The six things I have learned about resilience and wellbeing
In the UK we are fortunate. We live in comfortable homes, have nice clothes and drink nice coffee. We have ready access to healthcare and education, own well designed smart phones and live in cities with beautiful architecture.
Yet we also live in an age of stress, exhaustion and loneliness. Rates of anxiety and depression are higher than ever. Many people live in a perpetual state of ‘overdrive’, never feeling they have enough time. We live in a society that elevates achievement and success above all else and consequently we feel the need to always be productive.
Like many people I have not been immune to the pressures of modern life. As a husband and father of three young children, and employee in the NHS (with private practice on the side) I have experienced my fair share of stress. In fact, at times life has seemed an exercise in survival and my resilience has felt very limited. Ironically, as I have helped others with serious mental health issues I have sometimes felt that my own mental health has teetered on the brink.
A few years ago I started to ask the question: could life be more than just a struggle to keep my head above water? This was the beginning of a process to find ways to improve my resilience and emotional wellbeing. I want to share some of the simple but important lessons I have learned...
1. Resilience: what it is and what it isn’t
Adversity and stressors come in many forms. Occasionally they can be life shaking such as the loss of a loved one, redundancy, marital breakdown, or serious sickness. However, more commonly they occur in the form of everyday problems such as work pressure, juggling multiple responsibilities, financial difficulties, exam stress, interpersonal conflict, sick kids, or sleep disruption (to name just a few). For some the long dark months of winter can also be really challenging to their mental health.
Psychologists have long noted that some people cope much better with these sorts of difficulties. The factor that differentiates these individuals is called resilience. Those that possess this quality appear to rebound quickly, even flourish, in response to life’s stressors.
Traditionally, resilience was thought of as hardiness, self-reliance and inner toughness. This view of resilience has been shown to not only be flawed but to actually contribute to problems with stress, anxiety and depression. I would like to address these misconceptions specifically.
Firstly, resilience does not mean avoiding or suppressing emotions. Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David says, “What is actually guaranteed in life is that it will not go well sometimes. You’re healthy, until you’re not healthy. You’re with the person you love, until you’re not with the person you love. You enjoy your job, until you don’t. We will find ourselves in situations where we will feel anger, sadness and grief and so on. Unless we can process, navigate and be comfortable with the full range of our emotions, we won’t learn to be resilient. We must have some practice dealing with those emotions or we will be caught off guard.”
Dr Emma Seppala further expounds this view and says that by “trying to hide emotions we actually manifest them more strongly physiologically.” Dr Seppala says that people who frequently suppress negative emotions are more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes that include more intense negative emotions, lower self-esteem, and depression.
Secondly, resilience is not the same as self-reliance. Resilience experts Gaynor Parkin and Sarah Boyd says that resilient individuals are usually better at connecting with others and drawing on support when the going gets tough. Finally, resilience is not something that only a lucky few possess. Parkin and Boyd say that we all exhibit resilience at points in our lives and we can also learn to be more resilient.
2. Prioritise relationships
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned about resilience is the vital role of relationships. Unfortunately, this has been the hardest lesson given my tendency to introversion.
Eminent psychologists Edward Diener and Martin Seligman state that “numerous studies support the conclusion that social relationships are essential to well-being.” However, certain types of relationships are thought to be especially beneficial to resilience. Feeling close to others and valued by them is linked to greater resilience to stress and change. Parkin and Boyd say that “people with high levels of resilience tend to be good at both giving support to others and making use of support for themselves.” It is fairly obvious that if we only have people around us who make demands on us this may actually be harmful to our resilience. Likewise, we also need more than one supportive person to rely on during hard times.
Loving relationships appear to be particularly effective at buffering us against life’s adversities. Kaczor (2015) says that to cultivate loving relationships we must look for the good in our partners, friends, family members and express what we appreciate about them. Kaczor (p.69) elaborates, “Love is not merely doing things for others, but recognising the good in others…. Real love recognises the value, worth, and good of the other person. Real love, in other words, involves appreciation.”
