Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires, shootings, sexual assault, and politics; the world probably feels pretty crazy lately. You might be thinking that resiliency is critical now more than ever. Normally I would agree.
Yet, I was surprised to learn that in a recent study 75% of people say that the biggest drain on their resilience reserves was “managing difficult people or office politics at work.” This was closely followed by stress from being overworked and personal criticism.
It would therefore appear that it’s not the big societal stuff that really drains us, but our daily hurdles such as a long commute, interactions with difficult people, and too much work!
Additionally, research has found that there is a direct correlation between an inability to get our minds off work and an increased incidence of health and safety problems.
Just because work stops, it doesn’t mean that we are relaxing and recovering. We “stop” work sometimes at 6PM, but then we spend the night wrestling with solutions to work problems, constantly watching our phones for work emails or texts, talking about our workday over dinner, and falling asleep thinking about how much work we’ll need to do tomorrow.
This lack of recovery, which can disrupt sleep with thoughts of work, is costing companies up to $62 billion a year in lost productivity and dramatically reducing our ability to be resilient.
One misconception of resilience often starts at an early age: overworked and exhausted are the opposite of resilient.
Take, for example, parents who positively reinforce the “resilience” of a high school student who stays up until 3AM to finish a science fair project. While the project may have gotten finished on time, at what cost? An exhausted student risks hurting himself and others on the road with his impaired driving; he doesn’t have the cognitive resources to do well on tests and he has lower self-control than a well-rested teenager.
The bad habits that we learn when we’re young are only magnified when we hit the workforce.
Thankfully, there is good news! We can retrain ourselves and build resilience. Here are some tips that I’ve implemented to reprogram my bad habits towards building a more resilient mindset.
1. Take care of your body and your mind will shift.
My cornerstones are sleep, exercise, healthy food and lots of water. If I don’t exercise, I can’t sleep. If I can’t sleep, I don’t exercise. If I’m tired, I eat more. If I don’t drink enough water, I feel tired (and get a migraine). All of this lowers my ability to just deal with daily life, much less the stressors that pop up in life.
When I have the physical cornerstones squared away, my mind shifts. When I feel strong and rested, my resilient reserves are full, and I feel energized, which shifts how I see the world and what I think is possible. I’m more optimistic too!
2. Create a new story.
According to George Bonanno, clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College, it’s our perception to events that is most critical. Meaning, if we think an event is traumatic, then it is. If we think it’s an opportunity to learn and grow, then it is. “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” says Bonanno.
We can teach ourselves to do have a more constructive outlook. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. Columbia neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus.
Typically, when something bad happens, we relive the event over and over in our heads, rehashing it, in that same negative way. Our brain is wired to hold onto the painful memories more than the positive, so rehashing is usually about the bad events.
To reframe the event, try this: Write about it for 20 minutes each day for four consecutive days. Writing helps to explore your thoughts and feelings, even the things that you are embarrassed to share; just write it all down. Don’t worry about spelling or typos, just write. By doing this you’ll create new ideas, which may lead to a shift in how you think and feel about the event. Once you’ve done this, the next step is to find the silver linings – what did you learn? How did this create who you are today? What can you gain from this experience?
3. Face Your Fear.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was right when he said, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.”
Yes, it can be easier said than done. There are real emotions surrounding our fears and yet, we CAN talk ourselves out of the fear. This takes practice and preparation. Start slowly exposing yourself to your fear – a little at a time. As the fears come up, acknowledge and name them. But don’t let them into the driver’s seat - you’re in control. Then congratulate yourself on what you accomplished. Repeat this and slowly increase the exposure to the fear each time.
Your fear may never completely go away, but you can work on increasing your exposure so it doesn’t get in the way of living your life the way that you want.
4. Practice Forgiveness.
First forgive yourself, and then forgive others.
Do you beat yourself up when you make a mistake? Are you as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend, a really good friend, in the same situation? The next time that you find yourself having higher expectations than you ever would for someone else, take a step back. Ask yourself how you would treat a good friend who was in the same situation. Then treat yourself that way.
You can start by writing down 100 things that you are good at or appreciate about yourself. Recognize all of the awesomeness you bring to the world – and don’t forget the small stuff, because big stuff is really just a collection of small stuff!
Grudges only hurt the grudge holder. Do you have an ax to grind with someone? Well, if you want to free that energy for more productive places in your life, give this a try:
Fully acknowledge what happened, how it feels, what values and needs were violated and how it affects you today. Write it all down. And write for as long as it takes to get it all out. Then try to imagine what the other person was feeling, what needs or values they were trying to satisfy by doing what they did. Really stretch to see the situation from their perspective (you don’t have to be right, its about really trying to empathize with their situation). Repeat if necessary. Then decide to forgive.
Yup, it’s really that easy… if you actually make the decision and commit to it. This doesn’t mean that the person is “off the hook,” it means reconciling. Even if you don’t let the person know (although this is a good step to truly let go), all of the energy that you’ve been spending on holding the grudge is yours once again.
5. Be Present.
This is also called being mindful or meditating. I know, I know, these terms are thrown around a lot lately. If you’re rolling your eyes, I get it; I used to say the same thing, and then I was given a few tips that really helped me.
First, connect to the “why” of mediation. For me, meditation is a practice of getting my head out of the past, out of the future, out of my to-do list and into the right now. The present moment is all that we really have. If I’m not living in the present, life is passing me by without me noticing, and I’m not actually living.
You don’t have to mediate very long to enjoy the benefits. Just a few minutes can work wonders. And you don’t have to do it sitting - you can walk, you can stretch, you can bike, you can lay on the floor, you can even stand on your head (if you don’t pass out easily like I would).
What also helped me is when I realized that meditation is not about trying to have an empty head. It’s about practicing disengagement with your unwanted thoughts. The act of acknowledging your thoughts without being “in” the thoughts. It often helps to practice labeling thoughts, for example: that was a thought about my to-do list; that was a thought about a conversation I had yesterday; that was a thought about what I want to eat for lunch… you get the idea.
Building resilience is a daily practice because it starts with treating yourself with care every day. If you want to find out how resilient you are, take this quiz.
If you want a partner to work on building more resilience, especially around work, I’m here for you.