With the pandemic stretching out before us, you may be wondering what you can do to cope effectively. If your wellbeing is being tested to the limit, we suggest trying out one of our 5 ways to build resilience in tough times. These tips will help you to manage stress when it strikes and also to stay resilient over the longer term.

 

What is resilience?

Resilience is commonly thought of as a capacity for bouncing back. We know from research that resilient people experience the same initial stress reactions as the rest of us. The difference is that they are able to manage the signs and symptoms of stress effectively to recover more quickly.

Resilience is also about being flexible and able to adapt to new challenges. Resilient people do this by calming sympathetic nervous system arousal. This helps them to override the experience of ‘amygdala hijack’, which switches the thinking brain off and sends us into ‘fight or flight’. By managing their arousal, resilient people are better able to manage threat emotions in the moment. They are able to think flexibly and find ways to adapt to challenging situations.

The ability to grow through adversity – ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – is also a feature of resilience. Resilient people draw on their inner strengths to cope and respond to threat. They discover new strengths and abilities, and build confidence in their capacity to manage future challenges.

 

5 ways to build resilience in tough times

As we continue to experience high levels of uncertainty our personal resources are stretched. Changing demands and difficult decisions due to the ongoing pandemic have placed huge demand on us all. And many people are feeling close to burnout. To manage these demands we recommend you try one of our 5 top ways to build resilience in tough times.

1. Manage stress in the moment

Our emotional reactions to crisis or threat can be overwhelming. They take over our brains and bodies and make it hard for us to function as normal.

To be resilient, we first need to calm these reactions by using strategies to soothe the sympathetic nervous system arousal. A useful technique for this is slow rhythmic breathing. This is a skill that takes practise. It can be useful in a whole host of situations that might cause us to feel stressed or overwhelmed.

To try out this technique take the following simple steps:

  • Breathe in slowly over a count of 4 seconds
  • Breathe out for a longer count of 6 seconds
  • Pause at the end of the out-breath
  • Repeat

Using a visual prompt, such as the blue square can be helpful in practising this technique.

Regularly practising slow rhythmic breathing will teach you to slow down your breathing. When you breathe in this regular rhythm is known to calm sympathetic nervous system arousal.

You can see Jo demonstrating this technique in this short video.

2. Develop self-compassion

Self-compassion is about having sensitivity for our own suffering and a desire to alleviate it.

Building self-compassion, by paying attention to our own needs and stresses, having empathy for ourselves and letting go of self-judgement, is crucial for self-care.

Try using the loving-kindness mindfulness meditation to grow your feelings of compassion and ability to have sympathy and empathy for yourself and other people.

Compassionate imagery can also stimulate parasympathetic nervous system arousal, helping you to feel calm and relaxed.  Prepare yourself by using the slow rhythmic breathing exercise to help calm the body. When you are settled and comfortable, see if you can conjure an image that embodies some of the following qualities: wisdom, understanding, kindness, all-knowing, forgiveness and total acceptance (of you and your past).

The image you choose might be a human or animal, it might be a scene or an item in nature. You can build this image over time by adding features such as particular colours, a type of expression or voice. What might your compassionate image want to say to you? How might you feel as you hear these words?

3. Make the most of positive experiences

Noticing and savouring positive emotions is one way of building resilience capital. This might include keeping a notebook of three good things that you notice every day, savouring the moments in your day when you experience positive emotions such as hope, joy or love. Engaging in things we find interesting and getting in the zone can also help to build our connection to positive emotions such as interest, pride or amusement.

We experience many of our positive emotions in relation to other people. Taking time to connect with loved ones, savour experiences we have shared or anticipate good things, helps to build positive emotions. Expressing gratitude or sharing support and kindness has been shown to boost positive emotions and resilience both in the moment and over the longer term.

4. Take charge of negative thinking

Learning to manage negative thinking and finding new, more flexible ways of understanding challenging events is a really useful strategy. It helps us to think clearly when we encounter a crisis situation.

We are programmed to focus on negative information as this helps us to attend and respond to threat. However, it is very easy to overestimate threat, when the likelihood of a negative outcome may actually be very low. Similarly, when we over-focus on the negative we may be more likely to take things personally, put pressure on ourselves, expecting ourselves to always be in control, or to do things perfectly. But these ways of thinking contribute to further stress.

Learning to think flexibly and to explain negative events in more optimistic ways helps us to gain perspective and take appropriate, measured action to manage challenging situations.

5. Draw on your social network

Connecting with others through strong, supportive and reciprocal relationships is a cornerstone of resilience and wellbeing. When we experience stress, pressure or challenge we are biologically programmed to seek out the care and support of someone we trust.

Sharing our concerns or fears with loved ones or trusted friends helps to calm sympathetic nervous system arousal, buffering us against stress. This allows us to think more clearly, analyse problems and find solutions to the difficulties we are facing.

Although our ability to communicate and interact with others has been severely restricted during recent times, many of us have found new ways to give and receive support. Motivated by a powerful urge to connect, we have sought the support of a friend or colleague because these relationships are crucial to our wellbeing and recovery.

 

Putting the 5 ways to build resilience into action

Take a few moments to reflect on which of these resilience skills you recognise. Have you been reminded of any that you have used previously and want to put back into action? Perhaps there are some new skills mentioned here that you would like to have a go at. If so, think about what you need to do now, today, to take action. What will help you do so? See if you can enlist the help of a friend, write a pros and cons list or make a note of it in your calendar. You could also check out our other blogs for further information about how to put these new skills into practice.