By Paul Regan
We live in unprecedented times where there is an existential crisis around every corner. Whether it be war, climate change, plastic pollution in everything, financial strain, increasing energy bills, rises in obesity and chronic health conditions and in the biggest social experiment in the history of life as we know it; the wild west of social media leading to the polarisation and politicisation of every opinion and every idea. Chuck this on top of just being you; people you love will die, you are going to die, you will get ill and injured, you’ll lose money, a job or a partner. Life happens. By all means fixate, worry, stew and overthink about all this stuff. Continue to try solve the unsolvable problems. But, please trust me when I say, none of this works and only serves to grind you down. You’ll become stressed and more vulnerable and when life throws its next curveball it’ll hurt that bit more. One thing we can do is to be resilient. After a deep dive into the definition of resilience, its defined as:
In essence, resilience is the ability to respond to and recover from challenges effectively. Furthermore, if a person has the ability to respond to and recover from the range of challenges that life has to offer, chances are they possess the temperament, skill, perseverance and outlook to weather any storm. Meaning that mental health difficulties and disorders probably won’t stick and stress will come and go as it should, without its painful lingering that debilitates so many of us. Being resilient not only means your mind and body is functioning optimally, but also means that you’ll continue to be able improve the functioning of your mind and body.
Consider this thought experiment; you have an identical twin and experience the same highly stressful difficult situation, perhaps a job loss or an injury. Weeks later, you’re still not right. Your twin on the other hand has bounced back. Now ask yourself; what did your twin do differently? How was he more resilient? I bet a cascade of things popped into your mind; ‘they’ll see it as learning curve…they worry less…. they are just more positive…they are just happier than me…they are able to distract themselves better’. Sure, it might be some of those things, but the answer is far simpler, albeit a little harder to do in practice. Your twin has simply practiced how to do couple things; 1) develop an awareness of how to better manage problematic unreasonable thoughts and 2) behave/act more effectively within the world around them.
Before we learn the how, there are a few things we need to consider. Firstly, you need to be in decent place; wanting to look after yourself and managing your wellbeing the best you can with what you got. A lighthouse weathers the storm because it’s built of strong stuff on strong foundations. Do the basics well; sleep well, eat well, have sex, have sensible amounts of booze or drugs, reasonable caffeine use, get sunlight, interact with others, laugh lots, do hobbies, be active and recover. You don’t need to be perfect and get everything right all the time. To be resilient, you first need to look after yourself and want to look after yourself. Say to yourself; I respect myself. I love myself. I want to be the best I can be.
So, you’re doing the good stuff. You now want to get better at thinking and behaving in a more resilient way. Now here’s the million-dollar question; how do you become more resilient? You do this with practice. You have to able to do things that are hard, but you can do at a push. The more you can challenge your emotions and thoughts by doing things you don’t want to do, the easier it becomes and the more resilient you can become. So, lets discuss the how by looking at what I think is the holy trinity of building resilience.
We spend very little time in the here and now. During times of stress and hardship, our minds eye is stewing in the past or projecting a future that you cannot predict. Mindfulness helps you be witness to your thoughts and feelings, not letting them stick. A negative thought becomes a problem when you engage with it. Mindfulness practice harnesses the skill to be present in the moment and can help you apply your attention to what you want to. Mindfulness is not meditation, it’s not a quick fix, it is not a relaxation exercise. It is the learning of a skill; to be present despite all the busy chatter going on. For some it can be very hard to focus a busy mind, for some it can aggravate already present mental health difficulties like post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or generalised anxiety disorder (so practice with caution and don’t do it if a mental health professional has told you otherwise). For some, it frustratingly just gives them time to worry more or to just fall asleep. Every mindful practice is a chance to spot something or learn something about yourself. For example, if you’re unable to stay awake; you’re not sleeping enough, bombarded by stressful thoughts; maybe there is something you need to do. With time you will take steps forward, every now and then you will take a step back. That’s ok.
There is emerging evidence that mindfulness works. When practiced effectively and regularly, your brain could look like a brain that is on a tranquil forest walk. At the very least, just 10 minutes each day to be present, to breathe, can be a chance for your stressed body to have a brief rest. Even just to lower your blood pressure for a little while and silence that frontal lobe.
