We’ve all experienced that moment, when your day is going just great, and then just one thing going wrong turns the whole day into a bit of a disaster. For me it’s often when one of my daughters throws an epic tantrum, in public. Usually at the same time as two or three of my other children are also being upset about something ridiculous. And of course this is often accompanied by a toileting accident, rain, a grazed knee, and copious disapproving looks from passers-by.
Eventually the moment ends. The TV is on, or I’ve bribed them with food (which of course I said I’d never do before I had kids), or they have just miraculously flipped a switch and instantaneously transformed from angry child into sweet child. But my response doesn’t end so easily. I feel so traumatised by what happened, that things just don’t go quite back to normal. Without even realising it, I often re-live that event over and over throughout the rest of the day. It takes only a minor thing to upset me again, and even the great times don’t seem quite so enjoyable.
The negative self-talk begins, and spirals out of control if I don’t recognise it and nip it in the bud.
“I have a blog about coping with stress – surely I must be a hypocrite to have moments like that?”
“I’m such a bad Mum – I ended up yelling at my children”
“I must be terrible at parenting if my children behave like this!”
My mind sometimes gets even more restless and doesn’t even stay on-topic:
“On top of all this, I start a new job this week, which will probably be just as much of a disaster”
“I still haven’t done my tax return!”
“My house is such a mess.”
Wouldn’t it be great to just leave those difficult times in their own neatly packaged time allotments? For there to be no leaking out into the other parts of our day where they have no business being? Our brains make this much harder than it sounds, but it is possible.
It wasn’t until I recognised my thought patterns that I was able to do something about it. And once I noticed it, I realised how often I was doing it. Like when you buy a hot pink car because you think it’ll stand out and be different, and suddenly you notice hot pink cars everywhere!
When I notice myself spiralling, I have to consciously stop. I find a way to have a few moments to process my thoughts and reset my emotions. I have a cup of tea and enjoy the view outside my window. Sometimes I try to concentrate completely on what my kids are doing and saying, to stop my mind going over past events. At other times I lie down for a few minutes and concentrate on my breathing.
Once I’ve had some space, I remind myself that my children are actually great kids who just have their difficult (age appropriate!) moments. I am not a terrible Mum. I can make a plan for the rest of the day to go more smoothly, and approach it positively.
I apply the same process at work. I’m not the best when it comes to conflict, and often a difficult interaction with a patient really upsets me. I take a few minutes, gather my thoughts, and quickly debrief with a colleague if needed. Then set it aside so that I can be in the right frame of mind to give my care and attention to the rest of my patients for the day, rather than in the back of my mind still dwelling on what happened.
As you apply these changes to your thinking, you become more resilient, more capable of bouncing back after a challenging episode. Resilience gives us the ability to cope with stress and difficulties at the time, and to recover from them afterwards. This can be in minor daily situations like I have described, or larger scale disasters like losing your job, your house burning down, or the death of a family member.
Resilience is, in part, related to personality traits. We see people who have been through unimaginable disaster and tragedy, and yet to not only overcome them but to be spurred on to do incredible things with their lives. Others struggle to cope with even minor setbacks, easily becoming disheartened, unmotivated, and distressed.
The good news is that resilience can be learnt and improved. Here are seven things you can do to improve your resilience, and cope with setbacks more easily:
- Nurture relationships. Strong connections with family, friends and community are really important. In particular, having people you can be open with and discuss your fears, concerns, joys, and hopes. If you don’t have a good social network, consider joining a local hobby or faith-based group, or perhaps a parent’s group. Although these connections are easier to find online these days, I’d encourage you to find groups that meet in person as well.
- Developing positive thought patterns. People are more resilient when they can recognise and appreciate the positive things in their life, rather than focussing on the negative. It is still fine to experience negative emotions, and in fact that is a healthy thing to do! But it’s easy for these negative thoughts to become dominant. The first step is to really try to notice when we are thinking negatively, and to either challenge those thoughts (Is it true? Am I exaggerating?) or let them pass by without taking hold (mindfulness, meditation, distraction).
- Focus on what you have control over – these are the things you can change! As much as possible, try not to dwell upon that which cannot be changed by you. When something bad happens, think about whether there is anything you can learn from that experience.
- Giving to others. Acts of kindness boost our ability to feel happy, and the more often we perform acts of kindness the more our resilience and happiness builds. Consider volunteering in your community, giving to a charity, sending encouraging cards to friends who are struggling, or cooking a meal for someone who’s had a new baby or is unwell. Receiving and appreciating kindness from others has also been shown to be important. You could consider keeping a gratitude journal, and each day writing down three things you are grateful for. Some families share things they are grateful for at the dinner table.
- Take care of your health. People are more resilient when they are looking after their physical health as well. If you are well rested, eating well and exercise regularly, you are more likely to cope well with the challenges you face. Even something as simple as regularly spending time outside can help.
- Accept change. Sometimes we can get stuck in our disappointment that life, or some aspect of it, hasn’t turned out the way we hoped. This can be discouraging, and we may need a time of grieving for what we had hoped for. But if we cannot change it, we need to accept the new direction we are heading in, and find a way to make the most of it.
- Make goals. These should be realistic goals you have control over – winning the lottery might not be a helpful one! The goal needs to be achievable as it is by being able to achieve the goals we set that we build our confidence and belief in ourselves, and can go on to set the next goal, and the next. Regularly do something, however small, to move yourself towards your goal.