Maintaining Resilience in 2020 and beyond.
5 tips from about managing stress from Entertainment Health Systems founder, Elizabeth Porter, (LPC-MHSP) Licensed Professional Counselor of Mental Health. Mental Health Services Provider.
Let’s start by acknowledging that by general consensus, 2020 has been challenging. Here in Nashville, many faced a living nightmare as a tornado tore through the city and surrounding areas in early March. Before individuals could catch their breath, a global pandemic took the stage and has wreaked havoc since then. With fear at the forefront, many individuals have experienced isolation, job instability, economic uncertainty, and for some, the unfortunate first-hand impact of the virus.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy” Martin Luther King
In the midst of the Covid pandemic, protest for racial justice and political unrest break out among the nation. No matter where you stand, 2020 has been a year of great change, but change can be a difficult process for people. I would be willing to bet that most of us have found ourselves at some point contemplating how much more we personally or collectively can endure from 2020. The empaths may feel guilty for such a thought, knowing there are so many with much worse off situations than theirs. But no matter how much perspective we try to keep, chances are the thought has found its way in at some point and we have felt the weight of it all, even if only briefly. The thought sounding a bit like, “This sucks!”
So how do we find things like “resilience” in 2020 and beyond? With no certain end in sight for Covid-19 and tension rising with an election around the corner, it can feel never ending. But it will end. Maybe not when or how we would like and perhaps with a new normal, but it will end, just as it has in the past.
But how do we continue to bounce back? Resilience. This is a trait I have witnessed with great admiration in communities here in Tennessee, especially after the tornado hit this year. However, what exactly is resilience and how do we maintain it in a year like this?
Resilience is not endurance. Resilience is the ability to pick yourself up after being knocked down. Endurance is the power to endure (or survive) a difficult situation. I believe that Marquita Herald says it best; "Resilience is the ability to be larger than any obstacles that you face. Enduring is all about survival while the goal of resilience is to thrive."
I love this quote and all it represents, but I winced as I wrote it out. I know for some, survival is all we can focus on right now and that is absolutely understandable. Eventually, we come out of survival mode and hopefully seek to thrive again. This is resilience, brushing yourself off, and getting back up again.
Early on in the 2020 pandemic, I came across one of those trending stories as I scrolled Facebook in a fruitless attempt to distract myself for a few minutes. The story was “Imagine if you were born in 1900” and in my recent search to find it again, I have found there are a few different versions (worth the read).
The general storyline walks you through being born in 1900 and the hardships you would endure in a lifetime. The Spanish Flu, World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, Smallpox, Korean War, Vietnam War, etc… There is something about grouping it all together this way that has the power to shift perspectives.
While I sat there humbled, reflecting on the current inconveniences of simply staying at home and rationing toilet paper, I also found myself slightly re-energized. This is resilience. This is what our grandparents/great grandparents did over and over again. Nearly every decade of their life brought some hardship or tragedy capable of breaking a person or at best knocking you on your bottom.
The Spanish Flu alone killed between 20 to 50 million people. For the sake of comparison, at the time I am writing this blog, Covid-19 reported deaths are just under one million. This is not to minimize the impact and losses related to Covid-19. Instead, let's reflect on the magnitude of hardships throughout history, seek inspiration, and learn from those before us.
As a psychotherapist for individuals who work in the entertainment industry, reliance and endurance are a hot topic the past 6 months. I am always impressed with the resilience I see in many of my clients, even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves, but sometimes we need a reminder or reboot. While our personal life circumstances and early childhood environments have a huge impact on an individual's level of resilience, it can also be taught or strengthened.
Below are five essential components in resilience and a brief description of how we can strengthen each area.
1. Breaking Negative Thought Cycles
When life gets tough, it is easy to get stuck contemplating the negative outcomes. We focus on mistakes of the past or future and build storylines that play in our heads over and over. We ruminate on these events as if it will bring us to some productive solution (it does not). It is important to practice catching and turning off these thoughts before they get carried away.
This “thought stopping” is when we catch ourselves in a negative thought pattern and make an active decision to take the steering wheel. We may get up and go for a walk or pick up another task for work or around the house. Whatever it is, the goal is to stop the spiral of thoughts before you find yourself spinning in the negativity. It’s not that we ignore potential negative outcomes, but rather we limit ourselves from overindulging in these thoughts.
