How to bounce back – resilience

Like many I have been spending my time working from home, exercising daily and talking to colleagues and friends on a variety of video conferencing platforms. The news is of course dominated by the Coronavirus, in fact it’s hard to believe that anything else is happening. This is an extra ordinary time, never before have so many countries around the world all faced the same challenge, having to restrict the movement of individuals and prepare for the economic tsunami that will almost certainly result. The feeling that it is everywhere gives the impression there is no escape, and nothing you can do, it’s out of your control. Depressed yet!

Yet some people don’t feel like this, are they just out of touch with reality or eternal optimists, thinking it will be all right when we know it won’t. Alternatively, they might have higher levels of resilience which helps them recover and bounce back far more quickly. It’s not that they are ignoring the facts, they are fully aware of the situation with many of the same concerns but its just not affecting them in the same way.

Resilience can go an awful long way – Eddie the eagle

What is resilience
Resilience is recovering quickly from a failure or adversity, not just to the status quo but in some way improved, effectively having learned from the experience. But how can you do this or is it a consequence of your genetics in which case you can always blame your parents. There is evidence to show that some people are born with higher levels of resilience, the range is somewhere between 30% – 50%, it’s impossible to be more specific because of the levels of complexity resulting from interplay between the genes. But even if it’s as high as 50%, where does the other 50% come from, maybe its learned?

In his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain Professor Richard J. Davidson states that signals from the prefrontal cortex (planning and decision making) to the amygdala (emotions) determine how quickly the brain will recover from an upsetting experience. Apologies for that but as with many of our emotional experiences it’s important to show that we can now identify exactly what is happening and that it’s not a subjective experience, we can observe the brain actually changing.

To summarise, resilience is real, we can see it happening in the brain and although some people have a head start with higher levels of “genetic resilience” we can all improve our ability to bounce back.

One final point before moving onto the practical guidance. There has been considerable research into resilience, specifically with regard to the military and its importance in combating PTSD. (Building Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman) In addition it is considered a high priority given the current focus on mental health and an important contributory factor to economic growth. Arguably the reason that some countries will do better post Covid 19 will be more a result of the resilience of its citizens and less the impact of the cash injections made by the countries bankers.

Learning to be more resilient
The back drop for this blog is the current Covid crises but resilience is a skill that would benefit all students, after all it’s a way of recovering quickly from setbacks and nothing at the time can seem more of a setback than failing an exam.

Its important to remember that everybody has resilience, there is no evidence to show that resilient people experience less traumatic events or have fewer barriers thrown in their way. They have just found better ways of dealing with them, but what do they do?

Change the narrative – when you are faced with a setback it’s easy to continually revisit the event looking for a reason as to why it happened. This is of course an important part of learning, after all you don’t want to make the same mistake. But there is little point playing the “if only I had done this” game. Change the narrative to, at least “I won’t make the same mistake again.” Ask yourself if the conversation your having is helping you get closer towards your goal of passing the exam and if not change it. One simple technique is to swap the word problem to challenge – its far easier to deal with a challenge than a problem!

Perspective (it could be worse) – seeing the event through the eyes of someone else can help put it into perspective. Most often the consequences aren’t as bad as you can imagine. Put what has happened into perspective by comparing it with something from the past or where the impact could be far worse. For example, I failed an exam before but I passed it in the end or perhaps, it could be worse I only failed one exam, how bad would it have been if I hadn’t past chemistry?

Support from others – in researching this blog, having support from others was mentioned more often than anything else as to what made people more resilient. A strong relationship with friends and family gives perspective as to what is important, being able to talk through your worries is a way of releasing pressure. As they say “a problem shared is a problem halved.”

Embrace the new and see the positive – change is going to happen, there are lots of things that are outside your control. The coronavirus was not something anyone was expecting but it has happened and we need to accept the implications and work within the boundaries it has created. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy nor do you have to stop trying to improve your situation. You didn’t put the mark on your last exam that resulted in you failing, accept it and then start thinking about what you have to do to change the result next time.