Do around 10 minutes a day. Slot it into your routine. If 10 is too hard, do 5. If 5 is too much do 2 minutes. When you master 2, do 3 and so on. Find a decent mindfulness app you like, find a decent spotify/YouTube channel. Find a local or online mindfulness workshop. Practice it in nature, on the train, bus, beach or trail. With time, stressful thoughts and feelings will not sting as much and you’ll hone your ability to let them come and go, like the passing of clouds in the sky. When those thoughts do sting, you will be better equipped to let them go. Mindfulness is not easy. It’s a commitment. Like any commitment, your motivation for it only increases when you keep it up. Eventually, it becomes a routine, then the need for motivation will dissipate.
CBT a broad term that covers lots of ways to treat a range of specific difficulties. For example, there is a certain way to understand and treat social anxiety or OCD, just as there is another way to treat depression. However, you don’t need to have depression or an anxiety disorder to benefit. CBT gives us a framework and a bunch of ways to become more aware of our thoughts; emotions, physical sensations and behaviour when faced with challenges. As its principles can be traced back to stoicism, it would say something very similar to the stoics; if we feel is bad, it's because of the way we think and the way we behave in the world. If you are feeling anxious, your body has activated the stress system, physically you’ll be stressed. Your thoughts and actions will follow suit. And vice versa. If you are feeling very upset, you body will be depressed. Your thoughts and actions will follow suit. And Vice versa. We cannot suddenly change our emotions or physical sensations, they are automatic and cannot immediately be altered.
As humans we can pay attention to our thoughts and behave differently. These will then have a direct impact on our feelings. The connections that exist between your thoughts/emotions/physical sensations/behaviour in a given situation is referred to as the vicious cycle. When things are going bad in a given moment, we are in a vicious cycle. CBT gives us ability to think about the vicious cycle and finds ways to break it.
Let’s think about an example; imagine you have a marathon to train for. Your alarm goes off its, 5:30. Think about the thoughts that are going through your head; ‘tomorrow tomorrow…sod this…I didn’t sleep enough…I’m useless…I’m going to crash and burn…bed is so comfy…ill just push snooze…I’m lazy…I’m a quitter’. You’ll have physical sensations of heaviness and grogginess, emotionally you might feel quite low, sleepy, apathetic. Behaviourally you’ll spend the next 5 minutes, overthinking and worrying, talking yourself in to staying in bed, you push snooze once, twice and give up. If you were to give this scenario a bit more thought, you’d see that each domain of the vicious cycle, will impact the others, which in turn feeds another and so on. What may have started as a little grogginess and initial doubt could turn into giving up and self-loathing which reinforces all the concerns you had about yourself to start with. You missed another training day, and now that marathon seems less and less likely. After a few weeks of this you may start living your life with beliefs and rules about yourself such as ‘I’m just a lazy Person…I’m not built for running…people who train regularly are just better than me’. If you are thinking and believing these things, pushing that snooze will in fact be a lot easier. Break the cycle.
Quiet those thoughts, count to three out loud and sit up. Take a couple of deep breaths. Think ‘what would the person I admire most do’. Be the barrister/judge/jury and consider the facts of the situation, be reasonable with yourself, pump yourself up, open your eyes. Remember how great you felt last time after your morning run. Break the cycle.
You know what happens when you pay attention to these cycles? You get better at spotting them and changing them. With time, those negative thoughts that were once automatic will either reduce a little or you’ll be able to counter them more effectively; ‘I’m lazy’ may become ‘I’m feeling knackered, but once I’m up it’ll be ok’ or ‘I’m useless’ may become ‘I can do this’, or dare I say ‘I am resilient…I am tough’. Furthermore, you’ll see that a lot of ways you usually act in given moments can play a significant part in keeping the vicious cycle going and actually move you away from what you want and value. So, change the way you behave and act. Soon you’ll get better at turning that alarm off, sitting up and smashing that training run.
CBT; Read about it. Keep a note pad. Visit your local library as they’ll sure have decent reading lists and recommendations. Get books written by CBT therapist, if needed get a book on CBT for a particular problem; anxiety, low mood, self-esteem, sleep etc. If you think you have a problem with anxiety/depression speak with local charities or mental health services, attend a CBT course, or online workshop, or see a professional. Breaking the cycle isn’t easy, so don’t break the biggest vicious cycles first, master the small ones first, and then move on to the bigger stuff. Reflect when things go well and understand that your emotional changes are made when you do something differently that is a little tough, but you do it anyway.