Ruminating is not a productive use of our time and can have negative effects on motivation.
Set a time limit if you need to and allow yourself 10 minutes to wallow or stew in these negative thoughts each day, but that is all. Set the timer and when it dings, put the matter down and carry on with the day.
Easier said than done, but practice will strengthen the mind-muscle.
2. Resisting the urge to Catastrophize
The longtime friend of negativity is catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is a doomsday approach to situations - when we expect the absolute worst possible outcome.
Again, being aware of potential negative outcomes can be beneficial with planning ahead, but catastrophizing can cause unnecessary stress and decreased resilience. Signs of catastrophizing are when you find yourself often using the words “never” “always” “impossible”. These are absolute words and some examples include; “I’m never going to get this job” or “I always mess up my relationships”. I can hear it now… “But what if the statements are true?”.
If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard this rebuttal... Generally, these statements are not 100% factual, they are either emotional over-generalizations or completely fabricated.
Try going an entire week without using any absolute wording.
3. Finding the upsides or silver lining with obstacles
This may sound quite cliche, but the fact is this exercise has a positive effect on our brain, counteracting negative emotions, reducing stress hormones, and shortening the time it takes us to bounce back from a stressful event. A great friend and mentor (we’ll just call him Al) asked me in the beginning of this year's pandemic, “what does this make possible?”.
While this year has brought many new hardships, it has also caused many to stop and reflect on their lives. It has caused us to look closer at ongoing racial issues and political processes. It has prompted us to review healthcare systems and value things we maybe took for granted. It has opened my eyes to re-evaluating my priorities and building a stronger relationship with my children. These are just some of the silver linings I have observed, but I encourage you to ask the same thing in difficult times.
What does this make possible?
4. Acknowledging the benefits of past challenges
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Make a list of all the ways you have grown and things you learned from failures or challenges in the past.
Dive down into the specifics of events and find the benefits. That time you made a mistake with a presentation or missed a deadline likely taught you to better prepare. How many times do we learn time management the hard way or the lessons of over-committing? The harder life lessons can leave an even bigger impact and strengthen us in monumental ways. Recognizing the benefits of challenges or mistakes can help shift perspective and strengthen resilience.
5. Internal Locus of Control
Internal locus of control refers to the perception of being in control of what happens to us, while an external locus of control means an individual attributes it to external factors.
Internal locus of control is related to increased resilience by focusing on what we have control over. If we know we are facing a difficult period of time, making sure we are managing the things we have control over to the best of our ability, such as getting enough sleep, eating well, or getting exercise. These things can combat stress and boost resilience.
For example, If you know change is difficult for you, then challenge yourself to make small changes every day to prime your brain for bigger changes. No effort is too small. If you typically brush your teeth with your right hand, then spend a week brushing with your left hand. This is you taking one small step to embrace change. Face your fears one small step at a time. If you find yourself struggling with fear of judgment or preoccupied with other’s opinions, challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone and face the fear.
Do something others may think is silly, skip down the street, wear that loud bright orange t-shirt. I am a firm believer the world would be a happier place if we could all embrace our weird just a little more. This is focusing on internal locus of control, taking whatever steps you can towards addressing the problem.
Limit (if not eliminate) time overthinking factors in the external locus of control. There are plenty of things we have no control over. Don’t waste time growling at the weather, it doesn’t care if it has inconvenienced our plans for the day. With so much tragedy and uncertainty in 2020, protect yourself from spending too much time ruminating on things you have no control over.
For example, you can’t control elections, but you can encourage others to vote. You can’t control who is eventually elected, but you can get involved in your community or reach out to your city council. Giving external locus of control too much attention can leave you feeling powerless and risk putting you in a full victim role.
I recognize these are only a few steps towards developing greater resilience in a time of hardships for many people. But this is my locus of control. I may not be able to bring direct relief to the millions of people affected by the events in 2020, but I can take the time to type out the tools of resilience. I may not have the answers to an individual's problem, but I can share knowledge on maintaining a strong mind, so they can better manage. I hope as we move into 2021, we remember sharing hope and kindness can have the power to make any hardship a little more bearable and bring light to the darkest of moments.