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  • Writer's pictureFelicity Baker

Resilience Quick Reads: Using Resilience Skills to Thrive in a Crisis

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane, and supported during the current crisis. This time we’re discussing how you can use your resilience skills to thrive in a crisis.

When we began writing this series of quick reads back in March 2020, it was the start of lockdown. We were all dealing with a whole host of immediate threats and challenges associated with managing our work and home lives, and having to find ways of balancing the threat of exposure to the virus with business as usual.

As time has moved on, despite some easing of restrictions, we continue to experience high levels of uncertainty, changing demands and difficult decisions about how best to protect ourselves and our families, as we navigate the various threats to our physical and mental health, our livelihoods and the education of our children.

So, although the situation has evolved over the last 9 weeks, and we have found ways to get by, we remain in a process of adaptation and flux. As we enter the next phase of challenges, this is a good point to reflect on which coping skills and strategies have been useful to us, helping us to stay resilient, and to explore new ways of building our resilience and wellbeing.

What is resilience?

Resilience is commonly thought of as a capacity for bouncing back. We know from research that resilient people experience the same initial stress reactions as the rest of us, but are able to manage the signs and symptoms of stress effectively to bounce back more quickly.

Resilience is also about being flexible and able to adapt to new challenges. Resilient people do this by calming sympathetic nervous system arousal. Calming their physiological response to threat, helps them to override the amygdala hijack that switches the thinking brain off and sends us into fight or flight  This leaves them better able to manage threat emotions in the moment, to think flexibly and find ways to adapt to the situation.

The ability to grow through adversity – ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ – is also a feature of resilience. Resilient people draw on their inner strengths to cope and respond effectively to threat and, in doing so, discover new strengths and abilities, building confidence in their capacity to manage future challenges.

Many of our blogs over recent months have focused on the particular skills and strategies that help resilient people to manage effectively in a crisis. Here we draw them together to help you think about your own resilience, what you are doing well and what skills you might want to develop further.

Resilience skills for managing in the moment

Our emotional reactions to crisis or threat can be overwhelming. They take over our brains and bodies and make it hard for us to function as normal.

To be resilient, we first need to calm these reactions by using strategies to soothe the sympathetic nervous system arousal. A useful technique for this is slow rhythmic breathing. This is a skill that takes practice but can be useful in a whole host of situations that might cause us to feel stressed or overwhelmed.

To try out this technique take the following simple steps:

  1. Breathe in slowly over a count of, say, 4 seconds

  2. Breathe out for a longer count of, say, 6 seconds

  3. Pause at the end of the out-breath

  4. Repeat

Using a visual prompt, such as the blue square, can be helpful in practising this technique. Using slow rhythmic breathing will teach your body to slow down your breathing, and to breathe in a regular rhythm that is known to calm sympathetic nervous system arousal. You can see Jo demonstrating this technique in this short video.

Teaching ourselves mindfulness is also a useful strategy for managing overwhelming emotions and racing or ruminating thoughts when we are feeling stressed. Practicing mindfulness helps us to stand back from our thoughts, to observe them and allow them to come and go without getting hooked into overthinking or analysing. There are a number of mindfulness techniques to try out, but for a quick exercise to regulate our threat emotions and stress in the moment, try the mindful stretch or the 3-minute breathing space meditation. Alternatively try an active mindfulness exercise, such as a mindful walk.

Building resilience capacity over the longer term

There are a number of skills and strategies that we can practice day-to-day to build our capacity for resilience over the longer term.

Building positive emotions

Noticing and savouring positive emotions is one way of building resilience capital. Keeping a notebook of three good things that we notice every day, savouring the moments in our day when we experience positive emotions such as hope, joy or love. Engaging in things we find interesting and getting in the zone can also help us to build our connection to positive emotions such as interest, pride or amusement.

We experience many of our positive emotions in relation to other people. Taking time to connect with loved ones, savour experiences we have shared or anticipate good things, helps to build positive emotions. Expressing gratitude or sharing support and kindness has been shown to boost positive emotions and resilience both in the moment and over the longer term.

Flexible thinking

Learning to manage negative thinking, finding new more flexible ways of understanding challenging events is a really useful strategy that helps us think clearly when we encounter a crisis situation. We are programmed to focus on the negative as this helps us to attend and respond to threat. However, it is very easy to overestimate threat when the likelihood of a negative outcome may actually be very low. Similarly when we over-focus on the negative we may be more likely to take things personally, put pressure on ourselves, expecting ourselves to always be in control, or to do things perfectly. But these ways of thinking contribute to further stress. Learning to think flexibly and to explain negative events in more optimistic ways helps us to gain perspective and take appropriate, measured action to manage challenging situations.

Self-care

Our ability to remain resilient over the longer term is also affected by our self-care. It is really important that we do not lose sight of this. When we are in a crisis situation, it is easy to go into auto-pilot, making sure everyone else is ok, taking on too much, preventing us from taking time for rest and recovery. If we carry on like this, we become vulnerable to burnout.

Building some self-compassion, to pay attention to our own needs and stresses, to have empathy for ourselves and let go of self-judgement, is crucial for self-care. We need to be aware that self-care is not just one thing, it is relevant to all areas of our lives and spread across many different dimensions. If we are able to maintain good self-care when crisis strikes, across all these different dimensions, we are better able to bounce back, and maintain a sense of health and optimism through the experience.

Take a few moments to reflect on which of these resilience skills you recognise. Are there any that you have been using in the current crisis? Perhaps you did not think of these strategies as resilience tools that were helping you to manage more effectively, to bounce back from challenges, and to grow through the experience. Perhaps there are some skills mentioned here that you are not currently utilising and that you would like to have a go at. If so, we encourage you to read our other blogs on the subject to give you some ideas about how to put these new skills into practice.

The incredible picture accompanying this blog, NHS Heroes Hug, was painted by Oxford-based artist Emma Waddleton. Emma is raising funds for the NHS through a raffle, the first prize of which will be this painting. Please donate/buy a raffle ticket before 6pm on 29 June.

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