I cannot do justice to stoicism in a few paragraphs, I’m not a philosopher. I am just a mental health nurse. But I’ll try. I’ve trained in mental health nursing. I’ve studied CBT in university. I’ve attended various courses and workshops. I thought I knew my stuff. Then one day, not so long ago, I had the pleasure of having a couple of hours to myself while the partner and kids were away. I bought a book on stoicism, sat in a café and read it. Never before had I felt things click into place in such a visceral way. In a very un-stoic way I was filled with regret at not reading about it before. After all the stuff on mental health I learnt over the years, I found something that actually told me how to live. Interestingly, even though it owes its origins to a man called Zeno in ancient Greece 300 BC, I have never read anything that is more relevant today and could be an antidote for our material world of want, social media, apathy, fragility and ever-increasing demands. In it I saw the backbones of CBT. I saw elements of mindfulness practice. I saw Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT). It even resonated with my previous military training. I saw something that I wanted to live by.
Open almost any stoic text and it will likely say that the English definition of stoicism is one of the greatest injustices of the English language. Stoicism is not ‘being without emotion’. It is a way to live with emotion. Its split into 3 disciplines. Essentially, these are the things you want to practice and get good at; the discipline of perception, action and will. Perception – see things for how they are, now how they appear. Be objective. Be wise. Don’t let emotion influence your thought. ‘I’m lazy’ could become ‘I think I’m lazy right now, there are lots of things I do or have done that are proactive’. Action. Do what is right, even if emotionally it is difficult. Do it loudly, with confidence and assertiveness. Get up for the granny on the train. Support that person in distress. Stand up for what is right. But do it with temperance, be humble and don’t boast. Lastly, will. Desire what you have, not what you think you want. Desire leads to want, that leads to more want. Accept that there are things out of your control, but are things you can control. If angry, you may not be able control the emotion, but you can control the aggressive action. Didn’t get that job? Ruminating about it only serves to make you feel worse. What do you have control over? What can you do?
These disciplines all aim for what is ‘good’. The virtues. These represent that absolute way of being. They represent absolute good. The 4 virtues that the disciples aim for are; wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Wisdom; be wise, learn, know what is good and what is not, have control over thoughts in the face of emotions. Temperance; moderation, don’t be reckless, or meek. Act with restraint. Courage – ability to act against your emotions. Feel scared or anxious? That’s normal. The ability to act towards what is good or right is courage. Justice – do what is right. Be fair, even in the face of someone who is unfair to you.
Read Marcus Aurelias’ meditations, read Epictetus’ Discourses, pick up a Ryan Holiday book, learn about ethics, practice its disciplines every day, aim for its virtues and live the ‘good life’. Delve deeper and read more as there is far, far, far more wisdom to be sought. Read stoicism and live it.
So now you are looking after the small stuff, you are treating yourself with love and respect. In summary mindfulness can give us the power to be in the here and now, stand witness to and not get drawn into the chatter of our busy primate brain. CBT gives us tools to become more aware of problematic thoughts and behaviours and gives us insight into breaking the vicious cycle. Stoicism bestows on us the age-old wisdom of how to live a ‘good life’ and being master of your thought and actions. You are that lighthouse, made of strong stuff on strong foundations. Now it’s time to push yourself. Take on challenges and throw yourself into the maw. Graft. Learn through exposure that you are capable of great things. You’ll start to notice you’ll adapt to stress and you’ll bounce back. You will look back a month, two months, a year and see how much you have changed and achieved in the face of it all. Sign up for that event. Sign up for the next Rokman challenge. Run in the rain. Conquer that hill. Take that early morning dip/cold shower/Ice bath (only if physically able, unsure? See a Dr). Say yes to new experiences that move towards what you value. Be part of a tribe. Challenge yourself. Be the journey not the goal. Rest and recover. Start over. Say out loud and often; ‘I’ve got this’. Stand tall in the face of adversity. Be resilient, by practicing resilience.
I have been working as a mental health nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. I love my job, I love learning and talking to people about mental health and wellbeing. This article represents my personal opinion and is certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health please speak with GP or health professional.