Wellbeing for Real Life: what is resilience and how do we build it?

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I was recently asked to write a module on resilience for clients of a healthy lifestyle service provider. We had previously put together modules on anxiety, depression and stress management. The feedback that we were getting from some team members delivering the modules was that they found the subjects rather complex and difficult to discuss and there was a risk of ending up focussing on the negative. We therefore decided to simplify the modules, fuse them together where appropriate, and to take a more positive tone discussing fitness rather than illness. As I put the module together I was reminded that teaching something is a great way of learning something , and so thought I would share what I have learnt in the hope that it is useful to you.

Let’s start with some questions people commonly ask. What is resilience? Do I have it? How do I know? Can I measure it? If I don’t have it, can I get it, or improve it? How can I help my kids to have it?

Defining resilience

A very basic definition of resilience is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape after trauma. To make it more human, we could describe it as the ability to cope with setbacks, or the ability to overcome difficult experiences and to be shaped positively by them. It might be described very simplistically as physical or mental strength or fitness.

Resilient people are not just born, they can be made

As my wife pointed out to me during the writing of this post, anyone who has had a few children can tell you that we are all in different places on the scale of natural resilience. It’s undeniable. However, where we end up is not inevitable. Nurture has at least as important a role as nature. I used to be a bit daunted by the people in the weights section at the gym, heavily muscled and confident specimens stalking around the equipment as if they owned the place, occasionally grabbing hold of some colossal bits of metal and wrestling them into submission before grunting and moving on to the next unsuspecting piece of apparatus. This was until I realised that they hadn’t become like this spontaneously but had developed themselves over time, with regular practice and commitment and maybe some pain. I’ve heard physios encouraging people to keep doing their exercises, advising them that they should be aiming to stretch their muscles and cause them to ache because that’s the only way they will ever strengthen them. When you exercise, you need to get your heart rate up for it to do you some good, which isn’t always comfortable.

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So it’s good news for all of us, particularly if we are feeling life’s challenges. The route to resilience is adversity – getting through it, and learning from it. Machine parts are tested before they leave the factory, to ensure they are strong enough. In the same way that a person who never makes a mistake never learns anything, you can’t be resilient if you have never suffered any setbacks. I’m not suggesting you go seeking adversity, or deliberately make decisions that are likely to have a bad outcome, but its ok and indeed necessary to endure traumas to build resilience. In the same way however that an athlete would prepare to compete, there are of course things that we can do to prepare ourselves for life’s challenges.

My top tips for developing resilience, based on my own life and what I have learnt from others, include:

  1. Self nurture. Sleeping well, being physically active and eating a healthy varied diet will mean that we are physically and mentally in as good a place as possible to take on whatever comes our way each day. Relaxation is an important part of this too, setting aside some regular time that is just for you. That could include reading, listening to music or meditating.
  2. Good connections. With friends, family and other people that you have a shared interest with. Prioritise the positive relationships with people that encourage and support you, and who you can do the same for. Put dates in the diary to make sure it happens, or it won’t. If you have kids, make sure that they have positive, nurturing relationships in their life. These could be with friends, teachers, relatives, health care practitioners and of course…parents! It can be vital to be able to ask others for help when we feel we don’t have the strength for ourselves.
  3. Positive action. Take a positive attitude towards your abilities and encourage yourself, especially in difficult situations. Be assertive and open in your relationships, whether personal or professional. Set goals in the short, medium and long term and make a plan for how you are going to achieve them, breaking it down day by day and moment by moment if need be.
  4. Develop new skills and hobbies. You could learn a new language or take up an instrument. This is good for your brain, encourages further social networking and helps with practising delayed gratification. This is particularly important for children who have been born into this era of instant gratification and rarely having to wait for anything for any significant length of time.
  5. Learn from challenges. Whether it’s a mistake that you made, or something beyond your control that happened, take time to reflect on how it made you feel and what you can learn from it or do differently next time. If you have kids, it’s important to let them make decisions and live with the consequences. Obviously you have to pick and choose depending on the stakes for their immediate health and wellbeing. Resist being a helicopter parent. It’s understandable but rubbish preparation for life and not in your child’s long term interests. If you wrap them up in cotton wool, they will just break later in life when you may not be around to support and encourage them. Better to let them make mistakes at a younger age and be stronger and wiser for it.
  6. Practice gratitude. This is such a simple and yet profound thing to do. I would be willing to bet that if you are reading this blog you have at least one thing in your life to feel grateful for, no matter how bad today or this week or month has been. You can start with the very basic stuff (like being born!), narrow it down a bit (like living in a democratic society in here in the UK where you are allowed to express and practice your beliefs) and then focus on the more personal and specific things you are thankful for like the place where you live, your friends and family…maybe even your job!

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I hope you have found some of these tips helpful. Remember – we should not and cannot avoid adversity in life. It’s the route to resilience and can make us stronger.

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