This year, leaders and their teams have experienced unprecedented levels of change, fear, anxiety, stress and, in some cases, ill health, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We were already living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, even without a new virus that quickly spread across the world on a scale never seen in our lifetimes. We spoke to Dr Tara Swart, a leading neuroscientist and friend of Ososim, about how individuals can build resilience levels to cope with the challenges of 2020 and to thrive as we adjust to the new normal in 2021
Tara, what is resilience?
“Resilience is the ability to withstand change, especially change which is unexpected and, to a degree, a change which is out of your control.
Generally, people feel threatened by change. As scientists, we can see this by detecting changes in the brain, such as the fight/flight/fright response. The brain sees anything new or any change as a threat. If the change is within your control or your choice, such as starting a new role, beginning a new fitness regime or exploring a new city, you don’t need to be resilient. Your brain processes and deals with the threat appropriately, allowing you to enjoy the thrill of a new experience. But if you lose your job, or your usual routine is interrupted unexpectedly, then you need resilience to deal with a change that is beyond your control.
Resilience enables you to stay mentally and physically well whilst you withstand and manage the change which has been forced upon you. These changes can affect your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and resilience can help you deal with change in all these four aspects of life.”
What impact has the Coronavirus pandemic had on resilience?
“COVID-19 has put an enormous strain on the brain and continues to do so. We have never experienced anything like it in our lifetimes. We are not in control of the change and we were not expecting it. Even for those who have escaped the actual virus or been asymptomatic, it has still been a negative experience for most people, with usual freedoms restricted and basic human interaction drastically reduced.
Where resilience hasn’t been nurtured or created, it’s easy to fall into a mental health crisis. Much has been reported in the news about rising mental health issues, particularly in younger people. Even if you haven’t fallen into a mental health crisis, is your brain performance as good as it was? Many individuals have struggled to focus, to switch between tasks and avoid distractions, especially when managing the boundaries of work and home life when working from home.”
Can resilience be learnt or developed?
“We all have certain levels of resilience because of our genetics, how we were brought up and what we have experienced in our lives so far. But we know from scientific studies that resilience can be cultivated and developed. Even those with historically low levels of resilience can increase their resilience if they work on building it every day.
Stress is related to cortisol levels in the brain. If you are anxious, your body is in fright/fight/flight state and cortisol levels are higher. But if you regulate your emotions and have healthy lifestyle habits, you have lower cortisol levels anyway, so you experience less stress. It’s a repetitive cycle that we can train the brain to manipulate positively. There are two types of response to stress and everyone has the ability to choose. There’s the short term, adrenaline-fuelled response, but there is also the resilient response where you rise to meet the challenge, you think flexibly, outside of the box, and you manage the emotions of those around you as well as your own emotions.”
What practical steps can people take to enhance their resilience?
- Practice mindfulness
“Mindfulness has been proven to increase resilience to stress. Amishi P. Jha, PhD Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami, conducted a study on US Marines. Before being deployed, some soldiers were exposed to Mindfulness-based Attention Training, such as meditation, whilst a control sample wasn’t. After the soldiers were deployed, those that had gone through the mindfulness training reported better resilience, lower stress levels and a greater ability to cope with the stress of their situation.
Mindfulness training can take many forms, which you can incorporate into everyday life. Just focusing on the breath, breathing deeply, with a longer exhale than inhale can calm the body at any time. Apps like Headspace and Calm are great for guided meditation. Yoga is helpful, but even a walk outdoors can be a mindful walk, appreciating the nature around you and allowing open monitoring of thoughts, letting thoughts drift in and out of your mind without judgment. Eating is something we do everyday which can be done mindfully by not having devices at the table or tv on in the background, pausing before each mouthful and savoring your food. Paying attention to what you are eating and those around you. When talking to anyone, be it at work or in your personal life, make sure you are really concentrating on what they are saying and not distracted by your phone or the environment. Human connection has been hugely limited and disrupted this year, but a sense of belonging is vital to our mental health. Loneliness is a real risk factor for heart disease and life longevity.
2. Teach your body to recover from stress
Exposing your body to some physical stress, in a controlled way, can increase resilience. Hunger stress through intermittent fasting and thermal stress through cold showering teach the body that it can experience stress and recover. This helps to regulate emotions as well as physical responses to change. However, these types of activities should only be undertaken when you are feeling well. Adding stress, if you are already stressed, won’t help the body learn positive habits.
3. Focus on gratitude
Resilience can be linked to gratitude. If you remind your brain of situations where you have shown resilience, you show your brain that you are capable of being resilient in the future. Make a list of things you have done this year where you have demonstrated resilience. Where you have worked through a difficult situation, or overcome a challenge. Be kind to yourself. The fact that you have survived the year with all the unprecedented change demonstrates resilience. What are the big learnings for your whole life journey that you can take from his year? Write down what you have learned about yourself and others that you can take forward into 2021 as a positive.”
Dr Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author and a medical doctor. She works with companies and individuals worldwide to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information.
Tara has partnered with Ososim to develop applications that use AI and neuroscience to help improve well-being and resilience. As a leader in her field, we are delighted to benefit from her insight.