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
When you're navigating midlife, it can feel a little bit like life is a sweaty hike without enough water (especially if hot flashes are part of your world). Or maybe a cold, wet and muddy one here in the UK. There’s so much pressure and uncertainty plus your body is often changing in unexpected ways.
One thing we humans are NOT wired to cope well with is uncertainty.
It’s one of the hardest things to manage because it triggers our nervous system into hyper vigilance. That's not just with external events, but also with our internal physiology. That manifests as that feeling of being constantly on edge and looking out for the next disaster. When your hormones fluctuate from month to month in peri-menopause, it's the changeability that's one of the biggest culprits in why you feel so bad. Your body is craving the stability and certainty of when your cycle was more predictable.
I can truthfully say that I went through a spell recently where I wasn't 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, rage…
Which leads to reacting in a knee-jerk way to the challenge, possibly exacerbating it and making it worse or creating problems in relationships …
Or trying to avoid the situation through distraction, procrastination or unhealthy coping (hello biscuit cupboard) …
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. 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. Then, their respective beliefs can inadvertently get reinforced: the happy dog-lover gets a loving greeting and gives the dog a pat...reminding them why they love dogs so much. The anxious dog-avoider triggers the dog to wonder if maybe there's an issue and so it jumps up on them..making them even more afraid for next time.
The difference comes from the thoughts and beliefs they had, which are a combination of their thoughts and experiences 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. That's why I believe so passionately in meditation and mindfulness because it will help you create space in your mind to see things differently..
THIS is the start point for building resilience. Being able to create your "choice point" moment so you can respond instead of reacting
“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 idea 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 practising choosing your response.
That doesn’t mean simply “choosing happy thoughts”. It means recognising that the way you perceive the stressors in your life directly impacts how you feel in response. No magic bullets, just moment by moment opportunities to respond.
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 make myself extra busy. But once I was able to shine that light through 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: getting enough 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?
If you’d like a safe space to explore your inner world and find your own resilience road map, then do get in touch. Unpicking these patterns and creating new and exciting ways to live your life is exactly the work I do using Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy.
So if there are blocks and beliefs that you suspect are holding you back, find out more about working 1:1 with me and book a free discovery call here.
Want to start building those awareness skills?
You can get started right away with building your resilience muscles with the amazing resources in the Be. Membership here. You'll begin with the 21-day Calm and Clarity Reset as soon as you join, where you'll be guided step by step to build helpful new practices.
You can also month's sign up for this month's FREE guest expert session here. I host a new guest expert each month to provide my members with more knowledge and support. We have a great library in the membership.
See you soon
Laura @ Be.