I once thought it would be a great idea to hike a steep hill on a hot, hot Australian day. I’m not sure quite what got into me that day as it’s not my usual style. For some reason, it seemed like a fun and spontaneous thing to do.
The problem was, when I got to the bottom of the hill ready to start walking, I realised I only had a few gulps of water left in my drink bottle. “Bugger it” I thought to myself. “I’ve got this far, if I turn back now I’ll be really annoyed with myself”. So off I went!
As the minutes wore on, the path became steeper than I’d imagined when I looked up from the bottom. Sweat poured from every part of my body. Tiny rivulets of water dribbling down my chest and between my butt cheeks.
The exertion was hard and I was increasingly anxious about how I would cope without water. My mind began to serve up thoughts like.
“I wonder if I’ll get heat stroke?”
“This is a nightmare, I can’t believe I didn’t bring more water”
“I’m such an idiot”
“I should never have started this”
“I shouldn’t have come out on my own”
With those thoughts pulsing in my head, I had an overwhelming urge to gulp down every last drop of water in my bottle and run back down the hill. In that moment I had a couple of choices: go with those thoughts or create some space in my mind to choose how to get through.
Resilience isn’t always easy
In reality, I did both of those things! I spent some futile minutes battling internally and making my distress worse - don’t we all do that sometimes? Adding my judgements of myself to compound my misery!
But I did manage to calm my mind by pausing and taking a breath.
“How else could I do this?”
I began to focus on setting little goals for when I would have my next sip of water. I’d look ahead and set myself a target ... “when I reach that rock I’ll take another sip”
That focus helped me eke out my water supply with the added benefit of taking my thinking away from the unhelpful looping I’d been doing.
Then I let my mind imagine reaching the top and the feel of the cool breeze that would be waiting for me. I let my attention and imagination hold it vividly, as if it was already happening.
Now, when I reflect on that walk, I don’t tend to think of the ways it was badly planned and uncomfortable. I think of those heady moments when I reached the top and my imagined result came true.
When resilience is hard to find
Right now it feels a little bit like life is a sweaty hike without enough water. Or maybe a cold, wet and muddy one here in the UK. There’s so much pressure and uncertainty.
One thing us humans are NOT wired to cope well with is uncertainty. It’s one of the hardest things to manage because it triggers us into hyper vigilance. That feeling of being constantly on edge and looking out for the next disaster.
I can truthfully say that for a month or so I haven’t been feeling very resilient. I’m feeling brighter now, but I’ll come on to that in a bit!
For me that looked like:
feeling emotional and anxious
becoming more reactive to things that happen
finding it more difficult to get over small setbacks
judging myself harshly
isolating myself and doing less of the things that nourish me
In fact it can be a bit of a vicious cycle. Perhaps you recognise it?
Some external event happens that presents a challenge.
That triggers thoughts like “this is so difficult”, “how am I going to cope?”, “this is a disaster”, “other people would be handling this better than me …”
Which leads to feelings of anxiety, frustration, anger …
Which leads to reacting in a knee jerk way to the challenge, possibly exacerbating it and making it worse …
Or trying to avoid the situation through distraction or procrastination …
Then repeat Steps 2 and 3:
Which creates more of those difficult thoughts and feelings …
Which leads to feeling unable to cope with the situation …
Which leads to more of that unhelpful behaviour …
And then another loop around begins!
Sound familiar?! It’s exhausting just to think about it, let alone when we’re living it too.
Where’s my resilience?
Resilience is a funny thing.
It doesn’t mean that you never fall down or experience distress. It instead refers to your ability to bounce back and respond. (Read on to the end to find out about the amazing guest expert who will be joining me this month to explore this).
It also doesn’t mean stoically battling on without any kindness for yourself. It’s really about trust: trusting our ability to meet whatever life brings with compassion and wisdom.
It turns out it’s something we all have the capacity for. It’s hard wired in to us by evolution according to author Linda Graham (‘Bouncing Back: Rewiring the Brain for Resilience and Wellbeing’).
So what are the ingredients we need to cultivate resiliency?
Let’s go back to that vicious cycle for a moment…it will give us some clues for the elusive ‘resiliency’!
We have a tendency to think that when something happens then there’s a direct consequence. That’s true to an extent of course but it misses a crucial piece of the puzzle that provides us with our opportunity to build resilience.
That missing ingredient is our thoughts and beliefs.
Everything that happens to us is filtered, whether consciously or not, through that lens.
How do we know that’s true? Take a simple example of a dog running towards someone whilst wagging its tail.
Person A, who loves dogs and has always had positive experiences with them, thinks “aw look at that puppy!” and feels excited to have a play so leans down, ready to give it a stroke.
Person B, who was bitten by a big dog in the park as a child and has always been nervous of them, thinks “oh no, it’s running at me. Maybe it’s going to jump up at me” and feels scared so turns away to avoid the dog.
Exact same dog but two very different reactions.
The only difference comes from the thoughts and beliefs they had, which are a combination of their thoughts in that moment but also all the accumulated experiences they’ve had that have created their beliefs.
So the “magic moment” comes from being able to do something about that step between the stimulus and the response.
So what does all this have to do with meditation and mindfulness?
You knew I’d get to that eventually, right? Well this is the cool part about resilience.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
This is at the heart of how to build resilience and it’s one of the major side effects of building practices like meditation and mindfulness.
Learning to notice what’s happening in your mind when that stimulus hits and then practicing choosing your response.
That doesn’t mean simply “choosing happy thoughts”.
It means recognising that the way we perceive the stressors in our life directly impacts how we feel in response.
From that noticing, there are so many ways we can shift how we respond. No magic bullets, just moment by moment shifts.
This is how I managed my own slide into low resiliency recently.
The first step was becoming aware of the unhelpful thoughts and beliefs that were driving my behaviour. That’s not always comfortable - it often feels much easier to distract myself on my phone or being extra busy.
But once I was able to shine that light, by doubling down on the practices I’d neglected, then I could unhook and make choices about what might help.
Often what we overlook is the simplest things: sleep, eating well, creating space in our days and most of all showing ourselves some friendliness and compassion in our discomfort.
What comes after resiliency?
For true resiliency, we need to think about what happens next.
Do we want to return to how things were or do we want to use our falls and stumbles to give us a new way to experience our life?
We’ve probably all been faced with thinking about this in one way or another after the rollercoaster ride of the last couple of years (that doesn’t seem set to slow anytime soon). How am I going to be in the aftermath of everything we’ve experienced?
If you’d like a safe space to explore your inner world and find your own resilience road map, then do get in touch. You can find out more about Be.Membership here which will give you some amazing tools along the way.
You can also book a discovery call with me to begin your personal journey here.
Want to know more about resiliency from an expert?
Then join me and this months FREE Guest Expert, Nicky Lowe, on Tuesday 22 November at 11am so you can reclaim your resilience. She’ll be sharing the theory and application of resilience using a practical and evidence based approach.
She’ll be highlighting why women in particular have seen their resilience impacted and what specifically we can do to reclaim our resilience.
This session is for you if:
you feel like your ability to thrive has taken a knock the last couple of years
you struggle to recover when challenges hit, so it feels like life is relentless
you want to take back control and feel empowered to cope and thrive with whatever life throws your way
You’ll leave the session:
understanding why women in particular have had a resilience battering
knowing how to reclaim your resilience
with practical steps you can take right now
You can book your free spot here.
See you soon
Laura @ Be.
p.s. - Just in case you missed it, you can build your resilience muscles with the amazing resources in the Be.Membership here and don’t forget to sign up for this months FREE guest expert session here