How to stay sane: Personal resilience training

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Do you feel under pressure to deliver at work? You could do with a spot of resilience training. Mark Walsh will see you now.
I help people build their personal resilience and stay sane in difficult environments - in both the high-pressure business world and in areas of more obvious conflict globally. Personal resilience training is something we can all benefit from so we 'bounce rather than break' under the pressures, hassles and opportunities for growth (ie more pressures and hassles) of life. Training, coaching and HR are industries which often involve unpredictability, long hours and challenging interactions, so I practice what I teach and hope it will be of some use to my peers.
Resilience is a skillset that can be built. Resilience training is preventative, building people's capacity to manage stress gracefully and best done integrally - incorporating body, mind, emotions, systems and social/cultural aspects. This article offers a few practical tips for anyone whose life isn't always easy.

Mental resilience training

It is not external events but our minds that create stress. This may seem like an odd idea but consider two people stuck in a traffic jam. One may get annoyed thinking about how unfair it and dwelling on the appointment they will miss while another may take it in their stride, saying to themselves "heh, that's life, at least I can listen to the radio for a change". It's the thought process that creates stress, not just the stimulus that initiates it. The following are some good resilient thinking strategies:
  • Acceptance of what can't be changed. Acceptance is a key component of resilient thinking - don't fight reality, you won't win
  • An internal 'locus of control'- ie not being a victim. The balance to acceptance is agency - feeling empowered to change the things you can
Other important psychological and behavioural factors include:
  • Creative problem solving
  • Flexibility
  • Realistic optimism
  • Maintaining positive and stable self-esteem
  • Managing (but not repressing) emotions
  • Managing stress and conflict skilfully (not confrontational or avoidant)
  • Humour
  • Mindfulness and spirituality
There is now a large evidence base to show that being present to the here and now is great for stress and resilience. The human animal has the capacity to self-generate a lot of stress through dwelling on the past and constructing terrible potential futures in the mind. Very often the present is not so bad and even when it is mindfulness can stop the dissociation that leads to future trauma related problems. This is somewhat counter intuitive as people disassociate for a good reason under extreme stress, as it is counter-intuitive that mindfulness can reduce pain as Kabat-Zinn and colleagues have done for years.
Other spiritual practices such as prayer, gratitude (shown by positive psychology to be an important variable) and more formal meditation also have a positive effect on resilience in:

Limiting beliefs

As well as the resilient thinking strategies highlighted the opposite 'limiting beliefs' or narratives that can undermine resilience. If I believe that "all people are selfish and weak at the core" how resilient will I be and how easily will I be able to ask for help for example? We live 'in' our beliefs as fish in water and examining them is crucial for resilience. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) deals in depth with some of the factors I've identified so far and is the basis of the resilience program used by the US military.

Embodied resilience training

Maintaining good physical health is a key foundation of resilience. The fundamentals of good diet, plenty of exercise, rest, good quality sleep and minimal alcohol and other drug intake cannot be ignored as they have a huge effect on how much pressure someone can handle. Beyond the basics of health, physical grounding and centring exercises to manage stress arousal can also build resilience (they are for example now used by the Australian Defence Force). The following is the ABC 'centring' technique to manage stress:
  • Aware: be mindful of the present moment using the five senses, especially feeling the body, ground (yourself on your chair and feet) and your breath
  • Balance: in posture and attention. Have an expansive feeling
  • Centre-Line Relaxed: relax your mouth and stomach - breathe deeply into your belly
(Also - connected to reason why you are doing this and to other people)
It is my view that it is absolutely essential to involve the body when working with resilience, stress and trauma prevention as these matters are limbic and brain stem affairs.
Other forms of stress-busting body awareness practices such as yoga and tai chi are also recommended for resilience. Because stress happens in the body, building at least some body awareness and learning a few physical defusing and arousal reduction techniques will massively aid resilience.

Social support, culture and resilience training

No matter how well you manage your stress in body and mind you will also need other people to be truly resilient. Social support and empathy are critical factors in psychological resilience, so if you want to bounce not break build a support network around you and invest in relationships. Equally if you want to help those around you, really listen to them; empathy is a great gift that builds resilience.
Cultural factors can also have a huge impact on resilience. For example how does a training organisation or society orientate around attachment and intimacy? Is emotional repression the norm? What archetypes and metaphors are used when discussing resilience? Any effective resilience training programme needs to consider culture very carefully. Around the world beliefs have an effect on resilience - for example is it a fair world? Does fate, karma, or the will of the gods decide how life turns out?

Resilience, environmental factors and organisational structures

Environmental factors have been shown to significantly effect stress. Background noise is a good example for office workers, and contact with the natural world is also a stress-buffer. Even ensuring you receive a little natural light and get a few house plants can make a big difference. Many people also find organising and cleaning their environment to have an impact on stress and wellbeing.
I highly recommend that organisations develop appropriate support structures. Good organisational systems are necessary such as effective and humane HR procedures, strong leadership development programs (managers are often a major stressor) and Employee Assistance Programmes(EAPs) which may for example employ counsellors on a 'listening-line' where necessary. For many independent trainers, coaches and HR managers this type of support may not be available and networks become doubly important.
I believe that effective resilience training and preventative stress management measures are the future making sense ethically, operationally and financially. Whatever job you're in and whatever stresses you face I hope a few of these resilience tips are of use. There are more tips and videos in the link below.
Mark Walsh leads Integration Training - a specialist 'embodied' training provider. They work with stress management training, business leadership training and resilience training and are based in Brighton (Sussex), Birmingham and London UK. His clients include multi-national blue chip companies, the Sierra Leonian Army, UNICEF and The Institute of Development Studies. He also leads Achilles, a resilience training initiative supporting people in conflict zones. Prior to this he worked for a charity in areas of conflict worldwide. In his spare time Mark meditates, dances, practices aikido and enjoys being exploited by two cats and a niece  

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