One of the universal truths of life is that some pain is inevitable. There isn’t one of us that gets through an entire human existence without experiencing some psychological or emotional distress.
Resilience research looks at the aspects of someone’s psychology that allow them to ‘bounce back’ from difficulty. Understanding these resilience factors has become an important part of mental health research and practice. Being able to identify those who are at higher risk will help us to better target treatments and might eventually allow us to coach at-risk individuals in the practices that build resilience, potentially preventing psychological illness.
One note of caution, though: we should be careful when talking about resilience that we do not infer that someone who develops a psychological illness is somehow ‘weak’ or ‘not strong enough’. First of all, only a relatively small amount of our physical and mental health risk is in our hands. Secondly, this means that most people who stay healthy managed to get lucky in some way: inheriting the right genes for their environment; avoiding hardship in childhood; having brain wiring that could tolerate the environment they found themselves in; having loving parents who supported their emotional and personality development, and so on.
So how can we cultivate resilience, a psychological capacity to bounce back from challenging or traumatic situations, lower stress-reactivity and reduce risk of depression?
- Making time to invest in friendships and close relationships is probably the most important single thing you can do to improve your resilience. Be sure not to neglect the important people in your life. Make it a rule to schedule a regular catchup, with penalties for cancelling, such as buying your friends an expensive dinner or agreeing to wash their car. If you know you are bad at keeping in touch, set yourself reminders. Put it in your diary to encourage yourself to make maintaining friendships at least as important as work.
- You become what you see or what you believe yourself to be, so surround yourself with people who live value-driven lives. They don’t need to have exactly the same values as you, but they should be people whom you think are good role models.
- Physical health contributes to psychological resilience (but you knew that already) so do what you can to eat well, exercise regularly, maintain good sleep and manage stress.
- Consider joining a local team or meet-up group. This can help to foster a sense of community and help you to meet new people. Whether it’s hockey, walking or a book club, local interest groups are a great place to meet people and deepen connections.
- Avoid unnecessary risks but do not shy away from challenge. Keep challenging your brain with novelty and learning opportunities. Keep challenging your courage by practising vulnerability and honesty.
- Take some time to work out what you stand for. What do you want your life to mean? The meaning for your life does not have to be earth-shattering; personal and private definitions of meaning and success can be powerful. What positive difference could you make to your family, friends or your town?
- Try to cultivate an attitude of realistic optimism. This will help to prevent you from being blown over by small fluctuations in fortunes, saving your energy for when you need it most.
- Read more in How to Build a Healthy Brain by Kimberley Wilson, published by Yellow Kite, £16.99