How to build resilience in 2020

Our team recently met with Berak Hussain a mental health expert, who spoke to us about the impact this pandemic has potentially had on our mental health, and gave us some practical tips on how to stay resilient through these strange times!

Let’s start with the end in sight. What does resilience look like?

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity. Nobody is immune from facing challenging circumstances. The difference lies in the response. When faced with adversity, be it sickness, a natural disaster or a bad relationship, resilient people acknowledge and accept their reality and work to address what they can change.

Resilient people are not unaffected by adversity, but they bounce back. There are some qualities that are found amongst resilient people: they are self-aware and prioritise self-care, practise mindfulness, recognise the importance of positive relationships and most importantly – they have a purpose. This purpose is what provides them with their inner strength and allows them to push against all odds.

What picture does the word ‘resilience’ bring to your mind?

It takes me back to a sunny day in Baghdad when I had the privilege of visiting the Al-Ayn headquarters. I walked through the corridors, passing widowed mothers learning new skills in classrooms, and orphaned children in playrooms and scanning the shelves of the toy-shop. I remember thinking of how so much positive action can come from their tragic stories. I think the widowed mothers and orphaned children in Iraq embody the term ‘resilience’. They have had to adjust to incredibly harsh circumstances, robbed off the security of a breadwinner and so much more.

Organisations like Al-Ayn provide them with that second chance to help them build resilience, whether through practical courses to build self-sufficiency, or through counselling services that provide coping strategies. It gave me great joy visiting Al-Ayn and other charities and witnessing resilience in action.

How much resilience has the pandemic demanded from us?

I think we can learn so much about everyday resilience from the Covid-19 pandemic and humanity’s response to it.  The start of the nationwide lockdown bought terror upon us, and some of us began panicking to stock up toilet rolls, canned foods and non-perishable items.  Once that initial shock was over, we had to acknowledge our new reality and adapt. We had to recognise that we weren’t in control. We had to understand how we could bring the positivity out of the situation and prevent it from overwhelming us because life had to carry on. The whole situation was a novel experience for everybody. But somehow, we learned how to adapt – quickly and on a global scale. And this shows us the potential we have as individuals to be resilient in significant changes in our everyday lives.

Of course, it hasn’t been an easy ride. In fact, psychologists estimate that humans typically take roughly three months to adjust to new situations. But the pace of adjustment was actually much quicker: we all hopped overnight from regularity to virtual work meetings and Zoom socials. This might have taken an additional toll on our mental health. There is a danger of underestimating the impact of the ongoing uncertainty on our mental health. So although we have seen the community come together and support each other, we need to stay vigilant and take it easy on ourselves. Just as we are exercising additional caution in protecting our health with our face masks and sanitisers, let’s not forget to exercise the same caution when it comes to our mental health.

Tell me more about that – how can we exercise caution when it comes to our mental health?

It’s important for us to pause and reflect on our everyday stresses. We all have stressful moments, but when poor mental health is disrupting your everyday life, such as your energy levels, eating habits, or sleep, this is the point you should consider reaching out to others for help. Of course, there is no ‘one-size fits all’ solution – every single person has their own unique history, biological makeup, upbringing and environment that makes them who they are. So, every single person responds to stress in a different way and thus there is no single situation. This is why we must be aware of our own stress responses and stress print so we can respond to it effectively.

What are some practical ways we can build resilience?

I find the concept of the “Seven C’s of resilience” particularly helpful when it comes to knowing what components build resilience: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control. I know that sounds like a lot of jargon so let me give you some tangible tips!

First, understand yourself and your trigger points. It sounds obvious but most of us don’t spend as much time or effort attempting to understand our own selves than we do understanding those around us. Think about what sort of situations you find most stressful and try to identify the triggers behind them so that you’re ready when they come. It’s not for no reason that the hadith goes, “Whoever knows oneself, knows their Lord.” This is a profound statement and points towards the great potential that lies in true self-awareness.

Understanding yourself is not only understanding your temperament, but also understanding what motivates you and what your goals are. Again, that sounds clichéd but how many of us have a clear idea as to what we want from our careers, our relationships, and other aspects of our lives? If we don’t define these for ourselves, it’ll be challenging taking steps towards achieving them. This goes back to the sense of purpose that I spoke about in the beginning of the interview – the trait that helps resilient people find their inner strength and carry on.

Secondly, making a conscious effort to regulate our emotions. Optimism isn’t easy but is a habit that, like any other, needs to be practised until perfected.  We don’t need to completely ignore negative thoughts but acknowledge them and then consciously make an effort to move to a more positive one without dwelling too much on the negativity. Humour can go along way – if all else fails, take a step back and laugh at yourself. There is enough research to suggest that negative thinking impacts us physiologically as well, so your body will thank you for that!

Finally, fall back on your support network. Build healthy and strong personal connections around you, and this does not need to just be family members. Having a reliable support network can significantly improve your well-being.