Mental Health 'Resilience'
Updated: Apr 26
Imagine going on an adventure in an old camper.
You know where you’re going
and have a rough idea of the route you want to take. You’re happy to go wherever the journey takes you, as long as you’re heading in the right direction.
You’ll probably pick up and drop off different people during your journey. You’ll travel on some fast roads and some slower, twisty lanes. You’ll go through cities and the countryside, in all sorts of weather.
You don’t really know what’s going to happen during your journey. For example, old VW campers have a bit of a reputation for breaking down (and even catching fire!). You might have a crash or you might get lost. Lots of things might happen.
What is ‘Resilience’?
We’ll all experience adverse events in our lives. These could be day-to-day stresses or more significant traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one. We’ll all react in our own way, having unique thoughts and feelings, which may result in observable behaviours. Most people deal well with these challenges, in part due to thier resilience.
Resilience is the ability to adapt well to adverse events
But it’s more than just our ability to ‘bounce back’ as is so often quoted. It’s about minimising the impact of the event in the first place, so that you don’t have to bounce back so far.
Becoming More Resilient
As with so many things, there’s a bit of a nature vs nurture argument with resilience. It may well be that your genes impact your resilience, but most experts agree that your ability to develop resilience is far stronger.
We automatically become more resilient as we successfully navigate stressful and adverse events.
Like a muscle being exercised, each time it’s used it gets stronger. However, more importantly…
We can learn to be more resilient
Think back to our imaginary journey. What could you do to minimise the impact of the challenges that you might face?
Perhaps you might get the 'van serviced before you set off. Perhaps you’d join a recovery service, or you might even go on a basic mechanic’s course and take some tools and spares with you. Taking a fire extinguisher might be a good idea too! You’ll probably take a satnav or a map, and you’ll no doubt adapt your driving as the road conditions change.
These actions are all developing resilience, making it less likely that you’ll encounter problems in the first place and allowing you to get back on the road more quickly if you do. However, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have problems or that they won’t be traumatic.
The same is true for mental health resilience. On top of your genetic predisposition and life-experiences, there are preparations you can make to become more resilient.
The Four Pillars
Your preparations can be thought of as the 'four pillars of resilience'. They may look very familiar if you've spent any time learning about well-being or mental health.
Let's look at each of the pillars in a bit more depth, focussing on the things that you can actually change.
1. Build connections
Having a few genuine relationships with people who are compassionate and trustworthy can really build your resilience. Relationships take time to develop, so you need to invest in them over the long term. Face-to-face relationship building is far more powerful than a digital equivalent.
Stress and mental health problems often lead people to socially isolate themselves, which gets them in to a vicious circle.
Forcing yourself to socialise and talk to your genuine connections about how you’re feeling is a powerful way to be more resilient when you're feeling stressed or worse. Likewise, being a good listener for your connections in their time of need is extremely important.
2. Foster well-being
'Self-care' is a bit of a buzz-word at the moment, but looking after your body and mind is critical to resilience. We often think about our body and mind separately, but actually they’re inextricably intertwined!
Getting the basics right is the first step that so many people in our culture struggle with. Here’s a quick refresher…
Eat. Eat a balanced, healthy diet and stay hydrated. This will ensure your body has all of the nutritional elements it needs to function correctly. You know how to do this, so follow the public health advice and you won’t go far wrong.
Sleep. Get good sleep. Your body clock controls many of your physiological and psychological processes. It’s really important in memory formation and learning, amongst other things.
Go to bed and get up at the same time, every day. 7 days a week.
Sleep for between 7 and 9 hours every night.
Prepare your body for sleep. Dim the lights and do something calming before bedtime.
Don’t drink caffeine and alcohol for as long as possible before bedtime, ideally not at all. They have half lives in the order of hours and both interfere with brain activity during sleep.
If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, get up, go somewhere else and then try again when you feel tired. Don't build an association between your bedroom and not being able to sleep.
Exercise. Getting and staying fit will ensure your body is primed to deal with problems. When we’re stressed, all of our body systems change as they go in to 'fight or flight' mode. A healthy body is better able to cope with these changes.
Be Mindful. Giving your mind a chance to slow down and unwind is important. There are lots of ways to do this. Yoga, mindfulness practice, meditation or gardening, whatever works for you. Be aware that just because ‘there’s an app for that’, it doesn’t mean it’s helping, it could even be making things worse. Check out the NHS validated apps website to find apps that are proven to give benefit.
