The past year has been challenging for us all, and the question I’ve heard most often when coaching teams and individual clients has been ‘how can I improve my emotional wellbeing?’

In my search for answers, I dug into the field of resilience. In the past 20 years there has been an explosion in resilience knowledge – what it is, how it functions, and how to develop it. Overall, resilience can help us to stay calm, stay focused on our goals, and to build better relationships and better sleep and health habits. Even better, there are many achievable ways to increase our own resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience helps us to turn adversity into advantage – not only do we bounce back from setbacks, we move forward. This is what enables us to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, despite the challenges we face.

Resilience isn’t just important for the ‘big stuff’ in life – major changes, loss, upheaval. It’s just as important for the small stuff – work stress, daily challenges and frustrations and so on. A great way to check your resilience level is to gauge your response to these small stressors. On a good day, when your resilience is high, you can most likely shrug or even laugh them off, and get on with your plans. But when resilience is low, those small frustrations can feel like impossible setbacks, and it can take time to get back on your feet. It’s a tell-tale sign that your resilience is not where it could be. The great news is that our resilience level isn’t static, we can work on and improve it. 

A tale of two brains

Our brains are equipped with a great warning system which enables us to spot threats and respond quickly. This is the limbic system or ‘impulsive brain’, and its default reactions to stress are ‘fight, flight or freeze’ – great if you’re on the savannah facing an animal predator, but fairly hopeless for a typical workday problem such as IT failure, bad traffic, or an irritable (or irritating) boss. This is when we need our ‘smart brain’ – the area in our prefrontal cortex known for its decision-making and reasoning capacities. Much of resilience training is about downregulating our limbic system and upregulating our smart brain. So, how do we do it?

The six domains

Research identifies six key areas which make up resilience. Whatever your level, undertaking small daily activities in each domain can vastly improve your resilience, and I’ve included some suggestions below.

Vision

We’re at our most positive when we have clear goals which we’re actively working towards and which don’t conflict with each other. Conversely, without clear goals we can feel frustrated and demotivated, and small things can easily knock us off course. Vision provides a bigger picture – something to inspire and motivate us even when the day-to-day is tough. So a starting point for raising resilience is to set clear and meaningful goals, however small. How you do this is up to you. You could work with a goal-setting app, with a buddy, with a manager or with a coach. Aim to identify one or two goals that feel authentic to you and which would make a positive impact on your life. Then start taking the steps you need to reach them.

Composure

When we’re composed, we’re better able to stay calm in the face of difficult situations. It helps our smart brain to turn down the volume on our pesky limbic brain – a keystone of resilience. A bit like a muscle, composure takes regular practice so that it’s there for us when we need it, but it need only take a few minutes. Composure strategies include deep breathing techniques, labelling emotions, finding activities that calm and relax you, and challenging negative thinking. Find one or two habits that appeal to you and aim to practice them daily.

Reasoning

This domain is all about our ability to anticipate, plan and problem solve. The best way to expand this capacity is by widening our knowledge – through reading, training courses or podcasts – and working on our strengths. You could also hold a forward planning session with your team to help you all rehearse some problem-solving skills.  

Tenacity

This is what many people think of when they think of resilience  – the ability to stick with a goal even when it’s tough. A great approach is ‘realistic optimism’, when you know the path will be tough, but you’re hopeful regardless. Research shows this is a more successful outlook than blind optimism or total negativity. If you’re struggling with motivation, try the ‘5, 4, 3, 2,1, GO!’ method. Start a countdown on the agreement with yourself that when you reach GO! you will do it.

Collaboration

We are social beings and few things boost our resilience as much as the support and connection of those around us. Covid restrictions might mean we have to be physically distant, but we can still be socially close. Make time to connect with others and show extra patience and understanding as many people are struggling right now – even if they’re hiding it. Perhaps reach out to someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while and say hello. Asking for and offering support is another way to deepen existing relationships.

Health

This is a new addition to the study of resilience, as researchers continue to uncover the huge impact our physical health has on our mental health. I’m not going to lecture you on how to improve your physical health – you probably already have a good idea of what you’re doing well and where you could improve. One of my fellow coaches uses the SHED acronym as a handy reminder of the key areas – Sleep, Hydration (water, not alcohol!), Exercise and Diet. Take an honest look over your schedule and identify one or two small positive changes you can make today.

Even if you choose only one of the six domains to work on, you’ll notice your resilience levels improve. Research suggests that the Vision domain is the most important, so it can be a good place to start. But listen to yourself and work out what feels most manageable for you right now. Follow the philosophy of small solutions – transformation doesn’t always need require big and daunting steps. Small, daily changes are easier to incorporate and have a huge impact over time. 

For more advice and suggestions, try www.home.hellodriven.com   – from the creators of the Six Domain model. The same organisation also offers a resilience app if you fancy a deeper dive and daily reminders for your resilience journey.

Rebecca Alexander

‘leadership coach and facilitator at The Coaching Studio’