Cultivate Resilience As A Leader

If there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that resilience is more important now than ever, especially as a leader.

So, if you’ve been overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty about what the future holds – or how you or your organization will even get there in the first place – you’re not alone.

With all these external stressors upending our regular routines, it’s become more crucial than ever to find ways to support our mental health and do what we can to make it through.

And of the ways available, psychologists believe that the one thing we need most is resilience.

What is resilience? 

Psychologists typically define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of trauma, tragedy, threats, or adversity in general – encompassing a wide range of stressors like family and relationship problems, serious health issues, or workplace and financial difficulties.

In other words: resilient people can cope, recover, and sometimes even grow from problems and challenges.

Does resilience make your hardships disappear?

Being resilient won’t make all your problems go away. Nor does it signify that you’d experience less grief, anxiety, or distress than the average person.

Resilience doesn’t mean you see life through a rose-colored lens; instead, it’s an attribute that gives you the strength to withstand and learn from challenging, traumatic experiences.

Hardships are inevitable in life.

At some point, you’re going to experience some form of setback, be it illness, job loss, or the death of a loved one. Resilience determines if you’re able to handle such adversity and rebuild your life after a catastrophe.

Individuals lacking resilience tend to fall into despair and hide from their problems with unhealthy coping strategies for an indefinite period, running into the risk of never fully recovering from their setbacks. They may even experience more psychological distress as a result.

And research agrees.

Studies show that a lack of resilience is associated with an increased risk of developing certain mental health conditions – including depression and anxiety.

On the contrary: resilient individuals typically report greater satisfaction with life and an enhanced sense of overall well-being.

In addition to being able to help protect against depression, resilience can lead to greater self-esteem, greater personal competence, greater hope, and a better ability to manage stressful circumstances.

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Resilience is a skill 

We’re all capable of resilience. According to the latest resilience research in neuroscience, our capacities for resilience are innate in the brain, hard-wired in by evolution.

However, how well these built-in capabilities develop depends on our responses to life experiences and how they shape our brains’ ‘neural circuitry.’

Whether we tend to recover from terrible setbacks or stay where we’ve been thrown – and mope around – depends on our learned patterns of response to our external environment (i.e., other people and events).

Whether we tend to recover from terrible setbacks or stay where we’ve been thrown – and mope around – depends on our learned patterns of response to our external environment (i.e., other people and events).

So does that mean that you can’t become more resilient because you already have a learned pattern of responses?

No, not at all. In fact, there are a few strategies to help “rewire” your responses to setbacks and increase your resilience.

So HOW, exactly, do you do that?

How to build resilience 

Ready to cultivate resilience? While there are countless potential ways to rebuild your resilience, here are three key tactics psychologists recommend time and time again.

#1 – Practice mindfulness

The benefits of practicing mindfulness are both wide-ranging and well-established – and given how popular meditation has become in recent years, you’re likely well familiar with a few: mindfulness prevents depression, increases body satisfaction, and promotes various aspects of cognition, including working memory and focus.

But here’s something surprising.

There is mounting evidence suggesting that mindfulness breeds resilience. Researchers aren’t sure of the exact mechanism through which this works yet.

But they believe that this is likely related to the fact that mindfulness leads to self-awareness and a shift in our perspective; it allows us to have moment-to-moment awareness of our experiences without unhelpful, harsh judgment; to respond to stressors and triggers with open-mindedness, and to face the process of necessary change with far more flexibility and tolerance.

These are all hallmarks of emerging resilience.

Now, the above are not just speculations. There is indeed evidence that practicing mindfulness can rewire your brain. Take, for example, a 2005 study that highlights the link between meditation practice and an increased thickness in the cortex–an area responsible for cognitive functions like sensory processing and attention.

The regular practice of mindfulness is also associated with increased gray matter in the left hippocampus, an area involved in memory and learning.

And so, to build resilience, carve out some time in your schedule to practice mindfulness.

#2 – Make time to express gratitude

As you already likely know, gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what you have.

But here’s the psychological definition: it’s the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, a general state of thankfulness and appreciation.

Think of a time where you were last grateful for something.

If it’s been a while, you may need to take steps to change it–that’s because research shows that grateful individuals are better able to utilize coping skills to defer stress and maintain a positive outlook on life. Do those characteristics sound familiar?

They should because they are the exact attributes resilient individuals possess!

And just so you know, the ability to bounce back from hardships is not the only benefit expressing gratitude confers.

Studies show that expressing gratitude can also significantly increase subjective, spiritual, and physical well-being. But wait, before you go around shouting “Thanks!” to everyone you come across, you might want to consider keeping a gratitude journal for maximal beneficial effect.

As the name suggests, this is, quite simply, a journal that helps you keep track of the good things in life.

And all you need to do is write down the things you’re grateful for daily: for example, your partner, parents, the food in your belly, the comfort of your bed. Etcetera.

#3 – Focus on what you’ve learned instead of the mistake committed

Do you often find yourself replaying or obsessing over negative situations? This is called “rumination” – a mental process of repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.

And as you can imagine, this is detrimental to the development of resilience.

Rumination can intensify negative thoughts and impair your ability to think and process emotions. This prevents you from moving forward. Put simply; you’re going to be stuck right where you’ve stumbled.

To short-circuit these obsessive, unhelpful thoughts and get back on track to a more resilient self, step back and ask yourself:

  • What can I learn from the experience?
  • What actions can I take moving forward?
  • What can I do next time?

Actually, write out the answers to these questions – then let the past go.

Focusing on learning will help you adapt and emerge stronger from adversity.

Resilience isn’t Developed Overnight

Even though you don’t have direct control over many of the hardships in your life, remember that you DO have the ability to develop greater resilience. And with greater resilience, you can cope, recover and adapt to those hardships in a way that protects you from many negative mental health effects, allows for greater life satisfaction, and contributes to your overall well-being.

You can start developing greater resilience today by taking up one or more of the practices described above – mindfulness, gratitude, and a focus on learning. Remember that resilience is a skill, and just like any skill, it takes practice. Focus on doing your best and get through these difficult times.

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Arnas Butkus
Arnas Butkus is a learner, writer, and coach. On his site, 11. Unlock The Hero, he offers actionable, research-backed guidance in matters of motivation, mindset, and personal development.
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