Resilience

I originally wrote this article in 2018. Since then, coaching for personal resilience and mental wellbeing has seen a surge of interest, with individuals and organisations both keen to find ways to reduce the toll of ever-increasing demands on their mental and physical health, increase their ability to adapt flexibly and positively to change, and start thriving rather than simply coping.

The extraordinariness of 2020 has brought this into even sharper focus. In the early weeks of the pandemic, many of us went into a heightened energy state of adaptation – described by Ann Masten as the ‘surge capacity’ we draw upon in short-term survival situations, rather like an emotional and physical power bank to help us navigate a crisis effectively. Except that, as the acute phase became chronic, our uncertainty over how long the uncertainty would last continued to stretch out, and we found ourselves with little opportunity to recharge through many of our usual means of self-care, we were all left significantly depleted. 

In the immediate crisis stage there is often increased clarity as people are forced to focus on a delimited set of priorities and they pull together more than ever before. Individually, however, the adaptation can often come at profound cost to our wellbeing as we try to prioritise performance. Crisis can bring out the best in us, but can also make us revert to a lower level of emotional function. 

I’ve read a lot of very well-written pieces in the past few months about finding new ways to be in this brave new world. There is so much in the resilience science to draw from and so much good advice out there about identifying your own set of primary resilience factors – certainly far too much to distil into one short article. I hope, however, that some of this will prove helpful to you. If you’re finding life particularly challenging right now, there are really just three things that I hope you will take from this: 

(1) You are not alone and there is plenty of support out there. 

(2) Be kind to yourself; there is no shame in struggling and feeling overwhelmed. 

(3) All you need to focus on is the next step. The rest can be something for another day.

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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I bend, I don’t break.

I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

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It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity. Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

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What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. It marks resilience out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about resilience factors – here are some that I think are particularly important, although resilience studies have identified dozens more: 

(1) Finding meaning

Purpose is a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause can give important direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?

(2) Flexibility, Perspective and the Big Picture

Inflexible patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. What can you learn from this adversity? How can you widen your perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can you control about this situation (conversely, are you expending energy in wrestling with what is actually outside of your control)? 

(3) Thinking Space 

It’s difficult to get perspective when you’re mired in the doing and the detail. What time are you taking to get the necessary headspace that will allow you to take a step back for a more objective evaluation? Resting from its incessant activity is what the brain needs to really harness its creativity and problem-solving capability. 

(4) Support

Resilience is not helped by social isolation. How can you reach out for help? What positive and mutually supportive relationships can you build? 

(5) Mindfulness

Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.

(6) Proactivity

What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to take back control is to take one small step at a time.

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your personal resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd

Slow Down Retreat, 22-24 November 2019, Cotswolds

***20% discount when quoting Quiet Space!! Say I sent you and pay just over £350 rather than the normal price of £445 for a shared room***

Exciting news! I’ve joined the Slow Down Retreats team to deliver a very special retreat weekend from 22-24 November in the luxurious surroundings of Cotswold Park Barns.

It’s going to be a weekend of relaxation, yoga and meditation, and nourishment for body, mind and soul. Time for you, time to breathe deep and press pause. Time to rest, to unwind, to find some headspace, and to sleep.

I’ll be leading a group session during the retreat focused on self-care and self-acceptance – do you know what your body and mind need and what replenishes you (and conversely, what drains your energy)? How kind are you to yourself? We’ll be working to identify your personal strengths and your unique self-care recipe, and discussing how we can all move towards self-acceptance.

Full details are available at Slow Down Retreats. I’d be thrilled to see you there!

Reconnection: A prescription for depression

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I’m curled up in a cosy cafe this morning thinking, reading and drinking chai. I’m thinking primarily about two people I’ve been in touch with recently who were seeking coaching, except I had to gently explain that based on the information they had given me, it was my view that coaching was unlikely to be an appropriate intervention for them at this time. So I signposted them to their GPs and various resources, explaining why they might first need to seek some clinical or psychotherapeutic help to support them in coping with daily life.

If someone is in need of therapeutic intervention, it’s important for coaches to recognise this and be clear about their ethical remit. Once someone is receiving the right therapeutic support, however, coaching can be a useful adjunct to support them in reaching specific goals in the present (focusing on achieving potential and improving performance, rather than the more coping-oriented nature of therapy).

I’m finding this book interesting (Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, by Johann Hari). The blurb on the back talks about a ‘radical new way of thinking’ about depression and anxiety, but I’m not so sure – it strikes me as common sense to uncover and address the underlying causes, not simply seek to treat the symptoms. It’s why, in my coaching work, we focus precisely on some of the ‘prescriptions’ Hari writes about: meaningful work, meaningful values, and reconnecting to others and the natural world.

Perhaps, though, it’s been my own journey through and out the other end of depression that has taught me these things. So I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you, even though I am only on page 46.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

I’m Fine

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The thing about mental health is that you can never really know how someone is feeling simply by looking at them. People put on all sorts of masks every day – to feel safe, to feel normal, to stop people telling them to cheer up, it might never happen. I’m fine!

Well, sometimes you’re not. It won’t last forever, but while you’re in that space, it can be very distressing, and sometimes frightening.

