“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”
― Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
Resilience. Very nearly every self-help article on LinkedIn, every podcast, every trending Instagram #tag is about resilience and how to develop more of it. Especially during a pandemic. In winter.
Resilence is toughness: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; a postive capacity to cope with stress”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well sure.
I don’t know about you, but as of late I’ve been all out of resilience. My good humor has been paper-thin. My temper on a rolling-boil. My ‘quick fixes’ for my seasonal affective disorder (cycling, kayaking, going to the pub, seeing actual real human beings) largely canceled because of lockdown 2.0 here in the UK. The news is on repeat: people are still dying; the economy is still tanking.
I’ve begun to think: is it me? Am I lacking resilience?
So I turned to the many articles about resilience…which invariably encourage you to be.… more resilient. ‘Self-help’ culture can, inadvertently, become just another reason to feel inadequate. Another thing we worry we’re not very good at.
You’re Not Feeling Your Strongest, and That’s Okay
I feel popular psychology puts the onus too often on individuals. By focusing on ‘how to develop resilience’ we are letting the real villain of the piece get away scot-free. The real villain is, let us agree, all the sh*t we have to deal with: COVID, joblessness, separation from families, fear of the future.
So, first off, take a deep breath, and stop worrying about your capacity to cope with these many stressors. Your resilience is low because it damned well should be.
A recent study by the Mental Health Foundation showed, between April to August 2020, interviewees’ reported they were coping less and less well with the stress of the pandemic (despite the good weather and the gradual removal of most lockdown restrictions).
In August 2020 only 56% of 18–24 year olds thought they were coping fairly/very well with the stress of the pandemic, down from 64% in April. Interviewees reported a range of challenges that were denting their resilience: loneliness, a lack of intimacy for those not in a relationship, the fear and uncertainty regarding the future.
Can You Really Increase Your Resilience With a Walk in the Park?
One of the positive aspects of the pandemic has been the acknowledgement and support for mental health issues. But how useful are the stress reduction techniques they advocate? Coping strategies, according to PsychologyToday (and many others) invariably include exercising, getting more sleep, eating well, and maintaining contact with family and friends.
The Mental Health Foundation survey found that these stress-reducing activities during COVID all helped. But as we saw, they didn’t reverse the trend of a decreasing ability to cope.
And let’s be honest here, these ‘go for a nice walk’ pieces of advice can seem simplistic and patronising. Let’s say you’ve lost your job in the pandemic, and your ageing father is seriously unwell. A brisk stroll and a tofu wrap is not going to do it.
So, let’s start over, by taking a step back…
1. Recognise Just How Stressful ‘Very Stressful’ Is
There is a often a lack of recognition about the ‘scale’ of stress. The popular advice likes to play this down, for fear perhaps of encouraging negative thoughts.
But research by psychologists Yerkes & Dodson in 1908 plotted the relationship between anxiety and performance. They, and many researchers since, have found that performance increases with ‘arousal’ (pressure, stress), but only up to a point. Beyond an optimal level, your performance, and your ability to cope, reduces as the stress increases.
So the very first thing to do is: plot where you think you are on the graph.
If you are normally on the left hand side then you are probably suffering ‘good stress’ i.e. the amount you need to motivate you to crack on with life.
But let’s say the stress or ‘arousal’ suddenly increases, dramatically, for reasons outside of your control. This is the scenario many of us have suffered this year. We have gone from the middle or left hand side to the right hand side very quickly. Without warning, our ability to cope decreases swiftly. We are no longer ‘just stressed’ we’re edging towards ‘dysfunctional’.
It’s a bit of a cosmic joke. At the very moment you need to rely on your inner-strength your resilience is massively compromised.
2. Get Some Help — Don’t Brush It Off
People like to soldier-on don’t they? I think this tendency is worse in the pandemic. Because people know it is a global problem affecting nearly everyone, they feel that their own personal stress about it is not really worthy of attention. The sheer scale of it sort of de-legitimises their suffering.
‘Getting some help’ could be as simple as talking about things to friends and family. Or it could mean getting professional help from a counsellor, therapist or coach. But the most important step is the hardest for many of us — admitting you need some help. If you’re a man, it’s worse:
Men tend to not engage in help-seeking behavior and downplay their physical and mental health symptoms. Our desire to be Superman is our Kryptonite. Dan Bates, PsychologyToday
So don’t delay, ask for help. There is nothing weak about that.
3. Lighten the Load: Channel Your Inner Sloth
This soldiering-on instinct can be a little dangerous. Because you are dealing with a whole lot more stress than normal, you actually need to reduce your stressors. Not soldier-on.
A recent HBR article highlighted this tendency:
Our work lives have become increasingly demanding, presenting us with ever more complex challenges at a near-relentless pace. Add in personal or family needs, and it’s easy to feel constantly overwhelmed [or] “in over our heads.” The complexity of our world has surpassed our “complexity of mind”. This has nothing to do with how smart we are, but with how we make sense of the world and how we operate in it.
Yes, reducing your obligations is difficult and it takes courage and time. But it might be easier than you think.
A couple of weeks ago I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. I was fractious, out of sorts. So I sat down and simply wrote out how I was spending my work/study time. I’m trying to build a coaching business, complete a MSc, and run research projects into countering organized crime.
In short, I was doing too much, and it was leaving no time for family, sport, or of course watching ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.
I carefully replanned my time: I deferred part of my Masters, and reduced some other activities. It wasn’t instant (as it’s important to give people time to adjust to your needs, for them and you) but as soon as I had made some decisions, I felt so much better.
4. Find Your Own Version of ‘Outdoor Walks’
Finally, do invest time in resilience or stress reduction strategies. Just don’t don’t necessarily do the ones suggested by the ‘experts’. Everyone has things that bring them joy. Try to choose something that’s just fun, and not ‘performative’ (where you’ll be judging your performance against someone’s personal best).
Actually the more random and pointless the task the better. I like this list, that includes the gems ‘apply pressure between your second and third knuckles’ and ‘stand near a plant’. The point is — in a performance-driven world — you’re doing something that achieves nothing, which is actually quite mindful.
And don’t forget, mediation using mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness feels a little zeitgeist-y, what with all podcasts, courses, books and t-shirts about it. But at its best, it’s just you, sitting down, breathing calmly, and taking your mind off your worries for 10 minutes, which is priceless.
Perhaps real resilience begins when we recognise that sometimes we’re not.
At its simplest what I did, and what I hope you will do, was give myself a break. I forgave myself for not being able to work 7 days-a-week in a stressful lockdown during a global pandemic. I gave myself license to ease up on my work. To be a little feckless — a little idle. Try it — because you deserve a break too. A break from being resilient. Everyone does.