In this article, I’ll be sharing with you a few strategies for improving personal resilience. These come from the insights I’ve gained from over 25 years of helping combat veterans, public servants, entrepreneurs, and business leaders to thrive in the midst of hardship and adversity.
Preparing For War
As a former combat medic and combat readiness officer, I’m no stranger to adversity and trauma. After the events of September 11th, 2001 I was tasked to prepare our young recruits for deployment to intensely violent war zones. These were peace-time-era troops in the Nevada Army National Guard, many of whom had joined for the college benefits and job training. To be honest, nobody in the US Armed Forces was ready for what we had to contend with in Afghanistan and Iraq. The learning curve was impossibly steep, especially for those first units of reservists and guardsmen who deployed to those regions with little practical training or logistical support.
Preparing my troops for war wasn’t the hardest part though. My biggest challenges, and the ones that deeply impacted my life came from helping my troops return home and reintegrate into their communities. In 2012 there was an expose’ in the New York Times that reported on the unprecedented number of suicides committed by combat veterans. In my opinion, that article and the thousands that came afterward only hinted at the magnitude of the problem, and the degree of suffering experienced by the servicemen and women, their families, and their communities.
I saw first-hand the horrors and the challenges my troops experienced when they returned home. I also witnessed something beautiful that affected me deeply and engendered a strong sense of hopefulness that has never left me. I saw the resilience of those who had suffered terribly, and who despite their pain and loss, shined brightly and learned to thrive, not despite the difficulties, but because of them.
This is my hope for all of us coming through challenging times both personally and collectively. I sincerely believe we have the ability to shine brightly, to learn from our pain and frustrations, and to come back stronger, wiser, and with more compassion.
Building Your Stress Immune System
Here are the 6 core principles I’ve learned from working with thousands of people over the past 25 years for developing a strong and adaptable stress immune system.
1- Take Care Of Your Animal
I’m not talking about our pets here, though many people do take better care of their furry companions than they do themselves. What I’m talking about is our very real biological and physiological needs. In this way, we’re similar to the house plant on my window sill. It needs a certain amount of sunlight, nutrients, water, and attention to thrive and look beautiful.
We’re no different though we’ve certainly complicated things for ourselves in this regard. We too have very real physiological needs like sunlight, nutrients, sleep, fresh air, clean water, and exercise, that many people ignore to their detriment. When our actions, habits, and behaviors are in alignment with our biological needs we will thrive. It’s really that simple! All we need to do is spend a little time understanding what our body needs, and then alter our behavior progressively over time to meet those needs.
The vast majority of diseases occur when our behavior is at odds with our biology. We won’t get into the details here in this article but I do have specific recommendations here.
To get you started though, forget about making massive global changes to every aspect of your health and wellness. Just choose one thing you feel you need some work on. Then learn what you can about what the science or true subject matter experts suggest. There’s a lot of great information out there, but there’s even more garbage and clickbait. I’ll share some resources in the Resources Section at the end of the article. Once you have some ideas about what change you’d like to make, try doing an experiment with it for a month. See if it yields an increase in energy, mood, or your sense of wellbeing.
2- Take Care of Your Spirit
Spirit in this context is the intersection of your mind, identity and emotions. This, in my opinion, has also become unnecessarily complicated with so many religions, philosophical schools, and psychological models professing to have the unique answers while all saying pretty much the same things.
Here’s a distillation of key ideas for caretaking your spirit
- Love yourself unconditionally…even when you fail in your endeavors, and you say or do stupid or hurtful things.
- Know what you value most at your present stage of life and live in alignment with your values, thus providing a life filled with meaning.
- Invest in your future self.
- Practice compassion and forgiveness toward others, the key word here being practice.
- Spend some time each day fully absorbed in what you’re doing. If what you’re doing is enjoyable, and challenges you to learn and grow, even better.
- Connect deeply with at least one other person, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to love and to be loved.
Now, simply choose one thing from the list above to learn about, and make small progressive changes over time. At the core of all evolution is resilience. As humans we have some say in the path of our personal evolution, which is determined by our choices and behaviors.
In my observation and opinion, if we avoid overcomplicating our lives and simply align our behaviors with our physiological and spiritual needs, we will be more resilient to hardships, better able to adapt to our circumstances and will thrive in almost any situation.