Check in on your friends and family. Take time to really listen, to go past the small talk and make a genuine connection. Don’t judge or jump to conclusions. Be kind, and gentle with other people’s hearts. We need that more than ever the way this world seems to be going.

What does “doing your best” mean to you?

IMG_8618“Good, better, best, never let it rest – till your good is better, and your better best.”

Let’s be clear, striving for improvement is important. Putting in good effort is important. Not allowing yourself to give up as soon as the going gets tough is important. It is however all too possible to go way too far in the opposite direction and work yourself into the ground.

Doing your best does not equate to sacrificing your mental or physical health. It does ask that you try to cultivate a spirit of optimism and an attitude towards ‘failure’ that recognises that if you have tried hard and you have learnt something, then you have already succeeded. It is a journey towards realising that your value does not depend on your achievements.

So by all means keep striving and learning. Just don’t forget that you are already worthy. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Emotional boundaries

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I can’t stress enough the importance of self-care and establishing good boundaries. There is always an internal cost to expending emotional energy and you need to know when to step back and respect your own boundaries. It isn’t selfish; it allows you to decompress so that later on you can continue to give. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first so that you can make sure you’re able to put on someone else’s.

Take care of yourself, ok?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Words to myself, at 10, 15, 18, 21, 32 and 35

IMG_8161I am really proud of how this little girl has turned out.

If I had the chance to say something to her at the age of 10, I’d say things get a lot better. The days won’t always be so dark. You won’t always be bullied and this is making you much, much stronger.

If I had the chance to say something to her at the age of 15, I’d say that you are incredibly beautiful, and strong, and perfectly enough. You have always been perfectly enough. Let those who love you support you.

To her at the age of 18, I’d say this relationship is not good for you. Know that others love you so much and the world isn’t going to end if you break up with him. You will learn to value and love yourself and how to stand up for yourself. You’ll learn how not to be emotionally blackmailed.

To her at 21, I’d say that others don’t love you because of your grades and your achievements. Truth be told, these things matter quite little in the larger scheme of things. People love you just because you are you. No matter what.

To her at 32, I would say that you don’t have to be a perfect mum, wife, daughter, employee. You don’t have to be perfect, full stop.

And to her at 35, I’d say you’ll hit rock bottom, but the only way is up. And what a fabulous journey it’s going to be. I promise. Things won’t always be easy, but you’ll finally have learnt to love yourself. And it’s then that you will truly be able to give, give, give. God had a plan for you after all. And you’ll be filled with gratitude.

Looking forward to whatever’s round the corner. This world is so big and so full of promise.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Beat

It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week and I’m supporting the #sockittoeatingdisorders campaign by @beat.eating.disorders.

I was anorexic (and briefly bulimic) the year I turned 15, and I still remember the trigger which was a throwaway comment from my gymnastics coach about how I’d put on weight. I lost nearly 20% of my body weight over that year, could no longer sit without pain as I had no fat left, and my hands could encircle my waist. I recovered and avoided hospitalisation through lots of love from family and close friends. I am no longer anorexic, having learnt to actually love food while at University and in the intervening years to finally love myself too. Which is a good thing, because a few years ago someone in the queue behind me at work commented quietly about me, “So she does eat after all.”

Beat provides support, tackles barriers to desperately needed treatment, and challenges the stigmas around eating disorders. Education and understanding is important – a thoughtless comment in itself might not normally have much significance, but when you’re already battling several psychological factors, sometimes the combined heft is enough to push you over the edge.

So everyone, please be aware, be kind, take care with your words and don’t be afraid to be there to support people when they fall.

You can support Beat in this important work too. If you’re in the UK you can easily donate directly from your mobile phone by texting the code UAUA05 followed by your donation amount to 70070 – for example, to donate £10 text: UAUA05 £10

To anyone who’s battling right now: talk to someone. It’s possible to recover and you are worth the fight.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Time to Talk Day 2018

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Too many people with mental health problems are made to feel isolated, worthless and ashamed. Time to Talk Day is a chance for all of us to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.

I’ve written several times about my own struggles with mental health. I’m in a good place right now, but I remember all too vividly the worst days – the uncontrollable crying, the inability to get out of bed let alone leave the house, the nearly irresistible urge to just run away from everything and disappear.

What I have decided to share for the first time, however – because I think I should walk the talk about being open – is that anorexia and body dysmorphia also form part of my history. I thought I should mention it because to me it feels more taboo than depression. That in itself is reason to talk about it. I find this interesting. Why should it be so? Maybe it somehow seems more superficial, despite my knowing that this is worlds away from the truth.

Wherever you are today, tonight – start your own conversation about mental health. Be kind, always. Choose your words carefully. Try not to judge. You never know what battles a person is fighting.

And if you’re battling right now, I wrote this poem for you. Hang in there. It gets better. I love you.

i looked at you today
when you were contemplating alternatives
to semblances of normal; stiff upper lips
and the notion that if it’s not ok, it’s not over

you were wearing your usual colours
blue, grey, black
— like a bruise, blooming
you turned to me, and i had a fancy

i could smell salt; you spoke
under your breath, soft,
as if navigating some provisional distance
to get to anywhere but here

and i wanted to wrap you up
in a cocoon
as if to say don’t touch, not ready
tell the world you’re tired

you’ll come out when you’re ready
i know you’ll come out when you’re ready

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd