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Developing resilience in volatile times

Mar 30, 2019

Assessing a disaster, whether in your personal or professional life, can be difficult if not put into perspective. Leanne Hoffman explains how we rewire our thinking to build resilience.

We are living in volatile times. Some would even call it a crisis point with divisions over Brexit, distrust in our political systems, a shift towards to nationalism, a rise in terrorism, seismic changes in technology and climate change. Events like these can take a toll on a person’s wellbeing, but it is important to have perspective: we are also living in relatively safe times with less poverty, less crime, better healthcare, fewer childbirth-related deaths, and lower infant mortality than any time in recorded history.

So, how do we assess a genuine crisis and separate it from terrible, but not existential, events?

Rewiring our mindset

Our emotional state is affected when our resilience is tested, creating a negative feedback loop. However, we have more influence than we might imagine over how we make sense of our world. We have the agency to take back control and stop any feelings of powerlessness, whether it’s because of Brexit or a disaster in the office.

This is not simply about having a positive mindset. Tell a person to ‘look on the bright side’ when they are staring down a career crisis and you can rightly expect an aggressive response. However, if you separate the emotive feelings from realistic observations of what is actually happening, a person can learn to focus on behaviours that will help them cope or even make things better.

Struggle is an integral part of life and we are wired to respond more to the bad than to the good; our successful ancestors did not spend their days admiring the flora or fauna, or even their offspring. They were anticipating and watching out for the kind of threats that could potentially kill them. It makes no sense for modern-day stresses to evoke the same chemical reaction that flooded our ancestors when a tiger leapt into view, but it still happens. This physical response is not negative thinking, it is an error in thinking and we need to rewire. We cannot control every situation we face, but with work, we can influence our responses and the emotional state these ‘threats’ evoke. For instance, vocabulary matters – we need to stop saying that things are ‘a nightmare’ or ‘devastating’ or ‘awful’ unless they genuinely are.

Understand your world

So, what can we do when things feel hard, when the news is unrelentingly gloomy or when you think your career is in peril? Understanding your emotional world can help discern what is truly awful (losing a loved one), and what is just incredibly unfortunate but fixable (a boss that makes life hard). Doing this internal work before we are faced with adversity puts us in better shape when life takes a difficult turn; if the mental tank is empty, the experience will be even worse. Being able to separate our current feelings from past feelings can pull us out of the well of despair and stop us from getting frozen in melancholia.

Recently, Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, focused on bringing the community together and supporting the mourners after a terrorist attack on two Mosques in Christchurch. She skillfully avoided knee jerk reactions to blame, scapegoat and build a wall that would be based solely on fear, confusion and devastation. Her humility, compassion and humanity is a lesson to us all on how to be resilient in truly volatile times.

Leanne is a coach, trainer and psychotherapist. She is also a founding partner of the company Healthy Minds @ Work. Leanne also wrote a CPD course, Building Resilience for Professionals, available to take online.