I love it when I can sense that spring is on the way, I feel my inner energy being rekindled and I look forward to feeling the sun on my skin and witnessing the transformation in my garden and local area. I think about planting seeds and what I might grow in my vegetable patch. I start to plan camping trips or dream about the summer and what adventures we might get up to as a family. This year, more than ever, sensing that spring is around the corner makes me feel grateful for so many things, that no one I know has been really ill, that I have the physical space and technology to manage home schooling alongside my work (even though it has been tricky at times) and that we live in such a wonderful place with a beautiful garden surrounded by the sea and mountains. I love that I can sit out in the snow with a firepit watching the stars and that I can still swim in the sea every week and go looking for otters on the shore below our house. This year has really made me consider how privileged and lucky we are and how hard it must be for families, and those living on their own, who have less than ideal home situations.
Emerging from the darkness of winter, not just the seasonal adjustment but the climate of fear and anxiety, I am grateful that we are now emerging into the light both literally and metaphorically. The days are lengthening, and we are seeing the first signs of spring with snowdrops flowering and daffodil leaves poking their heads above ground. Birds are starting to think about nesting and other animal are preparing to give birth and bring new life into the world. Plus we have vaccinated a large percentage of the at risk population, and we know covid-19 is a seasonal virus and the infection rates and levels of serious illness should start to drop rapidly. All of these things are helping to give me a sense of hope, gratitude, and positivity and as a health practitioner it reminds me of the need for us to cope with the stress that life throws at us in a constructive way and remain resilient which is so important for our health. This is not always easy and in this blog I want to share with you what I have learnt about resilience and how you can learn to use it a life skill. I will share with you some actions you can take to help develop your own resilience using gratitude and positivity in simple ways that have a strong impact on how you feel. So here we go: how we can build resilience with gratitude and positivity.
I love this quote “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” from John Kabatt-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Medicine, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. For me it really brings home how important it is to be able to ride the waves of stress that hit you in life and how resilience is a behaviour that all of us can succeed at learning.
The definition of resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties (stresses) or for an object to spring back to its original shape with elasticity. But we can also consider it as a process that we can use to harness resources to sustain our well-being, as well as a continued process of interaction with our environment. As we will see both these definitions are useful when we come to understand how best to cope with stressors.
You might think about resilience in the context of how we as humans bounce back from shocks as diverse as the covid-19 crisis or the financial crisis, to the everyday mini stressors of being stuck in a traffic jam, finding you have lost your car keys, having a disagreement with your partner or reading negative news on your phone. The good thing is we know that resilience is not a personality trait (although our traits may influence it) but it can be learned as a life skill and you can start today. In my own journey through life I have had to learn these skills when I suffered from burnout and fatigue. I didn’t understand about resilience back then and I would very much have benefited from someone teaching me about it and I would probably have got better much faster.
Definition: the ability to recover quickly from difficulties
“Resilience is a not a trait that people have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone.”
- The American Psychological Association (APA)
Staying resilient through difficult times is not always easy, sometimes it can be very difficult to bounce back from adverse circumstances which might include shock, grief or chronic stress. Resilience is different for everyone, we each have a balance point beyond which we find it difficult to return to our normal happy and social functioning state. If we experience too big a stress load in life then it can overwhelm us and we can end up stuck in a hypervigilant stress state or even a shut down/withdrawl state. These two states of stress occur when we are overloading our body in some way and it can’t cope and bounce back as quickly as we should be able to.
The resilience zone is a concept that has come from research into trauma and adverse childhood events, but makes a lot of sense when we apply it to consider resilience related to fatigue and burnout. We have two different parts to our autonomic nervous system, one part reacts to stressors treating them as danger and creating what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This results in the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin which prime our body for battle or to fight a tiger, just like our hunter gatherer ancestors might have done. This is our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and it influences all of the organs in our body and is the main reason why distressing events are associated with both mental and physical health problems.
Leitch, L. (2017).
When stressful, traumatic, or distressing events bounce an individual out of their resilience zone it can lead to physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms that affect health and well-being in many negative ways. And, if we keep subjecting ourselves to repetitive or cumulative stressors it can “wire in” an unhelpful response. This makes us more reactive to stress and stuck in a state of either hyperarousal (being bumped above the resilience zone) or hypoarousal (stuck below the resilience zone) or sometimes evening bouncing between the two extremes as our nervous system attempts to try and find a balance. This is when you start to see the symptoms of burnout occurring such as fatigue/low energy, depression, brain fog and detachment.
