Charles Darwin: It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
In the last five articles, we talked about what stress is, how it manifests in the mind and body, and directions from which we can intervene. Starting with today’s article, I will take the discussion further, to the concept of resilience. We have already established that stress is inherent in life. But life can be more than survival. Life can be about constantly evolving, flourishing, and expressing your potential.
When we have resilience, we have control and power in our own lives; we learn from adversities and become more competent and stronger.
What is Resilience?
Life is uncertain and imperfect, and so are we. We don’t know everything, and we can’t do everything. Resilience is the ability that allows us to progress through stressful events. Resilience is an emotional and psychological anchor that enables us to adapt and ultimately thrive through the experiences we go through. Resilience is the force that propels us toward personal development, physical and mental health, and success. Resilience is what allows us to transform a problem into an opportunity, learn from failures, and emerge from these experiences stronger and more competent. Resilience brings courage and confidence. Resilience transforms adversities into a catalyst for development and is a fundamental element in building a fulfilled and meaningful life. Resilience is not something we are born with (except physically); it is something we learn. Resilience is formed in relation to the adversities we go through and requires going through our own odyssey. The foundation of resilience is our mindset: our life beliefs and convictions.
Mindset as a Starting Point
Imagine two men who love their work but are not well-paid and work many extra hours. At some point, something changes in the organization, and both of them are laid off. One of them interprets the situation as an opportunity and a wake-up call. He realizes he has been in a place where he wasn’t happy for a long time. He questions why he didn’t do something sooner, analyzes his situation, decides he was complacent and somewhat fearful, and resolves to be more attentive to that in the future. For the moment, he mobilizes to find another job, and things fall into place relatively quickly.
On the other hand, the second man feels betrayed, exploited, and unjustly treated. He gets stuck in resentment toward his former job and the world in general. He worked so hard, was treated unfairly, not appreciated—why is this happening to him? He postpones going to job interviews, and when he does, he has a resentful, confrontational attitude that doesn’t inspire confidence. Three months later, he still doesn’t have a job, drinks more, smokes more, and argues with his partner.
The first man adapted, focused on what he could change, and on what he contributed to his situation. He learned lessons and did what was necessary to find a job. The second man focused on what was done to him and how unfair it was. While true, it’s unhelpful because he can’t directly influence these things. He remains stuck in an old problem, an attitude problem. Instead of focusing on finding a new job, he dwells on the injustice of the world toward him and how he could correct it. Moreover, he emphasizes unhealthy behaviors to numb his emotions: tobacco and alcohol consumption. This further affects his physical and mental health, his relationship, budget, and future prospects.
Where Does This Attitude Come From?
Where does this difference between the two come from? The difference largely lies in their attitude toward the problem, the story each tells themselves about life in general, and how they interpret this particular event in their personal context.
Our attitude is formed by a series of beliefs and convictions. In most cases, they are not necessarily rational; they are conclusions we have drawn about the world and our place in it since we were very young. They are also rules that have been told to us throughout our lives by people around us (parents, teachers, relatives, friends). It’s a kind of popular but inconsistent wisdom that is rarely carefully examined.
Our brain loves efficiency and shortcuts, enjoys automating processes, extracting rules quickly, and then going on autopilot. Our brain also knows it must protect us from danger and suffering at all costs. Every time something bad happens, our mind interprets the situation hastily and under the influence of emotions, drawing conclusions. The sum of these life situations forms the beliefs we operate on automatically. Left unexamined, they can prove extremely problematic and limiting.
Let’s go back to the example of the two men. Perhaps the first man starts from a belief that things will eventually be okay and that there is always a solution. Maybe his family life has demonstrated this to him. Perhaps, in his life experience, he has learned that if you examine your decisions and actions that led you to a certain point in your life, you can understand how to have more control over your life next time and reach where you want to be.
On the other hand, the second man seems to operate from completely different beliefs. He seems convinced that the world is an unjust place, and he is always treated unfairly. He seems convinced that the situation he is in is entirely someone else’s responsibility and not his own. He was good, sacrificed himself, and received exploitation and abandonment in return. The second man places himself in a victim role, in powerlessness; he sees himself as small.
How Can You Change Your Attitude?
The question is, how do you change your attitude and beliefs if you find yourself in a situation similar to this second man?
In therapy, I combine three approaches:
- We rationally analyze beliefs and try to restructure them.
- We investigate the life events or adopted beliefs that support those beliefs.
- We defuse (with tapping or hypnosis) the strong emotions supporting them.
Why? Because reason has its limits. Sometimes, the most important thing to do is to calm the emotional reaction we have to a thought or memory. What can you do about this on your own? Below is an exercise you can practice. Obviously, it has its limitations and does not replace working with a specialist, but it is an excellent starting point.
Exercise to Identify Limiting Beliefs
- Make a list of your beliefs about life in general, your place in the world, what is or is not allowed for you in this world. For inspiration, think about difficult situations in your life and see what beliefs determined your decisions and behaviors.
2. Rational Analysis:
- Analyze these beliefs rationally and check if any of the following judgment errors creep in: black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, generalization, omniscience/mind-reading, imperative “should.” Apply exercises from the article “Untangle Your Thoughts” for each case.
- For each belief, identify the life experiences or people that contributed to its formation and crystallization.
3. Calm Emotional Reaction:
- Choose a life experience that contributed to the formation of a belief.
- Identify the emotion you feel about that situation and belief. Notice if there is tension in your body and where.
- Evaluate the intensity of the emotion on a scale from 1 to 10. Assess the intensity of muscle tension from 1 to 10.
- With attention focused on that event and emotion, do breathing exercises as follows: Series of 5 minutes inhale 4 counts/exhale 6 counts, 6 breaths per minute. On exhale, relax all tension in your body. After each 5-minute series, evaluate the intensity of emotion, muscle tension, and how your thoughts about the event and belief evolve. Repeat breathing exercises until the intensity of emotion and tension drops below 4.
- Conclude with a progressive muscle relaxation exercise as described [here](insert a link here).
- Repeat the process for each limiting belief you have identified and the associated memories.
Note: It may be challenging to work on your own. You may experience intense emotions. If at any point you feel it is too difficult or too much to handle on your own, seek a therapist to guide you through the process. Don’t leave things as they are. You’ve identified a problem; approach it with resilience.