3 – Take A Stress Inventory
What are the top stresses that cause you frustration, anxiety, tension and self-doubt? Write them all down, every one…don’t hold back!
Now go through your list and label each one either as something you have control over (C), or (NC) for something that’s completely outside of your control. Once you’ve labeled your stress inventory, choose one high-leverage stressor to work on. Identify one problem that’s within your control to change, which if it magically went away, would enhance your life significantly. What stressor can you address that once solved or managed, will yield more energy, time and attention for other important things in your life?
Simply bring that stressor to top of mind, create a strategy to deal with it, and get to work. This is where a good professional coach can come in handy. They can help you 1) identify high-leverage problems, 2) create a strategy, and 3) prioritize and execute the most effective actions to solve those problems.
For those problems that are outside of your control or ability to solve, I have some ways to help you deal with them which I’ll give you later in this article under Emotional Regulation.
4 – Put Your Hardships into Context
The most stressful things in your life often dominate your attention and eclipse other valuable experiences. Life is not, and never will be, free of hardships. Try putting your current attention-magnetizing problem into context by remembering that it’s just one scene in the entire movie of your life.
While this current stressor may be creating pain, anxiety and fear, you’ve gotten through difficult times before which have prepared you for this current struggle. If you use a growth mindset during the most challenging circumstances, believe it or not, the rest of your life will seem a bit easier. It’s like lifting progressively heavier weights in the gym. Eventually that 40 lb. suitcase won’t feel nearly as heavy as it did before.
To use a growth mindset, you’re not denying the pain or difficulty of the stressor. Instead, you’re acknowledging the pain and difficulty while at the same time identifying potential longer-term benefits that can come from this experience.
For example, when I was a young paratrooper I had a bad parachuting accident that left me with over 20 years of severe neck pain and migraine headaches. Once I started my clinical practice I noticed I was able to relate deeply with other people who dealt with daily, chronic pain. I was able to build rapport with people who had been dismissed by other physicians, because I could relate to them. I also dedicated hundreds of hours to understand the neurobiology of chronic pain, giving my patients the tools to heal, and overcoming my 20+ year struggle at the same time. My growth mindset in this situation was to value my own pain as a way to connect with other people, and motivate me to become an expert in the treatment of chronic pain conditions.
That was a massive turning point for me. So here’s my question to you: What potential value can you see in your current stressful ordeal? You may need to look hard and flub a little at first but I guarantee there’s a golden nugget in there somewhere.
5 – Set Boundaries For Your Time, Energy and Attention
Looking down on my early spring garden I can see the first few weeds and shoots of Bermuda grass, that if left unchecked, would consume my garden in a matter of weeks.
Everything in your world right now is competing for your time, energy and attention…everything! If you don’t prioritize the most important things…the things that are most in alignment with your values, your life may become overwhelmed by weeds.
Never before have so many people had direct access to your time, energy and attention as they do now in this age of information. Every app wants to notify you about some update or hot new product. People you’ve never met want to connect, to be liked or followed without giving much of value in return.
Our jobs are also becoming more nuanced and detailed with simple tasks often turning into complicated, time-consuming ordeals. Task-list and productivity software is a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s become so ubiquitous there are now anti-productivity-software movements in the very industries that are creating them.
How do we thrive in this all-consuming environment? Focus on the most important things in your life first. It’s ok for some spinning plates to fall, crashing to the floor. Doing more things doesn’t mean getting more done, it just gives us the illusion of productivity. Instead, align yourself with your values, identify your highest-priority goals, and focus there.
Try these strategies and tactics to reclaim your time, energy and attention.
Identify the most important things in your life, your highest, value-driven goals. Then, look at your current calendar. Is the majority of your week spent pursuing your value-driven goals? If so, great! If not, try the following suggestions:
- Turn off all notifications except for your calendar and messages from your closest family and friends.
- Notice when you habitually reach for your phone to check the news or social media. Temper the habit by asking “is this a necessary action that’s in alignment with my values and goals?” Consider putting your phone in a different room or leaving it in the car when engaged in deep work.
- Set untouchable time blocks. These are blocks of time dedicated to your highest value activities like spending quality time with your loved ones, engaging in creative work or learning, pursuing a high-flow activity, exercising, meditating or doing active recovery.
- Redesign your open-door policy to consist of very specific times you’re available and make sure all your people know them.
- Only the most important meetings make it into your calendar. Use asynchronous communication like email, Loom, or Slack whenever real-time meetings aren’t necessary for creativity, collaboration or emotional connection.
- Batch your emails and message responses. One of the biggest time wasters is checking and responding to email randomly and periodically throughout the day. What I do personally and suggest for my clients to do is choose one or at most two 15-30 minute blocks of time to focus exclusively on email.
I know these are easier said than done, and this is also where a professional coach can help you safeguard the non-renewable resources of your time, energy and attention.
6 – Learn to Regulate Your Emotional Experience
We all have them, these annoying and often untimely emotional experiences like frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness and despair. Our emotions are part of what makes us human and help keep us safe, alive and connected to others. They are also responsible for the most pleasurable experiences in life as well as the worst suffering we can imagine.
The problem with emotions isn’t the emotions themselves but how we react to them. For example, if I feel frustrated about something not happening the way I want it, there will be a very real, physical sensation in my body. These physical sensations usually feel unpleasant, which motivate us to change our conditions as a way to alleviate the unpleasant experience. Sometimes the emotionally-driven actions we take are effective, but often they aren’t.
Effective emotional regulation, like a growth mindset, isn’t simply a matter of ignoring the sensations or pretending that everything’s ok. In fact, it’s the opposite. Effective emotional regulation happens in the gap between the uncomfortable stimulus and how we respond to it.
We think we’re responding to a situation but often we’re actually responding to our perception of the situation, and the way it makes us feel. If we can learn to broaden the gaps between the stimulus and our response, we can often respond in a more effective way. The problem is that we’ve all developed emotional habits and biased ways of perceiving things.
The goal of effective emotional regulation is to untrain our habituated emotional responses so we can actually choose how we want to respond, and in some regard, how we want to feel. When it comes to emotional regulation during an intensely triggering event, I’ve found that psychological tools like gratitude, reframing, and non-violent communication aren’t very effective because the parts of the brain responsible for survival have taken over, which limits the parts of the brain responsible for effective reasoning.
Instead of trying to think your way out of an uncomfortable emotion or bad mood, it’s more effective to change your actual physiological state. There are many ways to do this but a simple and very effective one that I like to use is a type of breathing called 4:6 breathing.
The technique is as simple as the name suggests. When you feel a strong, uncomfortable emotion, give yourself 1-2 minutes and try this technique. This is the same method I used to teach my soldiers so they could remain focused on their target when shooting in a high-stress environment.
- Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds.
- Exhale through the nose or mouth for 6 seconds.
- Let yourself feel the emotion as you inhale.
- Intentionally relax the muscles of your face, shoulders and hands when you exhale, letting go of the thoughts and images that continue to feed the emotions.
- Try not to ruminate on or solve the problem or difficult conversation during this short period.
- If you do get stuck in a negative mental loop, just imagine the thoughts becoming blurry as you exhale.
Remember the goal isn’t to change the situation or even your thoughts about the situation, but to alter the way you feel in the present moment. Then, after you’ve regulated your physiology, you can decide with a clearer head how you want to think about the situation. This will help you formulate a more effective solution to your problem, or aid you in having a meaningful conversation to restore trust and connection.
The bonus is that every time you do this, you build a larger capacity to deal with uncomfortable emotions and the triggering events that cause them. By doing this you are developing mental, emotional and behavioral flexibility which are critical to resilience.
While there are many factors in our lives that contribute to our stress and threaten to wear us down, there are things we can proactively do to improve our resilience and adaptability so we can thrive through our challenges.
Summary: The Six Principles For Personal Resilience
- Take care of your animal (your personal wellness)
- Take care of your spirit (your mind, identity and emotions)
- Take a stress inventory and systematically reduce the stressors that are within your control to change.
- Put your hardships into context and develop a growth mindset.
- Set boundaries for your time, energy, and attention.
- Learn to regulate your emotional experience.
I hope this article has provided some valuable insight for you in building up your personal resilience.
Here are a few more ways I can help you:
- Access to all my past articles on health, wellness and peak performance.
- Connect with me on LinkedIn where I share daily tips and strategies.
- Book a call with me to see how I can help you.
Evidence-based health and wellness resources:
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