Over the last 25 years, there’s been lots of research into a variety of tools and techniques that we can use to build our resilience.
What is resilience?
Firstly a long definition:
“being able to bounce back from setbacks and to keep going in the face of tough demands and difficult circumstances, including the enduring strength that builds from coping well with challenging or stressful events” (1).
Although it’s long, I like this definition as it includes not just ‘bouncing back’ but also ‘keeping going’ (which is such a part of motherhood). It also recognises that we do learn by getting through tough times – we may need weeks, months, or even years to appreciate what we’ve learnt but Nietzsche was right when he wrote “what does not kill me makes me stronger”.
A shorter way to think about how resilient you are is reflecting on the balance of the challenges you are facing versus the capacity you have to face those challenges. With credit to Dr Chris Johnstone from collegeofwellbeing.com who simplifies this balance to The Three Zones of Challenge:
We all ping around the zones during a day, so it’s useful to reflect over a week or two - a mixture of green and orange suggests you’re feeling resilient, whereas a mixture of orange and red suggests stress and overwhelm.
Building resilience – reducing challenge and increasing capacity
For anyone with caring responsibilities, mentally listing the things to do in any day or week can make it seem impossible to reduce challenge. But there are some mantras and questions we can pose to ourselves to help regain perspective and set some things aside:
Chris Johnstone talks about ‘the flu test’ – if you were laid up in bed for 10 days with flu, what wouldn’t get done, and no-one would be in danger of it didn’t get done?
If you were your best friend, what would you be telling yourself not to do?
Keep telling yourself, and your loved ones, that “self-care is not selfish” - to look after others you have to look after yourself.
And "it's ok to not be ok". And just as importantly “it’s ok to be ok” – clients who reflect that they’ve actually had a good chunk of green zone time often then use words such as ‘guilty’ and ‘lazy’ rather than ‘replenished’ and ‘ready for the next challenge’.
Every client I’ve worked with can list a variety of good habits if asked “what do you do to increase your capacity to cope, to feel better”. And every client (and myself) also has a list of bad habits that reduce their capacity.
So take a few minutes to reflect on your good and not so good habits and identify one thing that will make a difference, perhaps around the fundamentals:
Is your bedroom as relaxing as it can be? Do you have half an hour of non-screen time before sleep? Is your phone out of your bedroom at night? And if your nights are broken by babies or young children, do you nap when they nap? The Sleep Charity has good resources for both adults and children, as well as a helpline.
Diet and hydration
70% of our bodies are water, and studies show dehydration reduces short-term memory and attention (2). So make sure you’re drinking before you’re thirsty, totalling the UK recommendation of 6-8 glasses of fluid a day, or 1.2 litres. And a well-balanced diet may be difficult with the cost of living, but is your diet as healthy as it can be?
This is not about suddenly taking up a type of exercise that has never interested you, but something that gets you moving every day, at a moderate intensity (eg walking, biking, swimming, gardening). The simplest is a walk around the block, which can also include a spell of mindful walking – slowing down, noticing the sensations of your feet on the ground, really listening to the sounds around you.
Even a few minutes of paying attention to your breath and noticing where you may be tense in your body, can calm mind chatter and help you relax. Many clients find apps such as Headspace useful as you can set as little as 2 minutes aside in a busy day.
Research confirms what we all intuitively know – that the social support we get from friends increases our capacity to cope with life's challenges. I would add quality rather than quantity of connection, that a 10-minute chat with a good friend is perhaps more valuable than an hour on social media.
Cooper, C., Flint-Taylor, J., & Pearn, M. (2013). Building resilience for success: a resource for managers and organizations. Springer.
Benton D, Jenkins KT, Watkins HT, Young HA. Minor degree of hypohydration adversely influences cognition: a mediator analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Sep;104(3):603-12.
Catherine Shepherd is a Careering into Motherhood partner coach: www.careeringintomotherhood.com/catherine-shepherd