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Week 5, Session 2: Developing Resilience

Hello everyone! We're back today with Week 5 Session 2. We’ve covered so much. If you’ve read up until now, thank you for being here.

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

The goals for this session are:

  • Identify ways of enhancing our resilience

But of course, we start with a grounding exercise!

**Today’s grounding exercise will be… **

Look at the palms of your hands. Explore them. How many lines can you count? Now give yourself a little massage. When you are done put your hands together and rub them against each other. Focus on the warm sensation in your body.

Fun question: Here is a film title laid out in emojis - can you guess what it is?


Bonus, think of another film title to write out in emojis. And you can get someone else to guess it!

Today, we’re talking about building our resilience. Taking steps towards boosting our resilience can not only help us deal with the pressures we are experiencing in the present, but also help us protect ourselves against the impact of potential future stressors or traumas.

But how do we do this? Ann Masten, a specialist in the field of trauma, calls Resilience “ordinary magic”. We can all build resilience, but there’s still something mysterious about it, so we need to find the right recipe that works for each of us.

So today, let's get cooking and make some magic happen. We will look at some factors that can improve our resilience across 3 major categories: things we can do for our body, for our mind, and for our environment.

For our body:

  • Take care of your body: As we already know, trauma has a massive impact in our bodies. After trauma, we may more frequently experience part of the fear response - that 3F state, and remaining in this stress cycle as a chronic, long-term state is exhausting. We need to give our bodies a break from the strain of fear and stress, and any trauma reactions we might experience. So, healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising can help us reduce stress and improve our resilience. Keep them going! And as well as the more routine aspects of taking care of our body, we can also give our bodies the gift of joy - dance! Eat a food you love! Have a nap! As with anything, practice and regular use are important, as is finding what works for you, because everyone is different.
  • Give yourself a break: be kind to yourself always! We can’t always be at the top of our game. We all need to pause, relax, restore, renergise. This is especially important now, given we are living under more restricted circumstances than usual in lockdown. Try to manage the amount of pressure you allow yourself to be under within the things you can control. And reward yourself for your achievements, even if they feel small. Change the view you see, if you can, go outside, visit a friend, have a change of scenery. And remember to be forgiving of yourself. We often lay very rigid boundaries in terms of completing what is expected of us - making a schedule and deadlines for work, or tasks that we have to do at home such as cleaning - but then let the other aspects of our lives slide, and are vague about allowing ourselves room to breathe and rest. So you don’t have to put it off for when it is more ‘convenient’ - take a break now, if you need one or want one.

For our mind:

  • Remember the past: and by this we don’t mean your traumatic experiences, although we will be talking about integrating these experiences into the histories of our lives in our final week when we talk about building a narrative that feels right. When we say remember the past, we mean how you have handled situations in the past. Like we always say, you have already been resilient. You have conquered so many aspects of life: maybe you’ve had difficulties at work that you’ve overcome, or have had long-term friendships or other relationships where you’ve resolved difficulties. Whatever your history, there have been difficulties that you have overcome.  And, you are here now and that itself has so much value. It means you have resources within yourself: draw on them! Remember what has helped and what hasn’t. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you may have some perfectly good responses in place to overcome adversity- own them.
  • Embrace healthy thoughts: Try to keep things into perspective as try to keep your optimism up as much as you can. Like we said in the last session, hope is a key ingredient for wellness. Remember Tara’s story? She was able to distinguish between the difficult past and what was actually going on in the present, and not fall for her mind’s trick that people had bad intentions towards her. She did this by not catastrophizing, connecting with her environment and regaining trust in herself. It sounds big, we know. Step by step. Hope is trusting that the small steps will add up to something bigger, to resilience. To use our recipe metaphor, hope is trusting that all the ingredients, each of them just plain and simple by themselves, will combine to make a delicious and fantastic meal.

There’s another aspect of the way we think that we’d like to briefly address. It’s easy enough to say ‘think happy thoughts’, but actually doing it is another matter. So, we wanted to address one of the major barriers we might be experiencing concerning having ‘healthy thoughts’: naturally, that is our negative thoughts.

We actually briefly addressed some of our negative thought patterns las week in the second session, when we spoke on the ways we reroute our assumptions: by recognising behaviour patterns; observing when we're in a new situation; and then deciding what action we’ll take, rather than spiralling down in a negative thought. Like Tara.

But the tendency to focus on negative information and thoughts, also called the  ‘negativity bias’, has somewhat of a neuroscientific basis. Information that comes in from our environment that has a negative valence is often processed with priority over neutral, and sometimes positive material. This prioritisation starts at a very basic level of cognitive processing, with vision and attention, but can carry up to higher levels such as decision-making, memory, and our interpretation of new information or events.

And when we've been through trauma, that negativity bias can overload us. We want to respond to negative information in the hope that it will protect us from future traumas, but as a result we may get lost in our negative thoughts and feelings, and can often believe they're the only ones that are true.

There are some very commonly found “negative” thought patterns that exemplify this negative bias, for example:

All or nothing thinking: Everything is seen in black and white. For example: “If I’m not perfect, then I’m no good at all.”

Overgeneralization: One bad thing becomes an “always” thing. For example: If I do something wrong one time, I will always be wrong.

Jumping to conclusions: Making an assumption, even with little or no evidence to support it, based on your personal self-doubts.

