Building resilience for mental health

Guest blog post by John Dyer – 10 minute read

resilience for mental health - John Dyer

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear the word resilience mentioned in some context. So what is it? Often it’s linked to the concept of recovering or bouncing back from setbacks. You might think of people going through incredible hardship and coming out the other side, or athletes going through an injury and coming back to compete. 

While I certainly think this is part of the definition, I also find it a bit narrow. We all know life has ups and downs, and for some these are more extreme than for others. 

After 11 years working for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, I am acutely aware of the extremes people face and have seen it first-hand.  But outside of these we all have ups and downs, face our own challenges, and struggle with them. If you’ve been experiencing mental health problems then you’ll be acutely aware of this.  

Today this is most commonly seen through the increased incidents of stress, burnout, suicide, and violence occurring in a fast paced world: signs of hardship people are going through and for which they need to build resilience. In this context what does resilience mean, how can we develop it, and what can we do about it? 

What does resilience look like?

If we accept that life has its ups and downs, our journey is a bit like a sine curve. Through the centre is what we can call our “natural state” and the troughs and peaks are times that take us away from that.

I like the definition of resilience as “your ability to return to your natural state and clarity when you lose it”, showing that it’s not just about the lows but also the highs. 

Resilience curve

Thinking about the old cliché “life is a journey”, the blue line represents an upwards trend which is our journey. Through it we learn and grow, so ultimately when we come back to our natural state we are further ahead than we were before, and more capable. This represents resilience to me. This resilience is what we develop over time, and use to keep going through our own challenges. It’s how we come out the other side of things like burnout, sometimes without even realizing it. Most importantly, its key to us managing our mental health. 

How goals help develop resilience

You might be asking yourself how you can start to develop your resilience, or wondering whether you are resilient. That’s where goals come into play! Any journey should have goals to help provide us with direction. They may change over time and we can develop new ones, but they help provide us with perspective so we can look at any deviations on our journey through the lens of: “where am I going and what am I trying to achieve?”.  

Often in a moment of “crisis” (burnout, panic attack, anxiety)  we feel that the deviation we’re experiencing is significant – and is going to derail us. This is because we are too stuck in the moment and don’t have perspective – another way goals are helpful. 

Using perspective and recognizing achievements 

Considering life is a journey and thinking about resilience, it’s more important than ever to remember that you’re constantly learning. Yet one of the main traps that can contribute to poor mental health or feelings of low resilience is that we often don’t recognise, or give ourselves credit for what we have learned and achieved. 

That doesn’t mean shouting how good you are from the rooftops, rather it’s about recognising that in your natural state you are capable, you have achieved things and already worked through ups and downs before (perhaps even significant ones). From those you can draw lessons and apply them going forward. 

One simple example is this: remember when you first learned to ride a bike (or swim, or drive a car). I didn’t think I would ever be able to and told my father “I can’t”. But, I persevered and eventually was able to. Now when riding a bike I don’t even think about it. 

How often do we apply this to our adult lives and recognise what we have achieved, even to ourselves? Not often enough. Particularly when we are struggling with our mental health and feeling burned out, overwhelmed or depressed, we tend to neglect our achievements and get stuck in the spiral of negative (and sometimes irrational thoughts). 

When we think about our life’s lessons and what to take forward, we often need to dig a bit deeper. We are looking for the strengths or power sources that we used to get through things. When I am coaching, I like to ask people about a time they had to deal with a challenge and think how they got through it. The goal is to identify the things that make them who they are – strengths, beliefs, values.  Things that coaches talk about as being “below the surface”, but that define the individual. 

These are what you often call on subconsciously to get through challenges. If you can identify them and understand them, you can use them again.

Tips to apply the principles of resilience 

If you’re going through a rough time and struggling with your mental health, find someone you trust to talk to (coach or friend). Try the exercise I mentioned above with them, ask them to question you and see if they can identify what makes you who you are, gradually working through it.  

If you’re not ready to try with someone else yet or can’t find anyone, sit down in a quiet place and:

  1. Visualise a past success.  In achieving it what qualities, beliefs, mindsets, innate strengths can you identify as contributing to that success? List them. Don’t worry if this seems difficult or if it takes you a while to come up with the answers. If you’re not used to doing this it’s normal, but be patient and eventually some answers will come that you can look back on as ways in which you built your resilience. 
  2. Reflect on the goal(s) you identified previously. How can you use the qualities, mindsets, strengths you just listed, as you work toward achieving this goal?

We are emotional beings. Neuroscientists and psychologists talk about the emotional part of the brain being the fastest and strongest so whether we like it or not our first response is an emotional one. Sometimes we get in our own way due to emotional influences. We don’t want to lose touch with our emotions, but we do need to find ways to create balance and bring the cognitive parts of our brain into play so we can get out of our own way when we need to.  

To do this we need to find the space and tools that will enable us to reflect. It can also be helpful to just ask yourself: “If I did nothing about this thing that is taking me away from my natural state, what would happen? Sometimes if we do nothing things naturally regain their equilibrium. If we try to “fix” it sometimes we’re getting in our own way! So before jumping in there to fix your situation, take the time to slow down and think about it. 

When you are experiencing one of those peaks or troughs, find that quiet place again. Maybe it’s sitting down or out walking – somewhere you can just chill. 

Some practical questions to ask yourself if you’re feeling overwhelmed 

  • What is my goal? 
  • Where am I heading? 
  • What do I want to achieve?
  • What are my strengths?
  • What have I used before to get through challenges? 

It’s important to give yourself credit for what you have done in the past. Recognise that you are a capable individual and that you have proven that before. 

Above all, give yourself some credit for what you have done before.Use the experiences from the past to deal with current and future challenges. Give yourself some space and be conscious of when you are getting in your own way.

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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