine.
hydrating fully – this means drinking sufficient water and herbal teas until your urine is clear and not smelly.

Sleep – almost every technique in this article will help produce more sleep-inducing chemicals to assist with your sleep quality and quantity. But here are a couple of great additional tips:
be outside daily to soak up some natural light, inhale some fresh air and listen to the sounds of Nature.
adopt a regular soothing bedtime routine, which might involve having a warm shower or bath, listening to something relaxing, avoiding all electronic gadgets at least an hour before bed, stretching a little, going to bed (and waking up) at about the same time every night (morning).

Exercise – it is well-known that exercising on a regular basis is very good for you. But even when you’re working at a desk it’s vital to stave off boredom and reduce both physical and mental tension by taking regular breaks. This can be done easily and without interrupting the flow of work too much. For example,
focus your eyes on a long distance view or object every 20 minutes or so
stretch and contract a few times in a slow deliberate, focused manner your fingers, then your hands, then rotate your shoulders, your neck and even your feet. Do this every hour at least.

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About the Author Nigel Lowson

I loved teaching and loved working in schools because I learnt so much from my colleagues and the students. They never failed to inspire me and make me laugh! My curiosity in what makes people tick moved me into pastoral care and I was privileged to be in charge of a school's pastoral care and co-curricular programmes for 18 years. Here I saw first-hand the pressures on both staff and students (and their parents) and learnt so much about human nature, especially under stress. My focus has always been on offering practical, easy, quick solutions that work which are supported by science.

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