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Mental resilience has appeared a lot in our conversations lately as the world reckons with life under various levels of lockdown. For many, the world has never felt so small and out of reach. Now more than ever we must marshal our mental resources to respond to this moment productively, despite the disruption of Covid-19.
The American Psychological Association (APA) says that mental resilience means “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” For some people, greater resilience feels instinctive: they bounce back where others give up, they’re buoyant and outwardly focused where others are weighed down and seemingly paralysed by excessive introspection and self-doubt. Resilience, however, can be learned, and like most things the best teacher is practice.
Becoming resilient: You can control more than you think
Research into naturally resilient children shows that they tend to meet the world on their own terms. They are not necessarily the most talented or gifted, but they do in psychological terms maintain a strong internal locus of control, believing that they are masters of their own fate and can do something about a difficult situation.
Someone with a largely external locus of control, by contrast, may believe that success or failure is up to chance or fate. While neither approach is inherently good or bad, and in reality success is often both self-determining and serendipitous, people with a stronger internal locus of control are more likely to be achievement and goal oriented, which can strongly predict good outcomes (or as they might say, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”).
Reframe your "bad" experiences
A useful tool for developing mental resilience is to watch how you frame events in your mind. A frightening event can either be permanently debilitating or act as a springboard into something new and valuable. This is often easier said than done, especially in South Africa where a bad experience could range from being retrenched to a personal experience of violent crime.
Some events are setbacks, and some are genuine traumas, but we all have some agency in the story we tell ourselves. This self-narrative is shown to be one of the biggest predictive factors regarding mental fortitude, psychological adaptation and mental resilience.
But just as we can learn to bounce back (or in fact, forward) by processing and internalising an event into our life story positively, we can also learn to do the opposite, creating neuroses by exaggerating or looping a negative experience. Frame adversity as a challenge and you become more flexible: you’re able to deal with it, learn from it, and grow. Frame it as a threat in which you feel powerless and you will remain inflexible, creating an enduring problem with negative repercussions.
Cultivate good habits: The 4Cs
Instead of “mental resilience”, psychology professor Peter Clough prefers the term “mental toughness” as it is more targeted and action focused. His theory is that when we go through emotional storms, we should do more than just try to survive. We should learn to identify all the ways in which we are capable of meeting the external demands placed upon us.
Just like an internal locus of control, Clough’s model asks us to focus on what we can control as a more productive response to stress. Clough says this is why mentally tougher people do better in stressful situations and are more likely to find themselves in senior leadership positions.
Clough and his colleagues developed the 4Cs model of resilient thinkers: control, commitment, challenge and confidence.
- Control – Can I learn to control my emotions and purpose, and be less distracted by the emotions of others?
- Commitment – Can I set goals, routines and habits, and do I trust myself to stick to them?
- Challenge – Is change a threat or an opportunity? Can I be flexible and agile enough to adapt?
- Confidence – Do I believe I can be productive and capable? If I’m deterred, do I give up or is my resolve strengthened?
Start with three simple habits
No one can pretend that the current pandemic is easy to bear. But building mental resilience starts with realising that you are better empowered than you think. Here are three simple starting points to build your mental reserves:
1. Stay flexible
There’s a time for experiencing strong emotions, and a time to focus on the everyday practicalities required to continue functioning optimally. Keep both in balance as you take action to meet the demands of daily life.
2. Break things up into manageable pieces
Write down anxiety-inducing scenarios, and then formulate small, achievable steps to overcome them. You don't have to overcome your biggest challenges all at once, but by reconsidering some of our biggest "asks" as a series of small manageable achievements, often the end result is not as difficult as what we had originally perceived.
Perhaps you’re so worried about contracting Covid-19 that you feel unable to leave your house for essential items, even while wearing a mask and maintaining a strict physical distance from others. Start managing this anxiety by wearing a mask and taking a 50 metre walk outside your house during allocated exercise hours. Then make it 100 metres. Then drive to your closest shop, and so on.
3. Frame “change” as an adventure
What if change wasn’t something scary, but simply a new direction? By changing the narrative in your mind, you can focus on the things you can control and allow a daunting experience to grow you rather than set you back forever.