How to to build resilience
Resilience in mental health refers to our capacity to respond to stress or difficult circumstances.
Often when we react to stress it is an unconscious process and involves learned, unhelpful thinking and patterns of behaviour. Building resilience is about strengthening our capacity to respond, rather than react, to life’s difficulties, with conscious awareness and agency.
Access your resources
Resources are things that have meaning for us, which we can connect to in times of need; they can be internal or external, literal or imaginative, intellectual or spiritual, solitary or relational. When we can draw on resources we develop the awareness and ability to remain intact in the midst of an overwhelm, a process known as self-regulation (more on this below.) I think of resources as energetic fuelling stations; stress is draining and we don’t tend to get far on a diminishing tank of fuel, without running into problems.
Resources exercise: Take a moment to notice how you feel right now on a stress scale of 1-10 and make a mental note of the number. Now cast your mind back to a time when you felt relaxed. Tune into the memory with all your senses; the sights, sounds, smells, or even textures of it. Now come back to your stress-scale; has your number increased, stayed the same, or reduced?
Half the battle with stress is that we often don’t know we are stressed. Stress is a bodily event; when we think or feel something stressful, our body lets us know. For instance, with anxiety we may feel short of breath, or hot, or have palpitations. The body is a great communicator, if we can learn to listen to it. Becoming aware of stress when it occurs is a process known as self-regulation. Self-regulation means noticing when we are stressed, responding to it by draw on one or more resources, and then noticing when we feel a bit better. This calms our nervous system and as a result we often feel better.
Body listening exercise: Think of a stressful scenario for a moment or two and then tune into your body; its temperature, sensations, tensions and posture. Does it give you a signal that you are feeling stressed? If so, how might you self-regulate, using your resources?
The compassionate self
The ability to cultivate a more compassionate self is one of the major tools of resilience-building, in fact some might say it is resilience, full-stop. Stress tends to come with self-criticism, a running inner commentary of how we are falling short in some way. Developing self-compassion means developing the ability to relate to ourselves, and our circumstances, differently. This is no mean feat and there as a whole therapeutic approach based on it, drawing on neuroscience (see Compassion Focused Therapy). Our psyche is fluid, made up of many different parts or ‘self-states’. When we are stressed our critical self-state takes over. But when we are able to access other, less critical self-states and give them a voice too, we are beginning to cultivate self-compassion.
Compassion exercise: Think of a stressful scenario and then listen internally for a judgemental or critical reaction to it. If you do hear one, what does it say? Now think of someone who you regard as a compassionate person. What would they say instead about you and/or this stressful scenario? Are the two responses different?
When we are stressed we have a low risk-tolerance; we see threat everywhere. When we are regulated, we can tolerate risk better. When we can tolerant risk, we change unconscious patterns and feel better. Novelty is a good way to increase risk-tolerance. This can often mean doing something a little out of our comfort zone rather than reverting to the familiar. Any time you feel like avoiding something (being criticised? Being complimented? An uncomfortable feeling/ thought/ person/ scenario?) an opportunity arises to increase our risk tolerance. Think of it as a mini-adventure for the brain; when we are able to do something differently, no matter how small, transformation follows.
Approach exercise: If you were going to have one mini-adventure today, what would it look like? What resources might assist you?