All of the above are important but resilience is not one thing it’s a combination of many. Unfortunately, it’s not permanent and you will need to reapply some of the techniques again. It is however easier to top up your resilience than start from scratch.

What does resilience look like – well you won’t get a better example than Captain Tom Moore who has not only raised £31m but has lived to 100 and inspired a nation. Happy Birthday Captain Tom 🙂

Dont worry, Be happy

It’s so easy for well-meaning people to say don’t worry, it’s not bad advice it’s just not very helpful. Firstly, as I have mentioned in previous blogs anything framed as a don’t is difficult for the brain to process. Far better to tell someone what to do than tell them what not.

Secondly If you look up a definition of worry it will say something like, “thinking about problems or unpleasant events that you don’t want to happen but might, in a way that makes you feel unhappy and or frightened.” What a strange concept, why would anyone want to do this?

Having started but I hasten to add not yet finished the second of Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling books Homo Deus, it’s hard not to question the reason we might have evolved to hold such a strange view. What possible evolutionary purpose could feeling bad or frightened serve?

Don’t worry be happy, In every life we have some trouble. When you worry you make it double.

Worry can be helpful
The truth is worry can be helpful, it’s a means by which the brain can help you prioritises events. It’s not a nice feeling but ultimately humans have evolved to survive and reproduce, they are not meant to be vehicles for happiness. Think of all that goes through your head in a day, the words, the emotions, the noise. How can you possibly figure out what is important and what is not unless you have a little help? Worry does just that, it helps us think about an event in the future that might happen, this heightened focus puts it above the events of the day giving us a chance to do something about it.

Action is worry’s worst enemy – Proverb

Worry, stress and anxiety
Worry tends to be specific; I am worried that I won’t be able to pass the maths exam on the 23rd of September. Worry is future based, it anticipates a problem that has not yet happened, the main reason is to make you do something about it today. Stress on the other hand is relatively short term and arises when the gap between what you need to do and are able to isn’t enough. For example, I haven’t got time to learn everything I need to pass this exam, there is just too much to learn. After the event, the stress level will fall. Anxiety is the big brother of them both, it is far more general than worry, for example, I am not very clever and never have been. You’re not really sure what cleverness is, but you’re still able to be anxious about it. Both stress and worry can lead to anxiety if they are intense or go on for too long.

Worry can wake you in the night, asking your brain to solve the problem. However, unless fully awake It’s unlikely you will be able to do so, instead you will simply turn the problem over in your head again and again and deprive yourself of that all-important sleep. Best put it to the back of your mind if possible, think of something else, the problem will feel less important in the morning and after a good night’s sleep you will be far more able to solve it.

It helps to write down half a dozen things which are worrying me. Two of them, say, disappear; about two of them nothing can be done, so it’s no use worrying; and two perhaps can be settled – Winston Churchill

What to worry about
The human mind is so creative it’s possible for it to worry about almost anything. As one worry is resolved another can appear.

  • Don’t know what to do – where do I start, what should I learn first
  • Don’t know how to do it – how can I get this into my head, what is the best way of learning?
  • Don’t know if I can do it, self-doubt – I am not clever enough. This can lead to anxiety.
  • Don’t know how long it will take, what if I don’t have enough time?

One technique to change these from unknowns to possibilities is to follow the advice of Carol Dweck who suggests you add a word to the end of the sentence – the word is YET. For example, I don’t know what to do YET! Although this may seem trivial it moves the worry from unsolvable to something that if you spend time on can be achieved.

The list of “dont knows” are all triggers to help motivate you, they are calls to action, the only way to reduce the worry is to do something, even if as Churchill suggest you make a simple list. However, there are situations when you can’t take action or at least not an obvious one, perhaps when waiting for exam results. It might seem that all you can do is worry. The bad news is, putting yourself in what can feel like a permanent state of worry can result in anxiety and won’t turn that fail into a pass. But all is not lost, planning for the worst whilst hoping for the best is sensible, coming up with a plan that is achievable can remove the pressure, leaving the feeling that even if you do fail there is a way forward and you can do something about it.

We can end with another quote from Winston Churchill who I am sure had a few worries in his time.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning