Self care and resilience – Stephen Mordue
Our day to day lives see us facing many stressors. They are often dependent on our environment and the people we come into contact with, but can also be internal. While the workplace can be a source of stress, we experience challenging circumstances in all areas of our lives. A study of almost 5,000 people by the Mental Health Foundation (2019) in 2018 found that 74% of people reported that they were so stressed that they felt unable to cope. The study found that this stress resulted in 46% of those people overeating or choosing unhealthy food options, and 29% of participants reported that they started, or increased drinking alcohol. Half of those studied who reported feeling stressed also reported feeling depressed and more than half (61%) reported feelings of anxiety. Almost 1 in 3 participants reported that they had experienced suicidal thoughts. Life’s challenges frequently have emotions attached or embedded in them and how we manage those emotions in ourselves and displayed by others can have a significant impact on our wellbeing, and both our physical and mental health. This article will explore some of those stressors, their role in our wellbeing, and look at some ways that we might become more resilient to them (and what that means).
In his book ‘Futureshock’, originally published in 1970, Alvin Toffler predicts the impact on our well-being of a world dominated by stress brought about by the constant changes we are witnessing today.
“In the three short decades between now and the twenty-first century, millions of ordinary, psychologically normal people will face an abrupt collision with the future. Citizens of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations, many of them will find it increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change that characterizes our time. For them, the future will have arrived too soon”
Joyce Chong (2017), an Australian Clinical Psychologist identifies the specific details of these changes. She points to being constantly connected to the rest of the world, through our TV, internet connection and mobile devices. We need time ‘away’ and space to replenish. She suggests that we often try to do too much and fail to prioritise. We seem to be on a treadmill, moving between items on our ‘to do’ list, without thinking about what is really important. We engage in poor stress relief mechanisms like alcohol or overeating and engage too infrequently in positive ones like exercise and meditation. She also cites pollution from the environment, from what we ingest, and from sensory overload as a factor. Our bodies and minds are bombarded on a daily basis.
The secret to mitigating against the world Toffler predicts and that Chong comments on may be to become ‘ordered’ internally, at ease with yourself and comfortable with the skin you inhabit. Then ‘ordered’ in your external world, in what I like to call your personal sphere of responsibility – all of the things that are yours to do something with, all of the things you are responsible for. This order is required because, essentially, the world is a chaotic place throwing things at you, metaphorically, that it expects you to cope with; a flat tyre on the car, a request to work on Saturday morning, a sudden bout of flu. Unmanaged chaos creates stress. How you cope with that stress is influenced by how resilient you are.
Resilience is often defined as the ability to bounce back after being faced with a challenge. For me, and for the purposes of this article, it is the ability to manage a challenge so that it doesn’t have a negative long-term impact on our lives. Building resilience can help us to cope with the ebb and flow of life and support our ability to cope with the ‘everyday’. David Allen (2015), productivity guru talks about this using the analogy of having a ‘Mind like water’. When you throw a rock into a still pond it creates waves, the waves become ripples, and eventually the ripples settle down and the pond becomes still again. This is how Allen suggests our minds should be in response to life’s challenges. We experience the rock (the challenge) and we absorb it, creating a disturbance. By having a level of flexibility and resilience at our disposal we manage the rock and return to a state of calm. We use our internal systems of order and management to bring the external chaos under control.
Resilience is, for me, threefold – Physical, Emotional and Practical. In the example above, from Allen, he very much relies on ‘Practical’ systems to organise life’s events into tasks to complete. He is fond of the idea that ‘if you don’t control it, it will control you’. By having a system that manages everything we do, we can stay in charge of it. There is advice on this here in a previous Cache Alumni Article.
There is also a physical dimension to resilience. Sleep, exercise and nutrition all interact with each other to either enhance or deplete our resilience. Walker (2017) estimates that 50% of people are not getting the right quantity or quality of sleep and this has a direct impact on our motivation and how we cope with our waking hours. Research into the impact of what we eat and the effect this can have on our emotions and mood is gathering pace with scientists showing that our gut and brain are directly linked. Finally, how much we exercise can have consequences for our wellbeing. The rush of adrenaline and cortisol we experience when stressed can be ‘worked off’ by engaging in physical activity, the very thing that this ‘fight or flight’ response was designed for. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of exercise. A 20-minute walk that leaves you a little breathless can be enough. A study by Bristol University showed that exercise improved the ability to deal with stress by 20% and provided participants with a boost in mood and motivation of 41% (Coulson et al, 2018)
In person focussed roles like social care, social work, teaching and nursing, the role of emotional resilience is hugely significant. Such professions are often engaged in emotional labour where the emotions you are able to show in front of the person you are supporting may be at odds with the emotions you are feeling. These professions are also considered vocational in nature with people entering such professions precisely because they want to, or have to be, involved with people in the emotional context of their lives to help them heal, repair, and develop. As Ellie Cannon (2018) notes, “work is a significant part of an adult’s life: it bestows our sense of achievement, success, pride, socio-economic status and self-esteem, and is more than just a job for most people”. This is usually the case with the person-centred jobs mentioned above. While they often have all of these positives, they can often come bundled with a significant level of emotional stress.
Emotional resilience in such circumstances is built upon our emotional intelligence, or emotional literacy. This relates to how we manage our own emotions and the emotions of others. Grant and Kinman (2014) have found that emotional literacy is “one of the most powerful predictors of emotional resilience in social workers” (Grant and Kinman 2014 p. 23) and helps us to manage stress more effectively, leading to better psychological wellbeing.
Goleman (1996) suggests that people broadly fall into three categories of emotional ‘style’. Some, he suggests, are engulfed. Their emotions overwhelm them, leaving then ‘swamped’ and ‘helpless’. They get lost in their feelings, unable to maintain perspective and, therefore, they may lose control over their emotional life. Others, he suggests, are accepting of their emotions. While they can be clear about how they are feeling, they accept the mood but don’t attempt to manage or change it. Through time this can also erode feelings of well-being as the emotions go unmanaged, unchallenged or unresolved. The ideal, he states, is being self-aware. Such a person is aware of their emotions and has what Goleman describes as a ‘sophisticated’ response to them. I would argue that the sophisticated response also relies on the other elements of resilience mentioned earlier in this article, too. What you eat, the exercise you take, how you sleep and how organised you are will help assist your response. If, when overwhelmed by events, you can take time out to go for a walk, you may be able to find time to plan your response to what has just occurred and examine how it made you feel. If you can do that, you will be showing that ‘sophisticated response’ and developing emotional resilience. The three types of resilience – physical, emotional, and practical – don’t exist in isolation.
Mindfulness has been shown to have a particularly strong impact on emotion resilience. It can help to effectively regulate negative emotions, reducing your reliance on habitual responses. Essentially, it can help us to be ‘in the moment’ in a controlled way, managing our emotions reflexively (Parkes and Kelly 2014, Muller 2016). It can also improve the regulation of emotions and provide greater mental flexibility which, in turn, might improve our ability to see things from different perspectives (McGonigal 2010, Piyawan et al 2017). This can help us to ‘manage’ the emotions of others and our response to them, enhancing our emotional intelligence and, therefore, our emotional resilience.
Resilience is also built through the process of reflection. It is important to reflect upon our actions, thinking about what you did, how it made you feel, what your response was, and how you may want your response to be different next time. Reflecting on your actions helps you build a repertoire of ways to respond to the emotions of others and your own and enhances emotional resilience. Professional supervision (or simply talking to your colleagues) is a helpful way to explore this. Resilience is built in the ‘storm’ of practice, but it is also built slowly. It is important for managers to consider the workload of their team to make sure that there is time to reflect and consider. Resilience is developed by being pushed and confronting new challenges, but this should not be taken too far, too fast or it may result in overwhelm, rather than resilience.
Finally, resilience is finite and must be replenished. All of the elements that contribute to resilience, including sleep, nutrition, exercise, organisation, and mindfulness must be considered and addressed. Recuperation and recovery from the demands of life are essential. In the knowledge and people skills sectors, maintaining psychological capacity is essential. Chris Hoy, cyclist and Olympian, understands this and explains it well. For him, his legs are the thing that he needs for his job, the thing he needs to be resilient. He says that he can’t sprint all of the time, so he sits when he doesn’t need to stand, and lies down when he doesn’t need to sit. We all must rest and conserve the type of energy we need for the job we are doing. Psychological ‘energy’ is built on resilience which is built on your physical effectiveness, your emotional intelligence, and your ability to be organised to keep it all under control.
Allen, D. (2015) Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity London: Piatkus
Cannon, E. (2018) Is Your Job Making You Ill London: Piatkus
Chong, J. (2017) 5 Reasons why modern life causes us stress (and what to do about it) https://theskillcollective.com/blog/modern-life-causes-stress (Accessed 2nd November 2019)
Coulson, J. C., McKenna J., Field, M (2018) Exercising at work and self-reported work performance International Journal of Workplace Health Management 2008; Volume 1 Issue 3 (pp. 176-197),
Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ
Grant, L. & Kinman, G., (2014) What is resilience, in Grant, L. & Kinman, G., (2014) (eds.) Developing resilience for social work practice London:Palgrave Macmillan.
Mental Health Foundation (2019) Mental Health statistics: stress, Results of the Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 Study https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-stress (Accessed 2nd November 2019)
McGonigal, K. (2010) Your Brain on Meditation https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/brain-meditation accessed 30.07.2018
Muller, B. C. N. et al (2016) Concentrative Meditation Influences Creativity by Increasing Cognitive Flexibility Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol.10 No.3, 278-286
Parkes, R., & Kelly, S. (2014) Mindfulness for resilience in social work in Grant, L. & Kinman, G. (2014) (Eds.) Developing resilience for social work practice London:Palgrave Macmillan.
Piyawan, S. (2016) Enhanced happiness and stress alleviation upon insight meditation retreat: mindfulness, a part of traditional Buddhist meditation Mental Health, Religion & Culture Vol. 19, No. 7, 648-659 Routledge
Tollfer, A. (1970) Futureshock
Walker, M. (2017) Why We Sleep Penguin-Random House: St.Ives
Stephen Mordue is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. As well as teaching about Adult Care on the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes he is Practice Learning Coordinator and Programme Leader for the Best Interests Assessment in Practice Programme. He was a social work practitioner and manager for 12 years working mainly with older people and their families. His areas of special interest are effective communication, working with people with dementia, the Mental Capacity Act, and self care and productivity for professionals.