Keep calm and carry on (how to build your mental resilience)

9 September 2021 - 3-4 minute read

For some time now, the World Health Organisation has referred to stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century”.1 The constant pressures of modern life and our ‘always-on’ approach to working risks stress getting the better of us. Unfortunately, it’s not a culture that looks like changing any time soon either.

Yes, as if you didn’t need reminding just now, life is never perfect. Even if you’re relatively happy doing what you’re doing – at work, at home or in your social life – there will always be challenges, obstacles and setbacks that need to be overcome. 

And whether those challenges are big or small, expected or unforeseen, our success can depend upon our capacity to cope – or even thrive – when faced with the inevitable stresses and pressures they bring. In other words, it’s not simply a case of how smart or talented you are, but how mentally tough or resilient you are too. 

What is resilience?
In broad terms, resilience is a person’s capacity to respond to pressure and the daily demands and curveballs that life throws at you. Dig a little deeper into dictionary definitions and you’ll start to hear words like flexibility, durability, strength and speed of recovery – the ability to bounce back. 

For example, at work your resilience could be defined by your ability to deal with a heavy workload, constantly changing priorities, your relations with other team members or ongoing high-pressure situations where your decision making could make all the difference. Or at home it could mean successfully juggling parenthood while trying to earn a living and retain at least some time for yourself.

The good news is that, although some people are naturally more resilient than others, resilience is a skill. Which also means that, like any skill, it can be learned through practice.

Experiences v experience
Resilience is an active ongoing process, not a passive quality. Mentally tough individuals are made, not created, and history suggests that the most resilient people are not the ones who don’t fail, but rather the ones who do, learn from their mistakes and use those experiences to succeed moving forward. As Thomas Edison said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

You might think that’s all well and good coming from a renowned genius, but maybe that’s the whole point. The fact that Edison is still a household name is down to his refusal to give up – his ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’ approach to his work. It seems being challenged, slightly or severely, is what adds to our resilience armour and helps us to live more rewarding lives.

With this in mind, here are some of our top tips for developing your own mental resilience, so you can keep calm, carry on and stay motivated - no matter what the circumstances.

1. Learn from your mistakes
It’s very easy to feel angry, saddened or confused by a setback. You’re only human after all. But the key is not to dwell upon these negative emotions. Instead, try to switch your mind to why it happened so you can react to it practically, rather than respond to it emotionally. A great example of this would be Dan Carter – part of the reason for his sporting success was that even if he made a mistake, he didn’t let it cloud his judgment or affect his confidence during a game. He simply understood, drew a line under that mistake, and made sure he did better next time.

2. Build your support network
Of course not even an All Black can do it alone. Like football, life is a team game, and that team spreads way beyond those directly involved in whatever is causing you stress. Support and mentorship can come in many shapes and forms; from your partner, friends, colleagues, anyone who is willing to lend an ear. So don’t be afraid of reaching out for help, or providing that support to others when they need it too. 

3. Work on your work/life balance
If your life mainly revolves around one thing, i.e. your work, you’ll be much less equipped to deal with the inevitable setbacks when things go wrong. So be sure not to keep all your eggs in one basket. Enjoy your hobbies, talk to people outside your workplace, make time for some good old R&R, and keep trying new things. Having a better work/life balance will help you build resilience because you’ll be able to see there’s more to life than your current setback.

4. Look after your health
This is a biggie. Remember, your mental health and physical health are inextricably linked, and when you feel stronger the chances are any challenge you’re facing won’t seem so daunting. So try to make positive changes in your lifestyle, however small – it could be adding a ten minute walk to your day to clear your head, cutting down on your caffeine intake, or setting yourself healthier eating goals. Every little helps.

5. Go easy on yourself
Humans makes mistakes, and you are no different. So instead of chastising yourself or getting emotional about things, try to show yourself the compassion you would with others. In addition, getting knocked back naturally requires a grace period to process and recover. Resilience is not about macho deflection or steely resolve, but consideration and an ongoing will to succeed on your own terms.

6. Have a plan
Like we said, resilience is about how you react. So be the solution, not the problem. Once you’ve given yourself time to recover from a setback, it’s time to kick into action. And don’t just ignore the facts either. Come up with a plan of how you’re going to put things right, or make sure what happened doesn’t happen again. Having a checklist of positive actions will help to give you purpose again, and purpose is essential to our mental health.

It seems a cliché to say that resilience is a journey, not a destination. But then the reason clichés exist is usually because they’re true. Keep working at all the points above, and slowly but surely your resilience will grow and you’ll get stronger – more able to deal with whatever comes next.