Bad Habits. Regularly drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and using drugs (if that’s your thing) is bad for your resilience. As well as being a cultural habit, people use these substances as a coping strategy to deal with stress and adversity, a process referred to as ‘self-medicating’. Whatever the reason, these behaviours don’t make you more resilient, in fact, they make you less so. As well as having their own issues, these bad habits also impact on the four factors above, multiplying the negative effect. The less you use them, the more resilient you’ll be.
3. Find purpose
Having purpose and meaning in life will help you to be more resilient. People do this in many ways, but here's some ideas.
Be Proactive. If you can identify and accept that you're reacting to stress or an adverse event, you’ll benefit from asking yourself what you can do about the problem. If it’s a big problem, break it down in to smaller, more manageable chunks that you can do something about. Being proactive helps you to remember that you can overcome problems.
Set Goals. Set goals and constantly move towards them. It doesn't matter what they are, as long as they're important to you. Think about the one thing you can achieve today and try to get there. Don't forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Keep reviewing your goals to make sure they remain relevant and achievable.
Give to Others. Maybe you do this routinely in your job. If you do, don’t forget to remind yourself about the good you’re doing for other people. If it’s not your job or you want to do more, perhaps you could give up some of your time to volunteer in a way that works for you.
Develop Yourself. Look for areas where you’ve grown, or could grow as a result of the adverse event. Perhaps you’ve got a better relationship with someone, become more resilient or developed an increased sense of self-worth. When you ‘grow’, this improves your self-esteem, making you more resilient.
4. Think positively
This can be hard to do when under stress or in the face of adversity. You probably can't change what's happened, but you can control how you respond to it. Being conscious of the nature of your thoughts, and training yourself to think positively can reap huge benefits. Here’s some tips…
Accept Change. The only constant in life is change. Accepting that change is a part of life, and that sometimes you can’t control things, will help you to think more positively. Consciously give up any struggle with change, and try to positively embrace it instead.
Maintain Perspective. As they say in the financial world, ‘the past is no predictor of the future’. Just because something hasn’t gone well now, doesn’t mean the same will happen in future. Try to remember that. Equally, if you have a tendency to think irrationally (as we all sometimes do in the middle of the night), or if you tend to blow things out of proportion, try to recognise that you’re doing it, so that you can rationalise and maintain perspective.
Be Hopeful. Being hopeful is a large part of thinking positively. Rather than focussing on what's gone wrong, or what might go wrong in the future, try to think about what has or might go well. Visualisation techniques can work well here. Spend some time picturing yourself as you would like to be.
The Sum of Small Gains
David Brailsford, Director of British Cycling and General Manager of cycling’s Team Sky coined the phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. This strategy massively improved performance and is now commonly used in coaching of all varieties, including wellbeing.
If you want to become more resilient, you could do worse than to adopt the same strategy. When you consider the four pillars of resilience, are there any that you think you could improve on? If so, which bit(s) specifically?
Changing behaviours and habits is notoriously difficult. However, making a personal commitment to change and adopting a good strategy can seriously improve your odds. Pick one small thing at a time. Start with the low-hanging fruit - the easy wins. Change this thing and then keep focusing on it until it's embeded in your life and it’s the ‘norm’.
Celebrate your success and then pick the next small thing. Repeat the process until you’re super-resilient!
Remember, you don’t have to be a super-hero, the more you can do to build the pillars, the more resilient you’ll become. This will help when you're faced by adversity and you’ll become even more resilient through your experience.
We’ve seen that resilience is about preparing yourself to react well in the face of adversity. Whilst some of our resilience comes from genes and our previous experiences, purposefully learning to be more resilient can have a far bigger impact.
Committing to becoming more resilient and systematically changing little things from each of the four pillars will give you the best chance of success. Take one thing at a time and work on it until it becomes normal.
Enjoy your adventure and don’t forget the fire extinguisher!
Resilience is a key topic in all of our mental health courses.
Many 'mental health first aid' courses are solely focussed on being reactive when someone is recognised as being stressed or having a mental health problem.
Whilst this is clearly important, we think prevention is better than cure. We also teach our learners to be pro-active. We encourage them to develop their own resilience, whilst also enabling others to do the same.
Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss ways that we might be able to support your organisation.