Stress is a curious thing. At times we need it to push ourselves to excellence, yet other times it makes us feel like we’re drowning. What is stressful for some may be just a little tingle of excitement for others. Where some bounce back easily after a period of incredible pressure, others spiral out of control. The ostrich strategy of sticking our head in the sand when things get too busy just won’t work in a world where sources of stress are ever increasing. So what can we do to consistently find and maintain our balance?
Personally, I can say that I’ve been to the dark side of stress. Feeling overloaded, not knowing where to start, dealing with sales pressure, and the irrational belief that I must deliver perfect results yesterday, are all familiar to me. At times, I wondered: how can I convincingly offer words of advice to my training participants if I don’t follow them myself?
Enter mental resilience. Mental resilience is the ability to bounce back into form after being bent out of shape by negative, troubling, and adverse circumstances in life. Rather than rigidly sticking to unhealthy thought patterns and behaviours, it’s adaptability and flexibility that make the difference. And the outlook for those who have it is bright - there is a strong link with healthy sleeping behaviour, lower blood pressure and overall physical wellbeing. You might wonder: is this just an innate trait for a chosen few? Well no, it isn’t. Much like going to the gym, mental resilience is a muscle that can be trained in order to be flexed on command.
Increasing my mental resilience helped me to gain a new perspective on stress and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Do you want in on the secret of how to get there? Then get your gym shoes…
1. Perspective is everything
The dangerous words “yes, but” are closely followed by the words “I have to….” Whenever I hear myself using “I have to” more than once in a sentence, accompanied by an increasing heart rate and a pair of sweaty palms, I take a step back and assess the situation. Do I really have to? Says who? What will happen if I don’t? What do I WANT to do instead? Of course, this doesn’t mean we can get rid of all the unwanted tasks in our lives. Instead, it helps differentiate the important from the urgent and chips away at the irrational pressures we create for ourselves.
Additionally, I question my feelings of stress by adapting my perspective on two things: stakes and resources. When I decrease the stakes, and let’s be honest we tend to greatly inflate the negative consequences, the situation suddenly doesn’t seem that threatening anymore. Adding additional resources, such as more time or help from colleagues or friends, creates a feeling of manageability and control. Together, they positively impact my perception of stress.
We are often our biggest critic. We pick apart all our faults and analyse every mistake in detail, over and over again. To get out of this nasty spiral, I developed a strategy of self-kindness to become more resilient to critique – both that of others and my own. At the end of a meeting, after a difficult situation or simply before going to sleep, I take the time to have a mini evaluation session with myself. Instead of delving into what didn’t go well, I ask myself: What went well in this situation and what can I do better next time? Taking a moment to notice and reward the positive things increases the feeling of self-confidence, which is positively linked to mental resilience. Looking at what can be improved increases motivation - because I can’t change the past but I can change the future.
3. Managing my energy
The most important strategy in the long run is defining and living in your sweet spot - the intersection of personal talents and organisational needs, and home to an unlimited supply of energy. If you can do something that brings you joy every day, something that is in line with your beliefs and values, something that makes use of and fosters your personal talents, your mental resilience will soar. Almost like an immune booster, it lets you shake off negative events with ease. Reflecting on how much time you’re spending in your sweet spot and having open discussions with your manager and colleagues are key to success.
Building mental resilience means working on your mental muscles - adapting your assumptions and attitudes in order to gain the flexibility needed to bounce back from stress. It all starts with being willing to sweat. Are you ready?