Susanne Malone is a licensed clinical social worker and the Director of Clinical Transformation for MHMR Tarrant County.
Let’s face it: We’ve all been through a lot. Of course, there is the pandemic, but that is not all; there’s also been a hotly contested election, a string of natural disasters, social unrest, supply chain issues—and now war. So if you’re feeling just a little stressed, you’re in good company. That’s why it’s important to know about building resilience and your mental health. The good news, becoming a more resilient person is not that hard to do — and you can do a lot of the work on your own.
What is mental health resilience?
The first place to start is with a definition of mental health resilience. Mental health resilience can be easily described as “a person’s ability to adapt and function under stressful situations.”
Electrical systems often have surge protectors. Those devices are meant to help protect electronic equipment in situations where extreme energy threatens to shut the system down. But over time, if the heightened energy does not let up, the surge protector might fail.
We are the same way. Mental health resilience helps us develop skills for coping with acute stress. But if that acute stress lasts for a long period of time, our surge capacity can become depleted.
What are the warning signs of acute and chronic stress?
We’ve all got stress. Having a baby, moving to a new town, starting a new job – all are part of the stress of everyday life. You may have a pretty good idea of how you typically respond to stress. But acute and/or chronic stress….that’s something different. It can make you react and behave in ways that aren’t typical for you.
For example, I know what I’m like under normal stressful circumstances. I am a worrier, but don’t tend to get agitated or irritated easily. Put me in a chronically stressful situation and you might see something different. Under chronic stress, I find myself worrying more, having unusual emotional reactions, and getting easily agitated over insignificant things. Noticing reactions or feelings that are not typical for you, may be a sign you are experiencing chronic stress
It’s also important to watch for unhealthy coping strategies. Are you eating more unhealthy food? Are you sleeping more? Or maybe you find yourself watching more TV. These can also be potential signs of depression. These can be signs of acute or chronic stress.
I’ve had people say to me, “What the heck is happening to me? I feel like I can’t even function. I never used to be like this!” Left unchecked, prolonged, acute stress can have a tremendous impact on both your physical health and mental wellness. lead to mental illness. (cannot say this).
What you can do to build mental health resilience?
Fortunately, there are many simple things emotionally resilient people do to manage stress.
This is an old sermon, and no one wants to hear it, but our greatest warrior against stress is taking care of our physical health. Healthy lifestyle choices regarding diet, rest, and regular exercise can make a really big difference.
We know this because of all the research that’s been done on kids who have been exposed to chronic stress. Later in life, they grow into adults more prone to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression. So, choosing to focus on health becomes a powerful weapon against stress.
Knowing your stress management tools can help you build mental health resilience
We all can build inner strength by keeping in mind three simple questions:
- What am I telling myself about this situation?
- Do I have any control over this situation?
- What are the specific things I can take control over?
Negative thoughts undermine our self-esteem and coping skills
When we are stressed, it’s easy to believe the negative things we tell ourselves, about ourselves. I recall working with a teacher who had taught for years and was very good at her job. The isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic triggered her and suddenly she no longer trusted her skills. She had convinced herself that she was no longer a good teacher. Somehow, she had lost all her skills. It took time and support from others to realize that she hadn’t lost her skills, she was just struggling through a very difficult time…one that she had little control over. And in fact, she was not alone in that struggle.
So check those negative thoughts and messages. Make sure what you are telling yourself is true. Realize what you have control over and what you don’t. Stop giving energy to those things you can’t control and try and focus on only those things (even if they are small) that you can control. It’s like having a small door that opens from inside you. You decide what you let in and what you don’t. Some things are just too big to let in and that’s okay. Leave them outside and be thoughtful of what you let in.
Simple breathing techniques can help you in building resilience
Mental health professionals often use the term “self-regulation” to describe the simple concept of calming yourself down. It’s as easy as taking a few deep, slow breaths whenever you feel your emotions are getting the best of you.
The other day, I received a call from someone who was in some obvious emotional pain. At an emotional point in the conversation I heard him say, “Just a moment,” and the phone went silent. Then I heard him take a couple of deep breaths. He was able to continue with the conversation from a place of calm. We continued the conversation, were able to do some problem solving, and end the conversation in a good heart and headspace.
As simple as it sounds, deep breathing has huge benefits. The research on its effectiveness in building resiliency is consistent. So, take a deep breath.
Friends and family also can help you cope with psychological distress
Another emotional resilience strategy that is easy and effective: Building important relationships.
Some people still don’t get it. We have been forced to connect with each other in ways that have not been connected before. Our vulnerability has been obvious and our struggles have shown themselves. It’s never been more important to build healthy supportive relationships filled with forgiveness and permission.
Quality connections with others who understand and share some of our struggles build resiliency by allowing us to be ourselves, without judgment. When we aren’t worried about what others are thinking about us, we are able to create, innovate and problem solve. We are able to spend more time and energy in more productive ways and less time wondering if, “I’m the only one feeling this way.”
Other ways to increase mental wellness
Everyone has different ways of grounding themselves. The important thing is to do it! Each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes, we need time to be quiet and peaceful. A daily dose of mindfulness, whether through meditation, yoga, prayer, etc., gives your resiliency a boost and can help you bounce back. Resilient people know that this time is a necessity, not a luxury.
We can help others with their resilience
Becoming resilient yourself doesn’t just benefit you. It helps those around you as well. Becoming aware of your own stress can make you more sensitive to the stress of others. Remember what we said about connection? It is key to building resiliency. Connecting to another person experiencing stress can be a powerful gift that builds resiliency in them.
For example, when we ask people how they are doing, they often respond with “fine.” But what if you noticed a look on their face that made you think they weren’t really fine? You might just ask, “are you really fine?” Chances are you will get a different answer.
They might share that they are tired, that they didn’t sleep well, and that it’s been a long week. It doesn’t require more of a response than, “Yeh, I get it. Me too”, to build a connection and extend the empathy that sends the message, “I see you and I hear you”. That connection builds the bridge and makes a difference.
The pandemic may be ending, but building resilience must always go on
We need to have awareness of how the pandemic has caused us to feel a sense of having lost control. When a natural disaster, such as a tornado, occurs, it usually is over very quickly. But the repair work takes much longer. Rebuilding our resilience can be the same way. The sun may come out an hour later, but the work takes much more time.
Now, it appears that COVID is waning. But we know life will throw other adverse events our way. Proactively building these coping skills will help ensure we have the capacity to meet these challenges and have the strength to walk through and beyond them.