Resilience (the ability to bounce back from set-backs and cope effectively with stress) is quite a buzz word at the moment. Yet there seems to be very few practical tools, techniques or advice on how to get this elusive yet necessary quality needed to survive in our ever changing world.
Change is inevitable, and ironically in these times of pervasive uncertainty, change is the only thing you can really be certain to happen. In fact it can quite often feel that one change hasn’t finished before the next one begins. AND, on top of implementing the never ending list of new initiatives you’re also expected to get on with the day job too.
The thing is, this kind of scenario isn’t going to go away; it’s not something you can patiently wait to pass. In fact if the rate of technological and social change continues at its current pace, if anything, our working lives are likely to get more complex, more full on and more ambiguous. To deal with this we often think if I just work harder, longer and faster, that will get me through.
But have you noticed…… that’s not working! The to-do lists never get shorter, the changes never stop coming.
We have to face it, there will never be enough time to do everything that’s on that to-do list, and working longer hours in the hope to just survive it, really isn’t the solution.
So, whether you’re going through organisational changes, or whether you’ve just got too much to do, developing some habits of resilience can help you to not just simply survive the ambiguity or adversity of your working life, but in fact enable you to positively thrive on it or at least learn to deal more effectively and happily with it.
I’m not talking about knowing how to prioritise or work smarter here (though I do believe they are useful approaches) what I’m talking about is the step you need to take before beginning to prioritise or smartify the way you work; a step that will actually help you do both better. That step is about managing your frame of mind.
In fact, from my work as a coach and research I have done on the subject, I have discovered that the most resilient people seem to do the following things on a regular basis:
- They are aware of what they are feeling and thinking
- They challenge and choose what they focus on
- They manage their energy or state not their time
How often do you ask yourself ‘how do I feel right now? I’d hazard a guess that most of the time your answer is – not very often. Interestingly though this could be the very question that could dramatically help you become more resilient and cope better with stressful situations.
Research has shown (as seen in Shawn Achor‘s book – The Happiness Advantage) that the people who recover most quickly from stress or are best able to deal with set-backs are those who are able to identify and articulate how they feel.
Neuroscience can help throw some light on why this might be.
Our brain’s main purpose is to help us survive, and so if it feels like we are in danger, it will prepare our body to be able to fight or run away (known as the fight or flight response). This is an automatic response to protect us. However our brain doesn’t distinguish between danger that is real in the form of a life threatening situation or perceived in the form of a demanding and unreasonable boss. Therefore it will trigger the same reaction for both types of situations. It has actually been discovered that financial losses are registered is the same part of the brain as mortal danger. The more this response is triggered and the part of the brain involved in our emotional responses (the limbic system) engaged, the less able the pre-frontal cortex is to function.
Why this is a problem is that the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain which enables us to think rationally (something we need to be able to do when prioritising our workloads). Do you ever notice how when a friend or colleague is so overcome with emotion they just can’t think straight, whereas for you who might be less involved emotionally, the solution feels really obvious. Your friend is suffering from over-arousal of the Limbic system which is stopping them think clearly.
- recognising how you feel,
- expressing it,
- saying it out loud
- or writing it down,
…you can begin to defuse the effect of the emotion and therefore better engage your rational thinking.
It is remarkable how simply saying things out loud not only reduces the impact of the emotion, but can help you to either clarify what you are thinking or be able to challenge it.
Those who suppress or ignore their emotions and think just because you have stopped it surfacing you have things under control – be warned! All the reactions in your brain and body associated with that emotion will still be occurring. So even if you suppress it, the hormones associated with stress for example (adrenalin and cortisol) will still be released and having an effect on you and your body. Some of the long term effects of this can include a weakening of both your immune and digestive systems.
Therefore rather than pushing away an emotion so you can just get on with the day, a more helpful approach would be to spend a bit of time acknowledging how you feel. This will reduce the impact of that emotion on your brain and body and begin to help you think more rationally.
I really believe you have the capacity to solve any of the problems life throws at you, but being hijacked by emotion will inhibit your ability to do this.
Deal with the emotion first and the thinking second.
Okay so I know in the real world you can’t just cry in front of your boss or tell your colleague how angry you are. I know culturally it’s not the done thing, and probably something you don’t feel you have time to do either. But, there are things you can do which can fit into your day to day life.
Here are 3 suggestions on what you could do to manage your emotions:
- Find a Safe Ear. There is probably someone with whom you feel you can express things more easily to (and if not it might be an idea to start to look for them). Why not make an agreement with that person to be the sounding board for each other whenever an emotion takes over. That way you won’t have to explain (mid emotional hijack) what’s going on or why you need it, your friend will just know.
- Set ‘How am I feeling’ alarms. Once you have a Safe Ear lined up, The only thing you have to do then is to become aware of the emotions you are feeling, particularly when those emotions hijack you. This of course isn’t always as easy or obvious as it sounds. But you can build a habit of checking in with yourself so that it eventually becomes more automatic and takes less energy and focus to do. Try setting little alarms throughout the day that just trigger you to ask the question – How do I feel right now? There’s a great app called Emojiary that can also help you set up reminders on your phone to record and track how you feel throughout the day.
- Know your signs. Finally, get really familiar with your signs that you’ve been hijacked. These might be emotional, physical, behavioural, or cognitive. My signs are hunched shoulders, inability to focus, procrastinating and feeling irritable (I’m normally quite a smiley, driven person). So get to know your signs, watch out for them, and then when you spot them, don’t just ignore them and crack on with the day, take action to address them. This is all about state management, which I will talk more about in a later blog.
All this focus on your emotions will enable you to become much more self-aware around how your emotions affect you throughout the day. Becoming more aware is the first and probably most important step on the journey to developing habits that will enable you to be more resilient.
In my next blog I will look at the second quality of resilient people which is to Challenge and change what you focus on. But for now, before you rush off on to the next thing you’re going to do…..I’ll leave you with this question – how are you feeling right now?
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