When Sheryl Sandberg – author of Lean In and COO of media giant Facebook – lost her husband to heart problems in 2015, she was certain neither she nor her children would “ever feel pure joy again”.
To make sense of the devastation, she wrote another book. This was Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, co-authored with her psychologist friend Adam Grant.
Although most of us hopefully won’t suffer such life altering loss, developing resilience is a skill that can make every life that bit easier. Here’s registered psychologist and psychological services director Dr Mark Winwood’s tips on getting through the tough times.
Give it some gratitude
“We can adapt to change and difficult situations by appreciating what we already have,” explains Winwood. “It can feel false to start with, but if we practice, it can build up to quite an armory to challenge our negativity.” Try writing two or three things you’re grateful for at the end of the day – stuff as obvious as a scenic view or a fun exchange with someone at work can all help.
Rationalise, rationalise, rationalise
For some people, taking a logical approach is the best way out of any bad situation. For example, ‘pervasiveness’ is the belief that one bad thing must affect everything. But rationalisation means answering questions to challenge this belief. Ask yourself honestly: is that really true? Looking at the situation logically can puncture that bubble of emotion (however real it feels), and help you feel more clear-eyed. As Winwood says: “It can feel like a very normal response to something negative to think: ‘Well, now I’ve got nothing’. But ask yourself what the reality is. Is that thought that ‘I can’t do anything’ rational? Instead, ask: ’What can I do?”
Talking of calmness, trusting in techniques such as mindfulness meditation is a tried-and-tested way to deal with overwhelm and pain head-on. It’s the idea that we don’t have to believe the thoughts that come to us. We can decide they don’t help, and recognise that they make us sad, angry, or desperate. Once we know that, we can choose not to be affected as much, and choose more helpful and compassionate ways to see the problem instead. “Mindfulness is about acknowledging what we are, and finding wiser ways to respond to those feelings. That’s the real emotional intelligence aspect of resilience,” says Winwood.
In the midst of a problem, we can feel like the mountain we’re climbing is so steep, we forget to look back to see the view, and recognise what we have already learned from the situation. Give yourself a real pat on the back for what you have already achieved, even if it feels tiny.
Acknowledging that you are still trying and haven’t yet given up can be just as powerful as ticking off big goals. “You’re never going to be unchanged by a difficult situation, but many people who have experienced tough times will say how they were changed positively by the virtue of going through it,” explains Winwood.
Set good goals
Resilience isn’t only about staying strong in the face of tragedy. It can also be the key to taking on and sticking to challenges. Many of us have big goals we want to achieve, whether that’s losing three stone, getting the top job at work, or even running a marathon. It’s all very well sticking to our intentions in the beginning, but those who achieve them will stay focused even when motivation wanes.
“Make your goals very small at first,” says Winwood. “Write them down, share them, so people can support you. Start imagining what you’ll be like when you achieve them. You can’t get where you want if you have no concept of where you want to go.” Start super small, and when it starts feeling easy, kick it up a gear. Suddenly that massive goal feels manageable.
Look after yourself
As we’re told, you shouldn’t put someone else’s oxygen mask on before securing your own. Dealing with difficult situations may leave you more tired and stressed than usual, and it’s not ‘being a failure’ to take some time out, such as booking a massage or going to bed early.
“No-one is an island,” says Winwood. “Make sure you’re getting the support you need – sleeping well, and take exercise. Energy is the founding principle of resilience. You can’t improve the situation if you’re exhausted.” Remember, asking for help is not a weakness. It’s a strength.