Pressure is inevitable! Being stretched, occasional failures and setbacks are a natural part of making progress. But what happens when we are stretched too much? Resilience is the ability to use and harness our innate stress response, to effectively thrive when under pressure.
Resilience and managing mental health
Evidence is mounting to support the need for employers to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of their employees now more than ever. Mind, the mental health charity, state that 1 in 4 UK workers are likely to experience a mental health challenge each year, which not only impacts the ability to work effectively, but more importantly negatively effects overall quality of life and wellbeing.
According to the Department of Health, poor mental health is the single biggest cause of disability in the UK, with the cost of mental illness to the economy estimated at around £105 billion annually. This includes the direct costs of services, lost productivity at work and reduced quality of life.
Business in the Community stated in a recent a report -‘Mental Health at Work’ – based on a national survey of nearly 20,000 UK workers, that 77% of employees have at some time experienced poor mental health and 62% of these stated that work has been a contributing factor.
It is inevitable that everyone at some time will feel under pressure, but why is it that some people can handle pressure better than others? In a nutshell, it’s because they are more resilient. Resilience is our ability to maintain or even improve our performance in the midst of an ever changing and increasingly pressured world.
Our ancient ancestors passed on their ability to be physically resilient for their survival in a far more violent world than most of us experience today. Physical strength, coupled with a mental toughness, motivated our forefathers to maintain their determination, remain strong and utilise their natural instinct to keep our species going.
We may not experience the same threats to survival as our ancestors, but we are bombarded by daily pressures which induce the same physiological responses to our perceived threats. We produce more adrenaline and cortisol - the stress hormone - which prepares us for ‘fight or flight’. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sabre-toothed tiger, worries about our finances or an unrealistic and over zealous boss – we produce the same chemicals and physiological response.
Our ancestors would use the adrenaline to boost activity and the anti-inflammatory cortisol to help us repair damaged tissue. For them it worked perfectly, but we don’t necessarily need or use these chemicals in the same way if our challenges aren’t so physical. You can almost think-switch on or think-switch off these chemicals if you are aware of your coping capacity or have confidence in your level of mental resilience. How we see that potential threat and how we react to it will determine how we either become more resilient or succumb.
21st century pressures
Life now usually requires us to do more each year, faster, and with less resource - whether that’s at work or in our personal lives - and our days can often feel as if we’re jumping from one high pressure situation to another. The net result is that we are spending longer in our ‘stretch and strain zones’ without any let up. The good news is that we can all thrive rather than just survive, by building our mental resilience. We should learn how to reframe our perceived threats into opportunities, to help us grow and prepare for future challenges.
We all have an in-built coping strategy psychologists call ‘cognitive reappraisal’ which enables us to turn around or reframe a challenging or negative experience to help us overcome it. In essence, overcoming challenging experiences make us more resilient. Being stretched and managing pressure is actually good for us; it keeps us interested and focused on what is really important and our performance usually improves.
The physiology of bouncing back
Resilience does have a connection with particular parts of the brain and specific chemicals. It depends on our capacity to utilise neural circuits relating to emotions such as fear, and also those emotions relating to reward. A neurochemical, known as neuropeptide Y, found in the amygdala and other regions of the brain mediates anxiety and fear, but they are found in higher concentrations when performance improvements are made and we make associations between success and the rewards for any stress relating to that challenge.
Knowing our limits
We all have a tipping point where we can enter our ‘strain zone’ if we don’t pull back. Knowing that point is the key. There are usually clear, tell-tale signs that we’ve entered it and it’s important that we’re self-aware enough to recognise it so that we can take steps to control our anxiety response and regain our equilibrium. Signs can include our lack of motivation and engagement with things that once stimulated us; changes in appearance, such as looking tired or smiling less; a change in habits, such as taking work home and taking less holidays; changes in behaviour, such as over-reacting to situations and being more irritable with others.
Resilience improves when we feel balanced
Being resilient is about establishing personal balance and having the ability to maintain and enhance our effectiveness in the midst of a fast-paced, high pressured and continuously changing environment.
Managing our energy levels and pacing ourselves helps to increase our resilience by enabling us to put our efforts into the right things and maintain perspective when under pressure.
Balance energy and maintain equilibrium
Obvious and easy to achieve steps like making sure we are getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and eating well can really help. We also know that exercise can strengthen our attention levels, and improve memory and decision making abilities, which are all useful when we need to combat stress. We also need to make sure we schedule in time to rest, recover and re-enter our ‘comfort zone’ after periods of pressure, so that we’re ready for the next challenge with renewed energy.
These simple physical steps will help us mentally improve our levels of self-confidence so we can deal more effectively with pressure and view it as a positive opportunity to grow. If we view it negatively, we start off on the wrong foot and that can lead to further feelings of stress and further impair our performance and self-belief in a negative feedback loop.
Practical tips to build resilience
To increase our innate resilience building capacity, we need to effectively ebb and flow each day between ideal performance and our ideal recovery states. Ensure you get the basics right to start:
- Schedule breaks during the day and don’t skip lunch
- Plan work in bursts of 50 minutes followed by a short break, rather than attempt marathon sessions at sprint speeds
- At the end meetings, unusually busy periods, or more intense tasks, take a short break to refresh and refocus the mind. We usually take on a different reflection on things when we view them from a more relaxed state.
- Use evenings, weekends and commuting time to unwind. It you are thinking about work – you are in work!
Mental resilience is about exercising the choices we make to see things differently and turn pressures into opportunities. Everyone has choice and the choice is yours!