But the good news is that you can shift your response to stressors so that you remain in your resilience zone and this is the key to getting your energy back and avoid burning out
So we have already said that resilience is “learnable” and there is no right or wrong way to cope with things, it all depends on the situation, but key to it is flexibility, to be able to adapt when needed. This includes how we read the situation (positively or negatively), the context of the situation, having a repertoire of behaviours you can apply and the ability to use feedback to regroup or refocus your response.
There are things we can all do to try and support our ability to be resilient and cope with stressful experiences in a way that doesn’t over tax us. Solutions that are particularly helpful are those which address our purpose, coping skills and connection aspects of well-being. For example, clinicians who find meaningful clinical activities that they can control and that align well with their own core values are more able to avoid burnout. I am currently writing a book that will cover all of these areas but today I want to focus on just two of them, gratitude and positivity.
If you are struggling with your resilience, and many of us are, I find using gratitude and positive thinking very useful. By expressing gratitude the evidence suggests that it may help enhance our own well-being whether we do it in written or spoken form or even just think about it ourselves. It can allow us to focus in on the moment and savour it , appreciating what that brings us joy, happiness, or satisfaction. Sometimes in our family we make this into a fun discussion at dinner time by asking the following three questions and taking it in turns to answer.
1. What are you grateful for today?
2. What have you done for someone else today?
3. What are you looking forward to?
The answer can be very simple, such as I really enjoyed my cup of coffee this morning or I gave my dog attention and love by grooming it today or I am looking forward to calling my sister for a chat tomorrow. Focusing attention on the small things we are grateful for, or are looking forward to ,can be really helpful for lifting our mood and rewiring our brains. I always recall hearing a mountaineer speak who had lost his leg in a climbing accident, he said every morning he is so grateful that he has one good leg. It would be easy to frame this as a negative remembering every day that he has lost a leg but instead he chose to reframe it into a positive.
Most of us are lucky enough to have a bed to sleep in, food to eat and a roof over our heads at night. It is nearly always possible to find something to be grateful for.
Often I use gratitude as a way of calming and feeling positive before I go to sleep, I focus on three things that I was grateful for during the day. They often involve a hug from my children or my husband, help from the family making dinner or hanging up the washing. Sometimes the simplest things are what can make a difference more than any big and deliberate attempt to help someone.
Sometimes I use a gratitude mantra made up of four words which I can repeat softly to myself. It can help me feel calm and positive. It can be very simple, mine is Love, Peace, Health and Happiness. If you want to create your own simply choose three or four words which are about something you are grateful for that are also important to you and combine them into a short sentence you can repeat out loud or in your head. I find saying it to myself each morning when I am taking a shower is a great way to start the day.
I hope that understanding a little more about resilience and the effect of stress on your body may help you accept the need to take action to do something about it. There are many other ways that we can shape resilience and I will talk more about some of the other solutions in another blog. Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to influence it, which is why I have started with it as it always sensible to take small steps when you want to reboot your energy so that it feels attainable without too much effort.
Being aware of how you perceive stressful events can be a starting point to help you consciously monitor your thoughts, proactively reframe them and replace negative ones with more positive ones and change how we view events or situations. Being able to take control of your thoughts and emotions like this is associated with resilience. Viktor Frankl, the author of Man's Search for Meaning, attributed his psychological endurance and survival of concentration camps to finding meaning and he believes that striving to find a meaning in one's life is the most important, powerful motivating and driving force to continue living for.
Playful people are more able to reframe stressful situations into mere annoyances and take a broader outlook on life. So next time you are outside you might want to stop and smell a rose, climb a tree or take an unusual route to where you are going.
We went out at dusk with our children yesterday evening just before it got dark. We were looking for otters and we had been tracking them along the side of a small burn that ran up from the shores of the loch. I had been promising to do this for a while and they were excited. But the weather was awful, it was blowing a gale and it started to rain too, the hills were covered in snow and it felt like -10 degrees with the wind chill. We snuggled down together and waited until it was dark we couldn’t see anything any longer. We didn’t see an otter (they were probably keeping warm and dry somewhere cosy), but the kids weren’t upset at all and only wanted to plan the next trip to try and spot them. So despite the wild weather they were resilient and focused on a purpose with a positive outlook.. I grateful that we can do this kind of activity where we live and that my children are so interested in nature and motivated to get out in all weathers. And one day we will see an otter!
I hope you found this blog useful. Please check out the other blogs on my website such as 'The Surprising Truth About Burnout, Stress, Inflammation & Your Immune System' and '12 Tips to Help You Sleep Better & Why it is so Important for Your Health'.
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Leitch, L. (2017) ‘Action steps using ACEs and trauma informed care: a resilience model’’ Health and Justice, doi10.1186/s40352-017-0050-5.