What is Mental Resilience?

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As a mental resilience trainer, John Humphreys’ goal is to help people learn the art of resilience. John is part of the Redefining Communications collective and, in this long read, he answers some frequently asked questions related to mental resilience.

What is mental resilience?

Firstly, let’s look at the dictionary definitions of both words:

Mental – of or relating to the mind.

Resilience – the power or ability of a material to return to its original form, position, etc, after being bent, compressed, or stretched. The ability of a person to adjust to or recover readily from illness, adversity, major life changes. The ability of a system or organisation to respond to or recover readily from a crisis, disruptive process.

As we can see from the definitions, mental resilience is what we call our ability to cope when challenges of any shape or size are thrown our way. Mental resilience not only helps us cope in unfavourable scenarios, it also helps us to identify ways of moving forward.

What is the difference between mental resilience and mental toughness?

Research indicates that there are subtle differences between the two. Most suggest that mental toughness is resilience plus confidence. I have heard the differences described as:

Resilience: a defensive strategy to help you get back up when you have been pushed down.
Toughness: an offensive strategy that may prevent you from getting knocked down in the first place.

We purposely avoid “mental toughness” as a term as we believe that it conjures up images more relating to physically demanding experiences, such as rowing the Atlantic or operating in war zones. Knowing how to be mentally resilient will better prepare you for the knockdowns, as well as give you the skills to pick yourself back up again.

What is the difference between mental health and mental resilience?

Mental health is about our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health problems, according to Mind, affect around one in four people every year. Our advice to anyone suffering from chronic mental health problems is to speak to a medical professional as soon as possible. Workplace mental resilience interventions are not recommended for people who are either off work with or just returning from mental health-related problems.

We see mental resilience training as preparatory work, enabling you to better handle life’s setbacks. Think of it like this; if you put your rain jacket on before you go into the rain, you are much more likely to stay dry! But it’s also about understanding that it will rain some days – and it’ll be OK.

Is mental resilience just something people are born with?

Yes and no. Each of us is quite obviously different; we are unique! Therefore, it stands to reason that we are all born with genetic differences. These differences determine our individual ability to how we physically react to stressful situations. So, we are born with different inbuilt mechanisms that determine how we react to certain situations. However, this doesn’t paint the full picture. As we are most likely to face these situations in our adult life, we have, probably without realising, built up various strategies to help us cope. Training and experience (experiential learning) provide us with most of the tools we need to build resilience. Sometimes though it needs somebody else to unlock your potential, just like a personal trainer does for gym-goers or business coach’s do for leadership teams.

Can you be too mentally resilient?

Yes, you can. As with most things in life, you must strike the right balance. It’s unlikely, but if you do end up too resilient there are potential pitfalls, here are a couple to consider:

  • You become a yes person. You then become the ‘go-to’ person for every dull or difficult task and you become resentful
  • You become everybody else’s rock. This is an incredibly demanding role. It will also leave very little opportunity for you to express your own emotions.

Why is mental resilience so important to the workplace?

In the workplace lack of mental resilience can manifest itself in many ways. As we mentioned earlier everybody is built differently. For example, Chloe may be a wizard when it comes to delivering a presentation, whereas Harry could go into a flat spin merely at the thought of it. On the other hand, Harry is open to criticism of his work, takes it on board, and strives to make the appropriate improvements. He sees the criticism as an opportunity to learn and grow. Chloe gets embarrassed and frustrated. She takes it personally and resentment forms causing friction between her and her line manager.

Learning how to be resilient should bring balance to the employee’s skill set and reduce their situational stress levels. Training can be delivered to help employees learn appropriate coping strategies. If delivered well, this training should improve both workplace output and the individuals’ mental wellbeing. The two columns below illustrate how different resilience levels can impact the workplace:

Low level resilience

  • Fears change
  • Fearful of management
  • Struggles to complete tasks 
  • Rigid
  • Distracted
  • Requires constant guidance
  • Often needs extra support
  • Appears self-absorbed
  • Pessimistic
  • Reactive
  • Feels most things are too hard
  • Constant feeling of guilt / pessimism

High level resilience

  • Open to change
  • Good comms; asks for help or clarification
  • Perseverance to see task thorough
  • Adaptable
  • Good problem solver
  • High levels of initiative
  • Supportive
  • Sees bigger picture
  • Confident
  • Proactive
  • Can-do attitude
  • Cheerful

What about mentally resilient teams?

The lists above show how different resilience levels can impact the workplace, this is true for both individuals and teams. It’s important that teams feel part of something. Not just the organisation, but a close-knit band of people who have shared values and purpose. They need to be able to rely on each other and look out for one another. This will allow for more positive adaptations to change and to respond to setbacks effectively.

Being able to deal with anxiety collectively as a group is also important. As Brené Brown says in her podcast on Anxiety, Calm and Over/Under-Functioning, “anxiety is contagious” in the workplace.

Aside from mental resilience training and team building events, we like to use the acronym TEEAM to help foster and maintain team resilience:

  • Time – take the time to understand each other
  • Experience – we can often learn from each other and share what we have been through before
  • Encourage – support and encourage each other, celebrate and reward
  • Action – look at goals and the steps you are taking to do what you say you will
  • Monitor – keep an eye out for any signs that something isn’t quite right.

Why is it a sought-after leadership attribute?

Amy Modglin (CEO – Modglin Leadership Solutions) wrote an article for Forbes: Why Resilience Is Necessary As A Leader.  Here is what she had to say about the importance of resilience in leadership:

  • With every struggle comes a tremendous opportunity. These are the times where you can choose to embrace the gift of adversity and use it to strengthen your leadership abilities. During these times, you get a chance to show your integrity and your ability to work through the hardest of times. 
  • It is your responsibility to lead through good and bad times. Good times are a reason to celebrate and reward people. However, nothing is more rewarding than coming out of a storm as a stronger leader and a more cohesive team. 
  • Your actions during a crisis serve as a model for your followers. Remember, as a leader, your people are watching you all the time. The way you compose yourself serves as a model for those around you. 
  • Learn from your failures. Adverse times are a great teacher. If you carefully evaluate every mistake, every failure, every obstacle, you will uncover a lesson that will be important for you to learn from to become a more resilient leader.

How can I incorporate mental resilience into my everyday life?

Mental resilience is not just for the workplace. All mental resilience coping strategies can be applied in your normal day to day life too. In fact, we believe one of the key tenets of mental resilience is experiential learning.

You will have new experiences both at home and at work. With each experience, you will learn a coping strategy. The new coping strategies gained from these experiences can be applied in similar future scenarios.

For the example below there is a crossover between work and everyday life experiences:

Harry has been told he is to deliver a presentation to the senior leadership team in one week’s time (as we know he’s not exactly a fan of public speaking). In the lead up to the presentation, he is anxious, this affects him at home, and also the quality of his work is not up to his usual standards. On the day of his presentation, his nerves are getting the better of him and he cannot concentrate on anything other than his emotions. That’s a full week of an employee struggling to cope with a situation. This has affected his family time and negatively impacted his work output. He delivers the presentation, leaves the meeting, and returns to his desk. However, his work is still affected. He has spent the rest of the day worrying about how he came across in front of the hierarchy. The next day he is asked by a close friend if he would be his best man and the cycle starts all over again.

If Harry had been given the appropriate training and had a range of coping techniques at his disposal, this could have played out very differently.

Yes, he would still be nervous in the lead-up to the presentation but the impact on his work and home life would likely be reduced significantly. When asked to be the best man he would’ve been able to draw on previous experiences. He is much more confident. He would tell himself that he is more than capable to complete this task, as he has done it before. If you can do it once, you can do it again. He’s now happier at home, the standard of his work is back to normal and he’s a lot less stressed about public speaking.

What are the things people need to build on to become more mentally resilient?

There’s a lot of information online telling you how to become more resilient. Below is a list of five things that you can work on today:

  1. Recognise what you can and cannot control – even if the situation is not something you can control; you can always control how you react or respond.
  2. Build and maintain your support network – studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with health problems – community or team support helps build resilience.
  3. Think like a politician – try to interpret a scenario more favourably. We call this reframing. Almost every situation, regardless of how difficult, can have some potentially positive outcomes. Think about new opportunities that may present themselves or what you can learn (including about yourself). We’ve all heard the phrases “when one door closes another one opens”, or “glass half full”.
  4. Reflect – think about exposure to previous life stressors. How did you feel? How did you react? What would you do differently if faced with a similar situation? This goes back to the previously mentioned experiential learning.
  5. Prepare – if you know you are going into a situation that you know will be uncomfortable, be ok with it. Don’t bury your head in the sand, be proactive. If you acknowledge and accept it will be hard or stressful you can quickly find ways to help you cope…remember your raincoat!

Why did people find 2020 so tough? Why do we need more mental resilience in 2021?

You will have noticed that 2020 was probably the hardest year we have witnessed in recent history; perhaps since the Second World War. 2020 was a very openly divisive year; with topics such as Brexit, the Presidential election, Black Lives Matter, vaccinations, mask-wearing, and conspiracy theories dividing workplace and family opinions. Add to that confusing advice and statistics regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, missed education and home schooling, employment uncertainty, and lack of social interaction. It’s no surprise that 2020 was tough. Overall, it’s been a year of arguments and unknowns. Leaving many of us living in a constant state of anxiety.

2021 started with a national lockdown in the UK. There are uncertainties about Brexit, despite a last-minute trade agreement with the EU, and we are unsure of how the economy will recover or when the vaccination rollout will be complete. Many people have hope that 2021 won’t be as bad as in 2020. The truth is, we just don’t know. There’s so much out of our control, but not everything. By working on our mental resilience, we can at least learn how to prepare emotionally for what lies ahead and develop our coping strategies. We can find ways to reframe – and ensure 2021 is a little less stressful than its predecessor.

What books or films about mental resilience would you recommend?

There are tons of books, films and series relating to mental resilience. Almost all good stories, both in books and on the screen involve the protagonist’s world being turned upside down followed by an escalation of events; then finally change that leads to the resolution to the problem.

A good starting point would be The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Mariana Bockarova, Ph.D. wrote an interesting article for Psychology Today discussing how The Queen’s Gambit ties in with resilience research.

As far as non-fiction work goes, anything related to stoicism is worth a read, but these can be heavy reads so try YouTube for a summary if you are short on time. Two suggested titles are:

Outside of typical theories of stoicism other options to look at are:

Next time you’re watching a film, TV series, or reading a book, see if you can spot the patterns mentioned above. You may find inspiration in their story.

If you have any further questions about mental resilience, please get in touch with us via info@redefiningcomms.com. If you’re interested in building mental resilience in your organisation, take a look at our mental resilience workshop for teams of up to 15 people.

Blog by John Humphreys, mental resilience trainer and part of the Redefining Communications collectiveJohn has 25 years’ experience in the British Army where he specialised in mental resilience training for high-pressure, high-risk environments. Today, John’s mission is to help everyone learn the art of resilience, teach coping strategies and an understanding of the power of the mind. 

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