Not all our muscles are physical. Our mental muscle is represented by our resilience, how we bounce back from setbacks. Here, GP Dr Harry Barry author of new book Emotional Resilience explains how to build yours
Life is a challenge, a roller coaster ride where we regularly encounter road blocks or obstacles on the journey – where the storms of life can suddenly appear on the horizon.
All of us will encounter roadblocks on our journey through the different phases of life. Illness, loss, bereavement, financial setbacks, family crises and interpersonal conflicts can all seem as unsurmountable obstacles.
Our capacity to negotiate these challenges and absorb the impact of such roadblocks is determined by our Emotional Resilience.
This relates to our individual capacity to cope with the adversities of life. Resilience comes from the Latin resilio which means to recoil or bounce back. Those who have this ability will suffer less from toxic stress, anxiety, physical illness, bouts of depression and are less likely to self – harm.
Learning skills to manage our emotional responses to the slings and arrows of life is possible for each one of us.
Our brain is neuroplastic (that means it can reshape key neural circuits) so it is capable of change at any stage of life if we can learn the appropriate techniques.
Emotional resilience is therefore within all our reach. To develop it we need to acquire some key personal, social and life skills. These twenty skills can improve your capacity to ‘bounce back’ from any crisis that life may throw at you. Let’s explore some of these in more detail.
1. Write down your catastrophic cascades
A common destructive thinking pattern is to visualize in our minds the worst-case scenarios, a tendency called catastrophising.
A simple phone call from a friend revealing she has been recalled following a routine screening mammogram sends us into a downward spiral of catastrophic conclusions.
Maybe it will be cancer. Maybe she is going to need surgery. What about the chemo and radiotherapy – how will she cope without her hair? What will I do if she dies?
In real-life none of the above has occurred yet.
Our emotional brain (especially our right prefrontal cortex) is simply swamping our rational or logical brain. This allows our emotional mind to run amok.
To develop emotional resilience, learn how to write down such catastrophic cascades on paper and challenge them.
This is because when something is going on in our emotional mind alone, we tend to catastrophise.
When you write it down, your rational mind is now able to logically analyse your conclusions and of course dismiss them as there is no evidence to back up such claims.
2. Challenge your pathological inner critic
We are living in a world of relentless self-and other- rating, driven principally by social media combined with unrealistic expectations of ourselves, others and life itself.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our schools and colleges. The world has also become obsessed with increasing self – esteem. I argue that self – esteem is a myth because it suggests that human beings can be rated, one against another.
In practice, all of us are unique, special human beings and must learn to accept ourselves as we are. We must also cease allowing others to rate us as human beings.
We are however responsible for our behaviour and we are free to rate it as indeed are others. This is a much more challenging concept as it forces us to explore our behaviour and if necessary change it, whilst accepting ourselves as the wonderful individuals we all are.
To develop the skill of unconditional self-acceptance you need to learn to challenge your internal pathological critic which is trying to convince you that you are useless, worthless and a failure.
When you can learn how to do this on paper over a period of three months, your reward will be a lifelong ability to bounce back faster from adversity.
3. Aim to be more imperfect
It is healthy to set reasonable, achievable goals. It is also completely acceptable to set high standards and to strive to reach them.
But what happens when you set impossible personal goals and standards? Or identify yourself with the achievement of such goals?
An increasing number of us are struggling with perfectionism. A major study by Curran and Hill on Perfectionism found significant number of 41,000 (aged 18 – 35) respondents in UK, USA and Canada suffered from multi-dimensional perfectionism and the study linked it with growing number of mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders and anxiety.
If struggling with perfectionism, you will usually find yourself seeking 100 per cent perfection in some or all areas of life and then rating yourself as a failure as unable to reach these impossible standards.
You may find yourself seeking out our imperfections till they are finally all you see. Learning the skill of how to challenge your demand for 100% perfection on paper over a three-month period and ceasing to rate yourself as a failure can transform your life.
You must also practice daily for this period creating small imperfections in yourself and learning to adapt to them.
4. Get comfortable with discomfort
So many of us become easily frustrated when situations and life are not turning out the way we wish. You usually want the situation to change but do not want to change matters yourself.
The reason is that you will encounter discomfort, something you desperately wish to avoid. Parallel with this desire to avoid discomfort is an increasingly prevalent belief that everything should be ‘instant’. That includes all forms of self-gratification.
The reality of course is that life is full of discomfort and is also not going to change just to suit us. You must learn to accept short term pain for long term gain.
For three months when frustrated about something, identifying paper what discomfort you are trying to avoid, lean in to it and feel it – is it really that bad? Can you sit with it until it goes away? You may find that simply sitting with the discomfort for a while means the feeling will pass, like a cloud. Feelings can’t hurt you – they come and they go.
Once the feeling has gone, you can change your thinking and behaviour to achieve your long-term aim and know that you’re comfortable with the discomfort it requires to get there.
When you accept with a sense of humour, that the world is not going to change to suit you, you have arrived.
This is one of the great resilience skills for life.
5. Learn ‘flooding’ to calm your anxious mind and brain
As you travel though life, you will be presented with acutely stressful situations where you may become physically anxious.
our heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow and faster, muscles tightening up, mouth dry, stomach in knots and an overwhelming sense of dread.
Flooding is a mental health technique designed to combat the physical nature of anxiety.
The technique involves learning to ‘stay with the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety, whilst never trying to stop them’.
This technique is most effective in helping us to deal with acute anxiety, especially panic attacks and phobias.
Mastering this skill will greatly calm your anxious mind and brain.
6. Stay in the present moment
As human beings, few of us live in the present moment. Instead, we fret about the past or worry unnecessarily about the future.
If we’re not thinking about past or future events, our mind is constantly wandering off into a world of its own. We miss the beauty of the moment. And that moment will never be repeated.
Develop the skill of mindfulness which teaches us how to live in the present moment. Those who have learnt it stay with stressful situations they encounter and approach them in a calmer manner and are less anxious.
Develop over a three-month period through a simple 3 Minute Mindfulness exercise. Spend one minute focusing on your mind, one minute focusing on your breathing and one minute focusing on your four limbs. This will assist you to stay in the moment.
7. Develop your social skills
To navigate our complex social world requires a suite of skills. You need to develop your empathy skills especially.
Empathy, involves learning how to sense where others are at from an emotional point of view. It permits us to enter the mind and heart of another person. If you ally this to developing techniques to reading non – verbal cues it is much easier to dance our way through the obstacles of life.
You also need to teach yourself techniques to become comfortable in social interactional and performance situations. This involves challenging false perceptions of what happens in both – for example if you have a fear of public speaking, it’s often heartening to note that the audience want to hear from you, they want to be there and they want you to do well, not to fail!
8. Life is unfair – deal with it
Our forefathers were especially aware of and sensitive to the unfairness of life. This harsh reality has been dumbed down in our twenty-first-century brave new world.
But life is not and has never been fair. Those who believe it should be end up hurt and bruised by life. They find themselves carrying the equivalent of a rucksack of rocks.
Learning to drop such a load can teach you to adapt not flounder when life comes calling. This often involves forgiving a person who has caused us hurt but learning how to challenge their behaviour or even walk away from it if needs be.
Just because life is unfair doesn’t mean we should live with situations that make us unhappy that we can change!
These skills amongst others can be found in Emotional Resilience: How to Safeguard your Mental Health by Dr Harry Barry which is published in paperback by Orion Spring and available from Amazon