Given my introversion I have had to be intentional about connecting with others and developing community. The approach I used for a time was to say yes to every social invite even though I often would not feel like going out. This has helped me build a number of special friendships that are significant and life giving.
3. Slow down and live in the present
Up until a few years ago I was living my life in overdrive. I was juggling multiple responsibilities and working very long hours. Eventually this began to take a toll and I started exhibiting the symptoms of stress and anxiety. When I honestly examined the reasons for this I realised that much of the pressure I was under was self-imposed. In my pursuit of professional success I had been exhausting myself, neglecting friendships, and depriving myself of rest and enjoyment.
A significant part of the problem was that had I implicitly bought into two theories of success and happiness. Psychologist Dr Emma Seppala calls these “success myths” and the “anticipatory joy trap”. She says while they “appear to make a lot of sense” and are “wildly popular” they are “incredibly flawed”. Success myths say that in order to be successful:
-never stop accomplishing
-push yourself relentlessly
-persevere at all costs
-that you can’t have success without stress
Success myths breed a mindset that you must always be productive and continuously striving towards your next professional or personal goal. Dr Seppala says that some individuals may achieve success by adhering to this philosophy but it is likely to occur at the expense of their relationships, physical health and mental health. She points to research showing that success myths actually reduce the potential for success in work and education because they “diminish your energy, prevent you from performing your best, make you less resilient and impede work creativity.”
This does not mean that we should not work determinedly in pursuit of our passions and goals – in fact this can be source of purpose, wellbeing and fulfilment. Rather it means balancing periods of focussed effort with periods of complete relaxation, fun, and social connection.
The ‘anticipatory joy trap’ is the mindset that says if you work hard and chase success then one day you will have the time, achievements, money that provide happiness. Psychologists say that anticipatory joy motivates us to push through stress, exhaustion, difficult circumstances because we believe in the future it will be worth it. The problem with anticipatory joy is that it causes people to permanently live in the future and neglect their present psychological and physical wellbeing. Research has also shown that when people do achieve their goals their happiness is very fleeting.
Seppala says that the antidote to the anticipatory joy trap is slowing down and focusing on what is happening in front of you. Research shows that living in the present – or living mindfully – reduces stress and anxiety, enhances wellbeing and resilience, leads to greater productivity, and strengthens relationships.
I have experienced the benefit of regularly slowing down, detaching from work and having periods of relaxation, fun and social connection. I also try to create space for contemplation and prayer and, although usually short lived due to the demands of family life, I still find it invaluable to my psychological wellbeing.
4. Cultivate positive emotions
Our emotions exert a powerful influence on many areas of our lives. Psychologist Dr Barbara Frederickson has shown that people who regularly experience positive emotions are more resilient - they return to emotional stability more quickly after experiencing negative emotions. This means that our resilience can be improved by simply increasing your frequency of positive emotion.
This is not about eliminating all negative emotions (this is clearly unrealistic, possibly unhealthy) but rather increasing the proportion of positive emotions to negative emotions. Importantly, Dr Frederickson also says that these positive emotions need to be ‘heartfelt’ rather than being forced. Parkin and Boyd say we can do this by “being with people or being involved with experiences that create these emotions for us rather than forcing ourselves to feel good.” Finally, Frederickson says that we need to “slow down” and “enjoy the moment” to sincerely experience positive emotions.
How you cultivate positive emotions will, in part, depend on your personality and individual preference. For example, an extrovert may love going to a big party whereas an introvert may hate this. However, there are two activities that research shows are particularly potent ways of generating positive emotions.
Giving, acts of kindness
Martin Seligman says that doing an act of kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any activity. One thing you could try is to find one wholly unexpected kind act to do and simply do it.
