- Wednesday 07 February 2024
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We all deal with frazzled, harried, extremely stressed-out people… including ourselves. There are days where it feels like everything is going wrong and these are often the moments in any job, project, or career where you want to quit.
Over the next two weeks, I thought it would be worth focusing on the not-quitting option: resilience. We hear this issue get discussed a great deal but usually from a purely emotional perspective. Conveniently, experts say, the only thing you need to do is wait and believe (or maybe buy something) and everything is going to work out. Just keep smiling.
Maybe. Maybe not.
But, if you’re willing to try, there are scientific insights that can help. In fact, for people struggling for resilience, studies show a significant improvement by just doing five things. So, what are those things?
1. Emotional Regulation
There are moments where things get bad and we feel held hostage by our emotions. This is the first step toward wanting to throw your hands up and quit. What we need to do is get a handle on those feelings so we can think straight. And that’s what Emotional Regulation does: allows us to flexibly manage our emotions so we can make smart decisions.
So how do we do this? There are two steps.
The first is to slow down and make some space between your negative emotions and your behaviours. Impulsivity is the enemy.
A collection of brain cells have mutinied and are telling you this situation is overwhelming. They are imposters in your head, pretending to be “you”. They’re not you. They’re just feelings. We will listen to what they have to say, but first we need to realize they are just offering one narrative, not the whole story.
So, notice and name your emotions. Identify them and see them as “other”. Not you. Also, if it helps, focus on your body. Naming emotions and focusing on the body should slow their impact, allowing you to bring back logical thought.
That leads to the second step: reappraise. This is a tool from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It’s a process of questioning: Is this situation objectively that bad? Is what the feelings are saying true or an exaggeration? Have you successfully handled analogous situations before? And most importantly: Are these feelings useful?
Sometimes that’s all it takes. Logic comes in and tells you you’re overreacting. Your rational brain hits the override switch and reroutes mental energy to bring up your emotional shields. And you calm down.
But sometimes this is only the start. You’ve dampened the feelings of worry and doom but aren’t steady enough to get going again. What attitude do we need?
Under moments of extreme stress or anxiety, the lenses you see the world through are often tinted with worry and sorrow. You might think that in your situation, anyone would give up… but that’s not true. Back in the 1960’s, a series of studies were published about “learned helplessness.” The idea was that when things feel futile, we all become depressed and give up.
The fascinating aspect of the study was that around a third of subjects in the study never gave up, and it was primarily due to their perspective. These people saw setbacks as temporary (“This will blow over”), local (“it’s a one-time problem”) and controllable (“I can fix this”). This narrative allowed them to cope. The simple word for it: optimism.
We think some situations are “bad” and others “not so bad” but what we often forget is those categories are subjective. As the research author noted, “How tolerable a situation feels grows out of our belief about whether we can do anything to escape it.” The key word there is “belief.”
When we’re optimistic, we keep trying because we believe it’s going to work out. Sometimes it’s not an issue of making the situation objectively better; it’s just an issue of seeing it in a way that keeps you going.
So how do we become more optimistic? The proven intervention that helps here is called “Best Possible Self.” Pick a future time frame, maybe 15 years from now. Imagine everything in your life has gone right. You’ve got the career you want, success, good relationships – basically, everything you’ve dreamed of. Write about this for 10 minutes. Explore what you’d do in this scenario. How would you spend your time? What does it feel like?
You have no excuse not to do this. You’re basically being told to fantasize in writing for 10 minutes. Over 30 studies show this exercise works. It not only increases levels of optimism but also improves the mental health of those who do it.
Now, assume you have Emotional Regulation and an Optimistic attitude. But what if you’re naturally someone who fears the worst when things get hard and that overrides everything?
3. Cognitive Agility
What’s the most determinant trait that best predicts poor resilience? Catastrophizing. This is immediately jumping to the worst-case scenario in times of uncertainty. A loved one is 15 minutes late to meet? They must have been in an accident.
Needless to say, spending your time dwelling on the most awful things that could possibly happen is not good. A large-scale study of 70,000 soldiers from the 2010’s showed a strong correlation between those who naturally catastrophized and those who were likely to develop PTSD.
One potential ally is “Cognitive Agility.” This is the ability to consider many possibilities before focusing and acting on one. Cognitive Agility gives you options – and focuses on the most realistic one, not the most frightening. So how do you increase Cognitive Agility? By using an exercise called “Putting It In Perspective.” The next time something concerning happens and your mind screams the worst possible scenario at you, take a minute to generate more options. A menu of perspectives.
Let’s take the example of the loved one running late. Draw a line on a piece of paper and write “Worst” on the far left and “Best” at the far right. Under “Worst” write “Massive Car Crash” and under “Best” write “Bought me an amazing present on the way”. Now think of three “most likely” scenarios and put them along the middle of the line.
One of your “most likely” scenarios could be “caught in traffic and phone battery died” or maybe “forgot when we were meeting”. What would you bet your savings on; laziness or multi-vehicle collision? This is how you sharpen your Occam’s Razor and realise things aren’t as bad as your first reaction tells you they are.
NEXT WEEK: Self Compassion and Self Efficacy, plus putting it all together