Updated: Jun 26
Who can forget our nation’s most recent ‘black summer’— bushfires that began in June 2019 and surged uncontrollably during December and January. Over 18.6 million hectares of bush was engulfed, along with 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and close to 480 million mammal, bird and reptile species. By early March, when NSW’s fires had died back to dark scars and Victoria’s were contained, it had also claimed 34 lives.
We concurrently battled floods and an emerging global pandemic—the out of left-field final in a truly unprecedented trifecta. It’s been a strange few months that have heavily taxed our individual and collective fortitude. We’ve coped as best we can with the unpredictable, but many of us now feel depleted and question our ability to cope with what may come next.
Why Resilience Matters
Resilience—our ability to quickly adapt to negative life events—is a dynamic process that changes over time and cements with experience. It’s not an emotion; I doubt we ever feel resilient. But it is a mindset that expertly sustains and guides us through inclement times.
No one is born with resilience, it’s forged by choice. When mature, resilience bolsters us to navigate unexpected storms and gives us a way to make good decisions when the state of thinking clearly feels elusive.
You’ve heard it said that our thoughts shape our reality. This is especially true with building resilience. Robust resilience is synonymous with a mindset that actively chooses positive thoughts and healthily interprets emotion. It’s well explained by The Appraisal Theory, which sounds terribly clever, but is actually quite straightforward.
The Appraisal Theory
Let’s say two people lose their jobs. Both interpret the incident in different ways: one sees it as a new opportunity to do something better, knowing unemployment won’t last forever. The other takes it as a blight on their worth amidst concerns that they’ll never secure another job. Appraisal happens in two stages. This is the first stage and it’s shaped purely by thought.
The second is defined by subsequent emotion. The rush of butterflies triggered in both individuals strikes them in disparate ways. The first chalks it down to the excitement of new possibilities opening up. The second, to fear of being too old or not smart enough to find the work they want. Each, as a result, makes decisions based on this chain of internal events.
Resilience, then, begins with a two-part appraisal: with thinking that is conducive to wellbeing and positive action, and with proper processing of thought-led emotions, especially negative ones that can induce paralysis.
By realising that our thinking heavily influences our reality, we can be intentional about thought and emotion, and strengthen our ability to observe and, hopefully, improve them both.
Practical Steps to Intentional Thought and Emotion
Our oldest habits—in this case our default way of thinking and respective emotions—take time to retrain. Thankfully, it’s not impossible. Throughout the process, be kind to yourself. Nothing changes overnight, not least our well-worn ways.
Focus and Mindfulness
Increasing your powers of self-observation can happen in two ways that essentially work together to grow your resilience. As all good things do, they take practise and patience. Once they’re habitual, so will your ability be to take control of what you think and how you feel.
These exercises are designed to enhance mindfulness, the process of being intentional about what you think, feel and observe.
Focussing is an exercise using food that looks, smells and tastes interesting to practise mindfulness. It involves paying careful attention to what’s in your hand—examining its texture, delving into its scent, indulging its flavour—as a way of drawing your mind to the present; to what is directly before you. It offers an effective strategy by which to quiet the narratives that cause overt fear, anxiety, and worry by concentrating on the good and real things currently happening in life.
Observing mindfulness is about becoming acutely aware of subtleties, particularly, the things we frequently take for granted, such as the natural process of breathing. A simple three-step mindfulness exercise essentially magnifies the moving parts of what is otherwise a fluid and subconscious movement.
Just like breathing, our thoughts largely go unobserved. We accept what comes to mind without question. Mindfulness is a gatekeeping process that gives pause to the spontaneity of accepting the first thing that pops into our heads.
What Resilience is Not
It must be said: resilience is not about replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful ones, or about telling ourselves to forget the bad and just be grateful for the good. It’s actually about understanding that our thoughts rarely reflect reality and that our current reality, though challenging, has good things we can hang on to while dealing with the hard stuff. We can choose how we perceive the truth of a situation, what we think about it, and how we react to it.
Action and Motivation: How to Keep Going
Dr Maya Angelou once said, ‘If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.’
This is Action in the context of building resilience—recognising what can be controlled and what can’t; putting your best foot forward to initiate change be it in your circumstance or attitude. It’s what is known as ‘active coping’ and involves taking responsibility for what you do and how you feel, in particular, working through emotions that arise in situations you can do nothing about.
Motivation is about keeping you charged, and looks at the deep-seated reasons that encourage you to keep going despite hardship; the values that make life worth living and drive you to overcome. They can be a light in stressful times, our reminder that there’s something worth fighting for: your children, your partner, your dreams. Write them down, stamp them on wax, paint them. Put them somewhere you can see. They are your confirmation that the struggle is worth it.
Growing resilient is an ongoing process that requires commitment, but the reduced stress and improved wellbeing it produces is absolutely worth it. It leads you to find solutions instead of fixating on problems and, most importantly, to restoring control and balance in your thoughts and emotions. Resilience builds what fragility destroys.
Deidre Dattoli works with entrepreneurs, business women and teenage girls to help them become their very best selves. Should you be interested in knowing more about resilience, or to get in touch email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find out more about Deidre at deidredattoli.com