Dealing with a setback is never easy, and while highs and lows are a part of life, picking yourself back up again is a skill in itself. Being emotionally resilient enables us to handle knock-backs, so here’s our how-to guide on toughening up
If you find yourself reaching for a glass of wine every evening to try and regain some sense of calm following a day of work and family commitments, you’re probably not alone. Almost 60 percent of adults drink alcohol in order to cope with the stresses of everyday life, as a study from Drinkaware (drinkaware.co.uk) revealed.“Women in their 30s to 40s are the people I see the most,” says Dr Harry Barry, international author of Emotional Resilience: How to Safeguard Your Mental Health. “There’s an expectation in life that women should have everything in place at this age – a stable job, children, a good relationship etc. Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to have it all and to be perfect in all these roles.” Developing emotional resilience not only means that we can adapt to swings and changes in life (big and small) but that we get less caught up on what we think we should be doing and focus on what really matters instead.
“Humans cannot be rated,” explains Dr Barry, “yet it’s what we all seem to do, and it doesn’t benefit our mental health at all.” Basing your self-worth on your successes and failures will only make you miserable. To banish the need for perfectionism, it helps to challenge why you feel the need to be perfect in the first place. “Write down when and where you seem to be seeking perfection in your life and then ask yourself whether it’s actually achievable and whether your developing unhealthy behaviours trying to meet these expectations,” advises Dr Barry. “We can’t be rated by our successes and failures and, once we realise that, everything else becomes a lot easier.”
To be emotionally resilient means prepping yourself for uncertainty. “Each one of us will encounter periods of stress throughout our lives, and with that comes uncertainty,” says Dr Barry. Learning to adapt to change can be hard, so to get better at it, add daily uncertainty to your life. “Try flipping a coin to determine whether or not you’ll do the things you normally do on weekly basis. For example, if you have a glass of wine every Friday night, use the coin to determine whether or not you’ll have that drink,” recommends Dr Barry. Do you think about not being able to have that glass or wine for the rest of the evening? Or do you shrug your shoulders and order a glass of sparkling water instead? “By the time you’ve repeated the coin exercise for a four-week period, uncertainty will be embedded as the norm and you’ll learn to adapt to it faster”.
Ever been told by another family member to just ‘think positively’ when you’re stressed? Positive thinking isn’t a solution, but what does work when we’re under pressure is to think pragmatically. “Accept your emotions, then think of a solution,” explains Dr Barry. “Thinking pragmatically and problem solving go hand-in-hand.” One of the best ways to start shifting your mindset is to write your problems down, then disentangle them. “Prioritise the issues first, then break each one down even further. Come up with a list of options that could potentially solve the problem and then either accept or reject them as a possibility. It may take a bit of time and research, but what you’ll end up with is a small number of realistic solutions.”
If it’s midweek and you’re hiding in the staff toilets, dreading having to go back to your desk, then it’s safe to say that you’re probably ‘toxically stressed’. The symptoms tend to manifest physically and can include persistent fatigue, tension, poor concentration, feeling annoyed and bowel problems. Even the most chilled out people in your social circle find things stressful – they just understand how to deflect it better. “Learning the ABC system is a simple, but effective way of managing stress,” Dr Barry says. “Find the trigger of the stress, then write down how you’re feeling and the conclusions you’ve made because of the initial trigger.” This can show you whether or not you’re seeing the worstcase scenario for something that’s actually minor. “If it’s losing your job, then you’re assuming that will make you a failure. That takes us back to the original rating system we talked about earlier. You’re not a product of your successes and failures.”
A key trait of people who always seem to be able to pick themselves back up? A good sense of humour. “It stops us feeling sorry for ourselves,” explains Dr Barry. “It means you’re less likely to carry grudges, and in the face of a bad situation, you can throw humour back at it.” Finding it difficult to laugh at your other half not taking the bins out for the third time this month? Try and take a step back from the situation and observe it from someone else’s perspective. Recognise the potential humour and everything will seem a little lighter.
Not taking on other people’s problems involves understanding the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. “Developing a radar for positive and negative empathy is important for becoming better equipped to deal with difficult situations,” explains Dr Barry. If you’re bearing the full brunt of your best friend’s breakup with her boyfriend and it’s becoming draining, then be kind but firm, and set a time limit on being a soundboard.
If you’re a mum, then your priority pyramid probably starts with your children at the top, then work, and then your relationships with your partner and wider family. But being emotionally resilient means putting yourself at the top. “I think one of the most important things to understand is that putting yourself at the top of your list of priorities, will benefit everyone else,” says Dr Barry. “It’s often women and, in particular, mums, who believe it’s selfish to put themselves first, but that will only lead to burnout and have a knock-on effect on everyone around you.” The takeaway message? Allocate your time wisely. If you’re feeling stretched out, then try and work out the percentage of time you’re spending on other people and adjust it accordingly.