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Building resilience during challenging times

Mental health · Sep 10, 2021

If there’s one word that captures the grit and tenacity demonstrated by Canadians throughout this pandemic, it’s resilience. Most of us have had to pivot from our usual lifestyles and adopt new patterns of work and personal relationships, which has allowed us to sustain and even grow our connections with the important people in our lives. 

Resilience is sometimes viewed as static – you’re either resilient or you’re not – but our ability to adapt during this challenging time has demonstrated, for many of us, that resilience is dynamic. In fact, we can build or bolster our own resilience and also encourage and support its development within our families, our communities, and our workplaces.

We’re all born with a hard-wired drive to be our best selves and live our life to its full potential. You might be thinking about the 12- to 19-year-old in their bedroom upstairs and wonder if that’s really true, but, while we’re all unique individuals, no one starts out dreaming of a life without success. The drive to live our best life is always there, but the inevitable challenges of life can sometimes get in the way. Resilience is not just the ability to survive the adversity we face, but to emerge from it even stronger.

Some people are born with a temperament that is innately resilient, while others are, naturally or through difficult life experiences, more vulnerable to the effects of crisis or adversity. However, regardless of how you popped out of the womb or the adversity you’ve endured, you can learn to be more resilient and help others around you to build the same critical life skills.

Fake it til’ you make it

More good news: the more resilient you behave, the more resilient you will become. That’s because your brain changes as you learn new skills. The scientific term is neuroplasticity, which means the more you use a group of neurons (brain cells) together, the stronger their connections become. The more you practice a new skill, the more your brain actually becomes “wired” to help you to perform that skill with less effort. I like the example of riding a bike or learning to drive a standard shift car; for most of us, it was really challenging in the beginning, especially when starting on a hill! However, once you practice a new skill and use it regularly, your brain becomes wired to do it and it becomes second-nature.

It’s important to recognize that building resilience is hard work - you’ll have setbacks along with the wins - but all the time and energy you put into building your resilience skills will pay great dividends.

The roots of resilience

Resilience is rooted in a few key cognitive or thinking skills. One such skill is the ability to set realistic expectations. I believe that expectations kill happiness; when your expectations are not aligned with your reality, you’ll experience stress. If your expectations are constantly misaligned with your reality, it’s impossible to feel fulfilled and to live your best life. This applies to the expectations you place on yourself and on others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try hard and do your best. It does mean it’s important to ensure the expectations you place on yourself, your family members and your colleagues are fair, that everyone has the right tools, and that you give yourself and others the flexibility necessary to find success.

There’s no such thing as normal

The second key skill that supports resilience is the ability to anticipate and adapt to change. Life is not static; our bodies, minds and environments change constantly. Those who acknowledge and embrace this truth are usually more resilient because they are more cognitively and emotionally prepared for the twists and turns of life, making them more agile and able to roll with the punches.

Our brain naturally simplifies the world around us. Without that ability, we’d be overwhelmed by too many sensations coming at us simultaneously and less able to make decisions or respond to a threat. For instance, when I’m approached by an aggressive dog, I don’t focus on the blossoming hydrangea beside him; I’m laser focused on the sights and sounds associated with the dog. The down side of our brain’s ability to simplify is that we might miss important clues that tell us something unexpected is happening. Too often, we fail to listen to our gut (usually to our peril) because that gut feeling is almost always telling us, “Something is different here. Pay attention.”

Resilient people expect and are prepared for change, which is inevitable, and they listen to their gut, but they’re not ruled by it, because it might just be telling them that they’ve eaten a bad burrito.

You can only control you

The third skill, which is a tough one to learn, is acceptance that the only human being on earth you can control is you. While it’s difficult to accept and live this belief, once you do, you’ll realize it’s an incredible gift. That’s because trying to control another person – whether it’s a spouse, child, co-worker or friend – is never going to end with success.

Feeling unable to control yourself can make you feel vulnerable and provoke symptoms of anxiety and depression. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is designed to help regain a sense of control over one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You might not believe it’s possible to have that sort of personal control, but I want to assure you that with a strong personal desire and, if necessary, the right therapist or CBT program, we all have an enormous capacity to change. We just can’t change anyone else. If they wish to change, that’s up to them, but you can only truly control you.

Be kind

Finally, resilience is built, every single day, through our own ‘self-talk’, also known as our internal narrative. While we adults, including myself and my doctor colleagues, like to think our beliefs and decisions are based on facts and evidence, in reality, we all fall prey to confirmation bias. This refers to the natural tendency to look for, recall or interpret information that backs up our beliefs, and disregard data that challenges or contradicts them. The same is true regarding the beliefs and decisions we make about ourselves.

If your self-talk is harsh and judgemental, negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours are likely to follow. Additionally, if you have a negative internal narrative, you’re more likely to view the words and behaviours of those around you through that same dark lens. To create positive life changes and build your resilience, you need to speak more empathetically and kindly to yourself.

It’s also infectious – our negativity can lead those living or working with us to be more negative.

Negative self-talk drives stress and anxiety. The more negative your thinking is, the more your brain becomes wired to think negatively, because chronic negative thinking is also a result of neurogenesis. It’s also infectious – our negativity can lead those living or working with us to be more negative. It’s important to encourage yourself and others to think innovatively and question constructively, and it’s ok to voice a complaint or grumble about something you’re not happy about. However, as quickly as possible, it’s important to shift the focus from the complaint to a potential solution.

This pandemic has been like a mountain we’ve had to climb together, sometimes while feeling very alone. Think of resilience as the tools you depended on to climb that mountain, including the ability to prepare for the climb appropriately, expecting and adapting to changing conditions, persevering despite some unexpected challenges, taking care of yourself and celebrating successes along the way. I hope you’re now descending that mountain, after a couple of vaccinations, and you’re feeling a little more confident that there’s a clear path ahead. We’re all tired from a momentous climb, so please be kind to yourself and continue to work on the skills that will prepare you for the new opportunities and challenges ahead.

Authored by:
Dr. Diane McIntosh
Chief neuroscience officer, TELUS