In a relentlessly changeable world, personal resilience is an essential attribute. Here’s how to stay healthy and happy in difficult times.

Death and taxes aside, change is one of the few certainties in life. Right now, the pace of change within organisations is particularly rapid – and relentless. Gone are last century’s familiar waves of innovation followed by periods of stability in which a company or industry could relax and assimilate. Instead, in a world of fast, unlimited and often unanticipated technological potential, flexibility amid change is now the key to success. And if you’re not keeping up, you’ve already lost.

For leaders and employees alike, this onslaught of disruption presents a challenge. Human beings bounce back from stress most effectively when it’s acute and followed by a period of rest. Stress that is chronic and ongoing can have profound and long-term effects on wellbeing, motivation and productivity. And increasingly, today’s workforces are showing higher levels of stress-related conditions – with businesses taking a hit in terms of sickness, absences and lower productivity. 

According to psychologists, resilience – the ability to bounce back quickly from an adverse experience – is a key factor in why some people cope with stress better than others. But what does it mean to be resilient, and can it be learned?

Body talk

Resilience requires a two-pronged approach, combining physiological and psychological wellbeing for optimum effectiveness.

On the first front, it’s worth understanding how stress affects the body. When faced with stress or anxiety, our bodies release cortisol, a ‘fight or flight’ hormone which heightens our attention and enables us to survive. It’s a primitive system that proves highly effective when we face a physical threat, but workplace stress is rarely something we can fight off or flee from. It has to be endured. And so the cortisol remains and builds as more stress comes our way. Cortisol is one of the key reasons why stress is so harmful, as elevated levels are a leading cause of high blood pressure, heart conditions and depression.

The good news is that cortisol is fairly easy to remove. All it wants you to do is move (‘fight or flight’). Doing 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging or cycling on a regular basis can significantly reduce levels of this hormone in your system.

In turn, physical activity will help in relation to another important factor in stress management: sleep. Quality, restorative sleep is critical for our resilience, and as anyone who has ever been sleep-deprived knows, debilitating tiredness can profoundly affect your emotional state and cognitive ability.

Excessive cortisol in the system interrupts sleep because the body thinks a threat is coming and cannot then unwind and allow itself to rest. By contrast, reducing cortisol helps the brain to relax. Diet should be taken into account too, as excessive caffeine, alcohol and sugar also disrupt our sleep patterns.

 

Taking simple steps to reduce the cortisol in your system, nourish and hydrate your body properly, and provide conditions in which you can rest properly will lay strong foundations for the second piece of the puzzle: mental resilience.

Peace of mind

Research over the past few decades has outlined what has been called the resilient mindset – ways of thinking routinely used by those who bounce back from adversity quickly, with interesting results.

Our emotional triggers are biased towards the negative because that keeps us safe. Of our six primary emotions, four are negative (fear, anger, sadness and disgust), one is neutral (surprise) and one is positive (joy). This means that in challenging times our mindset tends to drift towards how awful things are and how difficult the situation is. It takes a concerted effort to put things in perspective, take control and adopt a positive slant, but this is exactly what we should be doing to improve our resilience.

How we think affects how we feel, and our thoughts are not random. Rather, they are a habitual muscle strengthened by years of experience and practice. Changing the way we think can be challenging and takes time, effort and the support of others, as well as a certain amount of self-awareness. However, the benefits are proven: peace of mind, improved mental health, increased life satisfaction and enhanced motivation.

Seeing changes, challenges and setbacks as a normal part of life and something we can learn from can also help, as well as focusing on the things we can control and taking action, rather than simply railing against external forces. Practising mindfulness and surrounding ourselves with people and experiences that make us feel good are other powerful resilience-building tactics.

Employers can have a big impact on the wellbeing of their employees here, because adapting to change requires an understanding of why that change is happening. Having some control over how that change takes place will also help. Businesses that explain their decisions fully and allay any fears will earn the trust of their employees. Engaging staff in a two-way conversation about how those changes occur can provide transparency and raise everyone’s confidence and motivation.

Learning from stress

Stress is now an integral part of modern life, and resilience is an essential part of the balancing act. Learning to support ourselves mentally and physically is as crucial to our career success as any other skill, enabling us to meet the demands of a restless world – without sacrificing the quality of our own life.

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