Personalisation: Assuming responsibility for everything that goes wrong, even when there is no evidence. Making yourself the source of the problem.

Do any of these resonate for you? If you feel that you relate to some of these thought patterns, consider writing them down in your thought diary in order to keep track of when they arise, so you can evaluate what might be causing these thoughts, like Tara. Remember, it’s natural to doubt ourselves and our self-worth. ‘Unthinking’ our negative thoughts doesn’t always come on Day 1 of practice. but we can choose now, with practice, and with care, whether and how we take them into the future. Realising that these thoughts do not serve us - and that we can use our mind, body, and environment techniques to recognise this - will help us re-train our brains into new, more positive thought patterns. We can work to let go of what does not serve us, and embrace healthier patterns. We can be resilient.

For your environment:

  • Build your connections: I know, I know, we can’t say this enough. But there are so many research studies that reinforce the idea that our social bonds and connections can have a massive impact in our resilience and recovery. However, we know it can be difficult to trust people again, especially if our trauma involved mistreatment from others, and the people you have around you may not be the people you can rely on. Listen to your gut. Try to turn to empathetic and understanding people that can remind you that you’re not alone in the midst of difficulties. You deserve to be surrounded by trustworthy and compassionate individuals who validate your feelings, do not judge you, and just listen as opposed to immediately trying to fix you or your problems. Surrounding yourself with these people will support the skill of resilience. You may not have these kinds of people in your life yet, that’s ok. You can find them. Joining a support group or a group in your community can be a great start. We know it’s easier to be on our own sometimes, and that is valid - doing things for ourselves, spending time alone, and processing our experiences for ourselves can all be very important sources of affirmation. But overall, remember that there’s no healing in isolation.
  • Ask for help: we’ve been through this. Seeking support is healthy! If you feel like you need a hand, try to not lose that momentum and reach out to someone that can help you get the support you need. That could be practical help, like buying groceries for you on a day when you are struggling with energy or your anxiety is very high, or maybe emotional help, such as asking someone to be there with you while you make a difficult phone call or attend a stressful medical appointment. After trauma, it’s common to internalise a sense of blame for things that can happen in our lives, and as we discussed last week we may lose trust in our environment and feel less safe in reaching out for help. But it’s not a ‘weakness’ to ask for help: in fact, it speaks to great strength to recognise your need for help, and to have the courage to speak to someone to ask for assistance. So lean on loved ones.
  • Find purpose. Many times we feel helpless not until we are helped, but until we start helping others. We know you may not feel like that right now and that’s completely ok. But when you feel ready, we suggest you consider volunteering, joining a group of people who’ve been through similar experiences to you, or helping friends and family. Helping others makes us feel connected with our compassion and it can help us be more compassionate with ourselves. It can help us find meaning. We might even be able to help someone that has gone through the same that we did. So this technique is kind of for your mind and your environment: the feelings of fulfillment and capability that you might experience, and also putting yourself in an environment with people who can support your wellbeing.

And these three ways of building resilience - for our bodies, for our minds, and for our environments, are linked. We might be keeping the routine of treating our bodies well, and this is working to some extent in reducing stress and calming down our fear response; but, we find that we are still experiencing negative thoughts consistently, and we don’t know why. We might need one of our ‘mind’ techniques for that, like tracking our negative thoughts in our thought diaries, to be able to better understand why this is happening and how we can address this pattern of thinking. On the other side, we might be using techniques that help us keep track of our negative thoughts, and remember positive things about ourselves, but insight into these processes alone isn’t stopping us from experiencing a very strong feeling of anxiety when these thoughts come up. So we might need to take care of our bodies as well to help decrease the physical side of this anxiety response.

Using multiple techniques to build our self-esteem is a really good example of the multi-dimensional nature of recovery, actually. Like we addressed in the second session of last week, building our self-esteem is important for our recovery: it will help us generate more positive, healthy thoughts about yourself, and so boost our resilience by helping our minds. But our environment is a key part of this: like we said, self-esteem is not a static thing, meaning it can change, and putting ourselves in environments where our fundamental worth and value is recognised can be a really important part of building our self-esteem over the long term.

So, we hope that you now feel like you understand actually how we can build our resilience long-term, and we hope you find something useful amongst these different types of techniques. As we’ve said this session, everyone is different, so find what works for you, but all of these techniques have been verified by studies, so we hope that you can trust that something will work. And with that trust, that you also have hope: hope that you have the power to create the right potion for your own resilience, and hope that this potion will be effective in nourishing your amazing self.

The homework for this week is… we want you to feel like you have a tangible, identifiable way to begin working on resilience. So for the homework, identify one thing you would like to do in each of the categories we have gone over today: something for your mind, something for your body, and something for your environment. For one of these categories, identify something you’re going to do in the next 24 hours, for one of the categories, identify something you’re going to do in the next week, and for the other category, identify something you’d like to do in the next month.

24 hours might sound like an intimidating timeline, but it can be something simple: for your body, you might decide to take a long shower, or spend 10 minutes stretching, or go for a walk with some music; for your environment, maybe you’d like to reach out to a friend. You don’t have to start with a huge task right at the beginning, and we want you to know that our journey to resilience is not just something we undertake with enormous goals: we can also invest in our resilience in ways that might feel small, too.

Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this.

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