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Building Resilience: How to Thrive Through Life's Challenges


woman sitting at the beach on stairs

Stress and crises are an unfortunate part of life, but how can we stay mentally healthy when they occur? 


Resilience is our ability to adapt to challenges and stressors in our life. We will all face them at some point in our lives but, the more resilient we are, the easier we find it to “bounce back”. Luckily, resilience isn’t something we either have or don’t have; it's something we can cultivate.


Being resilient can protect you from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and help you cope with things like bullying and trauma. Our mental health sits on a continuum that ranges from surviving to thriving, and depending on what is happening in our lives it slides up and down. One in five Kiwis will experience mental distress or illness in their lifetimes.


There's a metaphor in psychology that refers to the sensitivity of children. The idea is that some children are  like dandelions and they can grow in any environment. Other children are like orchids: they need very particular conditions and the right environment to grow and thrive. And this extends into adulthood. I'm definitely a dandelion. You can put me anywhere and I will be fine but some people will find it harder to be resilient due to their nature.


So, how can we build resilience so we can thrive through life's challenges?


Social Support

They say, “It takes a village to raise a child” but we actually need a community around us our whole lives. It's a protective factor for longevity, as shown in the ‘Blue Zones’, and research shows loneliness is as dangerous for our health as smoking a packet of cigarettes. We all need three friends we could call in the middle of the night in a crisis; who would yours be?


Role Models

It can be helpful to have some resilience role models in your life to remind you, ‘If they can get through that, then I can get through whatever I am going through’. There’s a famous quote from Holocaust survivor, Vikor Frankl, who lost his wife and family to the gas chambers, but managed to survive three years in concentration camps: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It reminds us that when you can’t change your external situation you can change your mindset.


Optimism

Resilient people are more optimistic, they believe things will work out. It's important to take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. Self-critical thoughts can ruin your day or even your life. Cultivate optimism by looking at what you are consuming - news, social media, books and podcasts. Are they helping or harming you? Assess whether the people in your life drain your energy or fill your cup, and set healthy boundaries. Focus on what you can control in your life.


Lifestyle

There are three areas of our lifestyle that are within our control, that we should be focussing on. The first is sleep. Sleep is the most underrated performance tool we have and we should be getting seven hours minimum a night. The second is exercise. Ideally 150 mins a week,but anything is better than nothing. You don’t have to go to the gym. Doing chores, gardening, or even just parking further away from the supermarket all count as NEAT exercise. And finally: nutrition. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, but I love Michael Pollan’s quote; “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much” as a guideline.


Manage Stress

Healthy ways to manage stress are essential for resilience. I teach clients Box Breathing as it is a well researched tool used by Navy Seals but also by yogis, for centuries, to calm the nervous system. Find what works for you, it might be watching a funny movie, going for a run, having a coffee with a friend, having a massage, cooking or yoga. Have some tools in your toolbox and use them regularly. 


Resilient people know that shit happens. They are good at choosing where they focus their attention and knowing what they can change and accepting what they can't. Switch your attention to the positive and reflect: ‘Is what I'm doing helping or harming me?’


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