How to build resilience in five steps

If 2020 has taught us anything so far, it’s that life is unpredictable. As we begin to ease out of lockdown, your view of the world may have shifted considerably. It’s important that we build resilience at this time. But what does that really mean?

Resilience refers to the psychological strength that helps us navigate and bounce back from hardship. Resilience isn’t just about our ability to survive adversity. It refers to the set of characteristics that allow us to gain wisdom, a sense of achievement and self-esteem from having done so. It’s about how we cope, survive and hopefully thrive, grow and flourish as we encounter the inevitable ups and downs of life.

The good news is that resilience is something that can be learnt. Here, clinical psychologist Dr Gemima Fitzgerald explains how we can spring back from adversity to improve wellbeing and build resilience.

Nurture self-compassion

How you talk to yourself is important when it comes to learning how to build resilience.

“We can’t be resilient without self-compassion,” says Gemima. “We need to treat ourselves the way we’d treat people we care about most. That’s talking with an emotionally warm and supportive tone, rather than a cold, harsh and critical voice. When we’re overly self-critical and constantly putting ourselves down, we foster shame. Research shows this can activate our sympathetic nervous system. This mobilises us for threat and pumps stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) into our bodies.”

Instead, we need to be mostly operating under our parasympathetic nervous system. This system kicks in when we feel calm, safe and grounded. It helps us to think clearly, make good, healthy decisions and have a flexible perspective.

Activating our parasympathetic nervous system is as simple as speaking kindly to ourselves. It may feel awkward, but begin by intentionally practising talking to yourself as you would a close friend. Eventually it’ll become more natural.

True belonging

We are social beings and have a physical and psychological need to be connected to others. We strengthen our resilience when we feel a sense of belonging with our families, friends or communities.

“When we feel alone, we’re emotionally and physically less resilient,” explains Gemima. “Research shows that people who feel socially isolated experience a significant drop in their body temperature.

“It’s important to recognise that feeling a sense of belonging is the opposite of wanting and needing to ‘fit in’. Fitting in requires us to change aspects of ourselves in order to be socially accepted.”

True belonging comes from a state of accepting yourself just as you are and caring less about what others think.

Having a sense of connection to the human race as a whole is fundamental in developing resilience so we can survive, grow and even thrive after adversity. True belonging springs from the awareness that suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience.

“We all suffer, we all feel pain,” says Gemima. “We all experience self-doubt and have our personal struggles. Although we all suffer uniquely, we survive in the same way.”

Learn from adversity

As we get older, it’s natural that we reflect more on our lives. We retrace what’s happened to us and consider the people who’ve had an impact on us for good or bad. When it comes to resilience, however, what’s happened to us is less important than the way we tell the story of what’s happened to us.

“Life is a very good teacher,” says Gemima. “Through many years of working clinically with people, it’s evident that the most excruciatingly painful times in life are the ones that teach us the most.

“Adversity can have a profound and meaningful transformative effect on us. First we must acknowledge the trauma. It hurts. Grief hurts. Loss is painful. If you’re going through a tough time right now, be kind to yourself.”

If you can, try not to resist and fight any emotional pain you are experiencing. Instead, sit with it. When a wave of sorrow or anger comes upon you, notice it, accept it and don’t push it away.

Build boundaries

Many people, especially women, were brought up to be ‘nice and polite’, so have never felt free to be truly authentic for fear of upsetting others. Learning to grow into our authentic selves and stop being imprisoned by worries about what others will think is one of the most wonderful aspects of ageing.

Part of being more comfortable with our authentic selves, and thus more resilient, is learning to hold tension between being kind to others and aware of their needs, without neglecting our own.

“In order to build resilience and have a strong sense of wellbeing, we need to know how we deserve to be treated, and how to build and enforce boundaries,” says Gemima. “This will help us to make good healthy choices – physically and mentally.”

Do you know what your boundaries are? Do others know what they are? If you often find yourself saying yes to helping others, and then resenting it, try saying no more often. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but know that these feelings will pass. Every time we say no, or disagree with others, we set a great example for others in our family and friendship circle.

Practise gratitude

The more we realise that life is short and fragile, the more our ability to appreciate it grows.

Lots of human suffering comes from expectation: our lives don’t measure up to our blueprint and we feel helpless to change it. When we experience adversity, it’s important to bring our attention back to the present moment when we can, noticing any beauty and goodness around us.

“Conciously being thankful for the present moment helps to cleanse and reset our mental palette, and strengthen our resilience,” says Gemima. “For this reason it’s a good idea to write down things we are grateful for. For example, you might start or end the day by scribbling down three things that come to mind.”

Listen to our podcast episode with Dr Gemima Fitzgerald

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