Emmons 2007, p.11- 12, has found a strong association between the discipline of gratitude, wellbeing and resilience. He says, “grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness... [They] recover more quickly from illness and benefit from greater physical health... increased feelings of connectedness, [and] improved relationships... [W]hen people experience gratitude, they feel more loving, more forgiving and closer to God. Gratitude, we have found, maximises our enjoyment of the good...”
5. Cultivate realistic optimism
This has also been a challenging lesson for me, as I am sure it is for all my fellow pessimists. In fact, even if you are not a pessimist like me research show we all possess a natural bias to focus on the negative aspects of our life and the world. Yet, some fascinating research has found we have objectively experience three times more positive experiences than negative.
Optimism has consistently been found to improve wellbeing and increase resilience. Parkin and Boyd define optimism as the “tendency to expect the best possible outcome and dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.” The good thing is that we can all learn to be more optimistic by practicing certain techniques. This does not mean adopting a “positive-thinking” approach to everything in life (such as that espoused by Rhonda Byrne in her book, “The Secret.”) Rather, it means seeking to be “realistically optimistic” by offsetting our natural tendency to focus on the worst aspects of life with a more balanced view of life.
One factor that influences our level of optimism is how we talk to ourselves when we encounter challenges, set-backs, or frustration. At these times we tend to catastrophize (that is assume the worst-case scenario) and only focus on the negative aspects of the situation. Therefore, the first optimism skill is to de-catastrophize and also look for the positive aspects of a situation (as well as acknowledging your negative emotional response). We could also ask ‘what would go well in this situation?’ rather than just ‘what could go badly?’
The second optimism skill is developed via the ‘What-Went-Well’ exercise. This requires a person to take a few moments each night for a week to identify three things that went well during that day and why they went well. It’s important to note these do not need to be significant (i.e. I enjoyed a discussion with a work colleague or I enjoyed my dinner) but what is important is that you find three things that went well even if you have had a difficult day. It is recommended that you write these down. This technique has been reliably found to improve positive mood and reduce stress.
6. Prioritise sleep and exercise
The final lesson I have learned is perhaps the most obvious but no less important: that
sleep and exercise are essential to resilience.
In the past I was guilty of thinking that one of the ways to find more time in the day was by
reducing my sleep hours. I did not give sleep the importance it deserved. Yet, research has
repeatedly shown that poor sleep - more than any other factor - is related to fatigue,
depression and stress. Unsurprisingly, my approach to sleep eventually caught up with me.
The science in this area shows that we need between 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night and that most of us are consistently getting an hour less than we need (if you have young kids this is could be a lot more!) The first step to better sleep is simply recognising its importance and aiming to get 7-8 hours per night. Research shows that it is preferable to wake at the same time each day and to reduce sleep debt by going to bed earlier rather than sleeping in. It is also helpful to have a wind-down phase before sleep where we relax and turn off screens (reduce exposure blue light from LED screens). Chief Medical Officer for England Prof Dame Sally Davies recently highlighted the harmful effects of “light pollution” from smart phones on sleep. She recommends adopting something she does every night: leave your phone out of your bedroom when you go to bed.
Finally, I have found exercise incredibly helpful in improving my mental health and resilience. The psychological benefits of exercise have been repeatedly demonstrated in a number of studies. These include boosting self-esteem, improving mood, improving sleep quality and increasing energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia.
NHS guidelines state that adults aged 19-64 should be doing at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week and strength exercises two or more days a week. If you do not currently do much exercise then start with a brisk 30 minute walk three times a week (this counts as moderate aerobic exercise). The key is to start where you feel comfortable and to increase the amount of exercise you do each week.
It is important to note that the lessons described above are not the only ways to improve resilience and for some they may not be especially useful. They reflect my journey to deal more effectively with stress and anxiety and it was important to me that these were based on evidenced based approaches. What I love about these approaches is they can be learned and so provide hope that we can all learn to be more resilient. For someone who is not naturally very resilient this was essential.