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Are you surviving, or thriving? Building your resilience.

2020…do we need to say more? COVID-19 has flipped our world up-side-down and changed a world that was safe, secure and known, even with all its life challenges, overnight to one of unfamiliarity, chaos and an enormous amount of discomfort and additional stressors. 

The pandemic, and the significant impact it has had and continues to have, on all aspects of our lives, contributes to many feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. We have all had to adapt, at rapid speed, the past couple of months whilst facing adversity   – working from home, physical distancing, tolerating financial hardships and embracing technology, or even dealing with illness and loss related to health, finances,  have become our ‘new normal’.  These overnight changes and challenges have left most people despondent. However, despite facing similar stressors, there are many who seem to have “glided” through it all, unaffected. How is that possible, you might ask.

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” (Peck, 1978).

The message here is that we should not shy away from stress – stress can be a powerful motivator and fertiliser for growth. However, we need to manage our stress and build our resilience. According to the American Psychological Association (2014), resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat”.

But what makes some more resilient than others?

Prevention includes a wide range of activities — known as “interventions” — aimed at reducing risks or threats to health. Primary prevention specifically refers to preventing disease or injury before it occurs. In the context of resilience, primary prevention refers to limiting exposure to work-related hazards that contributes or cause disease (workplace intervention), altering unhealthy and unsafe behaviours (improving selfcare and healthy lifestyle choices), and increasing resistance to illness, should exposure occur.

The most effective prevention is therefore building resilience through strengthening your internal resources and focussing on selfcare.

Ten habits of resilient people

1. Be optimistic

Optimism is a future-oriented attitude, involving hope and confidence that things will turn out well. Positive emotions reduce physiological arousal and broaden our visual focus, our thoughts, and our behaviour. Although we may feel overwhelmed by the current situation and our anxieties (health, financial, etc.), our thinking is more creative, flexible, holistic, effective and future-focussed, when we are optimistic.

2. Face your fear

Mandela said “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”.

Fear can be a warning and a guide – it helps us to focus on what we need to address and to master the skills necessary for conquering the “enemy”.

3. Have moral courage

Actively identifying your core values, assessing the degree to which you are living by these values, and challenging yourself to adopt a higher standard can strengthen character and build resilience. To be morally courageous, we must be willing do what we know to be right, even if it means loss, disapproval, or shame.

Kidder (2006) describes moral courage as the “willingness to take a tough stand for right in the face of danger…the courage to do the right thing…the quality of mind and spirit that enables one to face up to ethical challenges firmly and confidently without flinching or retreating”.

4. Have faith

Religion and spirituality draw on faith. Not only is faith associated with better physical and mental health, but also with longevity. In a meta-analysis of 42 studies (n = 126000), those who actively practiced a religious faith lived slightly longer than those who did not (McCullough et al., 2000).

We can include the practice of meditation and mindfulness here. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present – observing your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them as good or bad. Mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to the experience. Mindfulness have been associated with an increase in the areas of the brain regulating mood, anxiety memory and wellness – through increasing the size of the hippocampus and reducing the size of the amygdala.

5. Get social support

Social connectedness decreases perceived stress depression, ischaemic heart disease and mortality. The effect of social support on life expectancy may be as strong as the effects of obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension, or level of physical activity (Salpolsky, 2004).

Fowler and Christakis (2008) have also found that social connectedness improves our happiness by up to 40%. This is one of the biggest challenges for us during the current COVID-19 pandemic and the call for social distancing. I would strongly recommend that we replace “social distancing” with “physical distancing” – and ensure that we remain socially connected.

6. Find role models

The mirror neurons in our brain enable us to learn through observation. Identify resilient role models and imitate and practice their best qualities. Rosen (2014) and Sharma (2018) give good examples of resilient people and their practices.

7. Train diligently

Physical exercise directly benefits the brain. Not only does is improve immunity, positive emotions (e.g. happiness, joy and pleasure) and concentration, but it also creates new cells in the hippocampus which underlies learning and memory. Aim to exercise five times per week for at least 30 minutes.

8. Sleep regularly

Various studies have confirmed the health benefits of sleep. It improves your immunity, stabilises hormones directly linked with metabolism, improves emotional resilience and is necessary to consolidate information during learning for memory formation.

9. Cultivate a growth mindset and never stop learning

The more we think, the better our brain functions – regardless of age. An active brain produces new connections between neurons, so-called neuroplasticity. Even if we train one cognitive skill, it can improve performance of other cognitive skills and protect us against cognitive decline later in life.

However, it is important that we cultivate a growth mindset in which we see failure and challenges as opportunities for growth – both at personal and organisational levels. Resilience also requires us to think creatively and with flexibility.

10. Find meaning

Nietschze famously said “He who has a why can endure almost any how”. In Man’s search for meaning, Frankl (2008) emphasised that finding meaning is an active pursuit: “It must be searched for, found and discovered in the concrete experiences of our daily lives”.

We need to make sense of our circumstances and believe that we have the ability to exert influence over it. This underlies one of the core requirements of resilience: our consistent and deliberate practice of resilience and the engaging in work that is “excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners” (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon 2001). This will help us to translate the benefit of the inner work we are doing to the external challenges we are facing. Siebert (2005) stated that “we are most resilient when we scan new circumstances with curiosity, not knowing in advance what we will do, but confident that we will interact in ways that lead to things working well.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our lives – and it has the potential to transform us. It is crucial that we accept and embrace change as part of living, and that we avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Stress can be good for you. It can compel you to thrive and not merely survive  if you commit to setting aside time to work on your resilience, keep things in perspective, focus on your goals and take care of yourself.