Five Ways to Build Mental Resilience in a Crisis
Even the calmest, most rational people have experiences that knock them off their feet. They're in an accident, or they're unexpectedly laid off, or they experience a sudden death in the family. It's impossible to prepare for these unexpected situations in advance. But it is possible to make the hard times easier to survive: in other words, to strengthen mental resilience.
Resilience is the ability of the human brain to cope with unexpected situations. Some people are naturally positive and easy-going; others readily see the dark side of things. While people are generally encouraged to "think positive," optimism isn't a prerequisite for resilience - in fact, sometimes it proves a hindrance. True resilience isn't born of positivity. It's born of acceptance.
So, how is it possible to increase your ability to accept the unacceptable?
1. State The Obvious
In Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief, the well-known first stage is denial. And with good reason: most people pass through this place first. Common denial responses include thoughts like "This can't be happening," "Everything will be back to normal soon," or "Nothing has changed."
The longer the brain stays in denial, the deeper repressed thoughts become. Combat denial by stating the obvious: outline, out loud or on paper, the simplest possible description of the current situation.
This is more difficult than it sounds. No one ever wants to utter the phrase "I'm unemployed" or "I have cancer." But there's nothing to be gained from imagining things aren't how they are. The first time telling the truth is the hardest. The more you say it, the truer it will feel, and the easier it will become.
2. Let Yourself Grieve
Unfortunately, there's no skipping this painful step. There's nothing wrong with striving to be kind, generous, and optimistic - to "look on the bright side." But that instinct often covers a deeper truth: that sadness and loss are inevitable.
In any crisis situation, people experience massive loss. With loss of livelihood or a loved one comes loss of identity. Common questions include "Who am I if I'm not working in this profession?" or "Who am I without this person in my life?" Some people cope by immediately distracting themselves from their painful emotions. Others wonder what they ought to have done differently to prevent what happened. Both approaches, though understandable, will only prolong the pain of the moment.
Do whatever it takes to let yourself mourn what you've lost. Grief isn't linear, and for most people it doesn't pass quickly or easily. But it serves an important function: it lets humans know that they're caring beings who form healthy attachments. As terrible as it is to acknowledge, no grief means no love.
3. Move Your Body
What does the body have to do with mental resilience? Everything. Brains are body parts, after all, and every emotion we have is a chemical response. So when people are in tough situations, they tend to physicalize their feelings. Angry people tense their jaws, happy people engage their face muscles to smile, anxious people draw their shoulders towards their ears. These things happen unconsciously; it's not a decision.
Luckily, that makes the process simple to interrupt. When you notice yourself becoming angry, scared, or upset, shift your body to a different position. It can be as subtle as shifting your weight in your seat or as dramatic as doing jumping jacks in place. This isn't to prevent unpleasant feelings from occuring. In fact, moving your body or exercising often releases negative emotions - in other words, forcing you back to step 2.
4. Stay In The Present
No matter how terrible things are, no one can predict the future. Humans desperately desire control over their circumstances - so much so that they'll create nightmare futures in their heads, just so they're the ones creating it. Envisioning horrible future events is natural and difficult to avoid.
The counterattack? Make yourself aware of where you are right now. Are you fed? Are you comfortable? Are you housed? Is there any natural beauty around you, or an object you particularly enjoy? Most importantly, is that nightmare happening to you this very moment? It's unlikely that it is, and - for better and for worse - you cannot know whether it will. Build resilience by taking true control of the only thing you're in charge of: the present moment.
5. Ask For Help
All animals are born with their most vital survival instincts. Prey animals are up and running, sometimes within minutes. Predators hungrily devour whatever they're given. Mammals nurse, cold-blooded animals seek warmth.
So, what's the purpose of that primal sound? In addition to causing diaphragmatic breathing, it lets human babies alert their caretakers. It's impossible for adults to ignore a wailing infant, as anyone who's flown on an airplane can attest to. That cry is the human ability to ask for help, and it's our most important survival instinct.
Resilience often brings to mind images of lonely huntsmen or embattled soldiers. But the truth of resilience lies in human interdependency. Since prehistory, people have lived in groups, sharing responsibilities and picking up slack for others. Each person contributed something vital, and the whole was strengthened. Without these prosocial instincts, the species would not have survived for millions of years.
Recognize that humans can't outrun their primal instincts. Have the strength to ask for the help you need. You'll be building your own mental resilience in the process - and before you know it, you'll be able to return the favor.