Having a hard time coping with stress? Try these science-based ways to build resilience.
Resilience is that amazing skill that helps you recover quickly from difficulties. If you are resilient, then when life knocks you down, you bounce back and you keep going. Sometimes life’s challenges can even make you stronger. So how do you become a more resilient person?
Catastrophizing is when we expect the worst possible outcome in a situation. For example, you may have lost your job and now believe that you will never be successful, and everyone will think you’re a failure forever. This may sound extreme. Most of us don’t catastrophize quite this much, but many of us do sometimes believe that the worst possible outcomes will come true. Although being aware of possible negative outcomes can be helpful for planning ahead, when we believe the worst will come true, we set ourselves up for unnecessary stress and poor resilience.
One way to break this thought pattern is to wear a pendant or carry a stone or other small object with you. Every time you find yourself imagining the worst — about a person, situation, or outcome — analyze the object. Name it’s color, shape, and details. This is just the right amount of distraction to help you calm down.
Often when bad things happen, we get stuck thinking about negative outcomes. We repeatedly think about what we could have done differently in the past, or how we are going to mess up again in the future. We ruminate on these events, because we mistakenly believe that thinking about our hardships over and over again will help us solve them. Unfortunately, negative thought cycles just get us caught up in our thoughts, instead of taking the actions we need to move forward.
To put an end to these negative thought cycles, which have become well-worn pathways in our brains, we need to short-circuit our thoughts mid-cycle. To do this, we can create a behavioral break or an action plan for what we’ll do when our negative thought cycles get going.
Exercise seems to be a really effective behavioral break. But if exercise isn’t possible (maybe you’re at work or with other people), try to do something else that uses both your mind and your body. For example, you could excuse yourself for five minutes to practice deep, slow breathing. Deep breathing helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which can both calm you and switch off your stress.
Unfortunately, many of us avoid failure at all costs. We do so, because we are afraid of failure; we worry that people will think poorly of us if we fail, and we feel ashamed when we fail. But by treating failure like a disease to be avoided, we never give ourselves a chance to overcome challenges and practice resilience. As a result, we prevent ourselves from becoming more resilient. So how do you conquer your fear of failure so that you can start building resilience?
If you think failure is a threat, like many of us do, your body will prepare for a fight — and you’ll feel like you’re in a battle. On the other hand, if you choose to view doing something hard, something you could fail at, as a challenge, then you’re more likely to think you are capable of handling it. As a bonus, when you view things that you could possibly fail at as challenges, you actually will be more capable and less likely to fail at them.
To build this “challenge mindset,” reflect on past challenges that you’ve overcome. Let’s say you’re worried about starting a new job. Take a moment to think back to other goals you’ve achieved. Remind yourself that you have been successful at things in the past, even small things. When you remind yourself that you have succeeded before, you can help shift towards a challenge mindset.
Next, visualize success. By imagining yourself doing well, you shift your mindset to do well. On the other hand, if you ruminate about what could go wrong, your fear builds, and the failure you fear becomes more likely. Keep in mind that even if you are able to shift your brain to stop seeing something as a threat, you may feel nervousness or anxiety, but you’ll also experience positive physiological changes that can help you make better use of these negative emotions.
Part of what makes challenges challenging is that we become myopic and only focus on the bad without seeing the good. So how do you find the benefits of failure?
Plenty of smart folks will tell you that you should reflect on your failures right after you experience them. But negative emotions can cloud your thinking. If you are still feeling upset about a failure, it may be harder to see the benefits or come up with effective solutions. If this practice is new to you, an easier way to start finding the benefits of challenges may be to look at past challenges — challenges that you’re no longer upset about. By practicing finding the benefits of past challenges, you can strengthen this ability so that it is easier to find the benefits next time.
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