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How to upgrade your mental resilience

By Cathy 02 Dec 2019
USQ students sitting on picnic rug outside during Stress Less Week.

The research confirms it: a healthy body nurtures mental fitness, just as mental fitness helps to achieve physical fitness. It’s no accident that elite athletes are superbly fit mentally and keep their resilience finely tuned.

After I decided to set up my own business and rely solely on myself to bring in the bucks, I started to feel overwhelmed about how I was going to make it all happen. I knew I had the experience and expertise in the bag, but I didn’t know if I would be resilient enough to ride the peaks and troughs of the challenging times I was going to face.

I was active, eating well and drinking lots of water, but my mental fitness clearly needed a tune-up… because I shouldn’t have been plagued by these doubts in the first place! Based on studying and researching neuroscience, I knew that getting my psychological toolkit in order was the first step to feeling more resilient.

Cartoon image of brain lifting weights

I thought back to a previous job where I’d been tasked by a CEO with developing a more resilient workforce in his organisation. The definition of resilience and the framework he’d given me were so effective that I’ve never forgotten them.

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, set-backs or challenging circumstances; the ability to rebound or bounce back, and can be understood as an equation.

Flowchart showing how resilience is made up of mental balance plus mental strength plus mental flexibility plus mental endurance

Table outlining definitions for mental balance, mental strength, mental flexibility and mental endurance

Just like you need to balance, flex and build strength and endurance when you’re training for a sporting event, you also need to build and continually upgrade these four different elements of your mental fitness to combat life’s challenges: study, exams, assignments, challenges with family and friends, work etc. By thinking of your brain as a muscle, you can learn ways to train it like a muscle. 

In those early days of developing my business, I thought about this equation every day and spent time training my brain just as often as I would ride my bike, go for a swim or hit the gym. Just like exercise, different types of mental training work for different people, but when it comes to developing resilience, here are my best ‘workout’ tips.

1. Seek out the positives 

Resilient people tend to see things as a glass half full. They seek out the positive side of things, even at the worst of times. If you look hard enough, you will find something positive in everything. Once you’ve found this silver lining, say it out aloud and even write it down. Ask those around you to encourage you to be positive and to reinforce the positive things you say.

2. Have a purpose 

The brain is wired for this, yet most of us aren’t sure how to find or define our purpose, let alone be able to say it out loud. What you believe in and the goals you need to set to get there may change as your life progresses, but when faced with crisis or tragedy, your underlying sense of purpose helps you get back on track. What’s your purpose right now? If you’re not sure, spend some time thinking about it and if you find yourself in a challenging situation, see it as an opportunity to discover your underlying purpose, what really drives you.

3. Look after yourself when crisis hits 

Losing your appetite, not exercising and not getting enough sleep are all common reactions to a crisis situation, real or imagined (the brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined). This is when you need to direct your attention to you even when it’s the hardest time of all to do so, so schedule time for activities that make you feel good. Taking care of you boosts your health, your mental fitness and your overall resilience.

4. Build strong social connections 

Our brains are pretty much prehistoric and tribal in design – we are wired to connect and have caring, supportive relationships to protect us during times of need. It is important to have people you can confide in and talk to. Being able to say out loud how you’re feeling dampens down the flight or fight response within the brain. While troubles may not go away, being able to share thoughts, receive positive feedback and come up with possible solutions to your problems is a great workout for the brain and strengthens the mental muscles that develop resilience.

5. Give to others 

Opening up your heart to others is a powerful way of fuelling resilience. Research tells us that serotonin (the happiness chemical in the brain) is boosted when we engage in an act of kindness… and it has a cumulative effect. The more we do for others, the more content we feel in ourselves, so why not volunteer within your community, donate to a charity that’s close to your heart and look for opportunities in your everyday life to make things just that little bit easier for someone else.

The jury is out as to whether some people are born with more resilience than others, but one thing we do know is that it’s possible for all of us to cultivate more of it if we’re willing to commit to ‘working out’ our brain. Maintaining mental fitness is just as important as maintaining physical fitness, so use these tips to build, flex and grow your mental muscles.

Get your first mental workout underway with Cathy’s tips for bouncing back!

Author profile image of Cathy