The Road to Resilience: 4 Ways to Bounce Back From Setbacks

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We all know fear, disappointment, and heartache. And we all experience joy, optimism, and happiness. As stress becomes increasingly prevalent in our lives, we look for ways to shore up our ability to cope. While we can’t necessarily change our environment, we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience. Resilience isn’t a single skill; it’s a variety of skills and coping mechanisms to help us build a more optimistic outlook as a buffer when times get tough. There are four questions we can ask ourselves to start building our resilience muscle.

Am I operating from the inside out?

Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life, we can reduce toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.

Focusing on the positive each day shifts our perspective. Writing down the things we are grateful for helps us keep them in mind. Reflecting on those moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.

Operating from the inside out is about focusing on others rather than ourselves. Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Am I willing to embrace failure?

To be human is to know failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. One of the frailties of the human psyche is our fear of failure. Yet without overcoming fear, we can’t innovate, create, or push forward as we are paralyzed by it. A mindset that is open to mistakes—and allows space to reflect on those mistakes and learn from them—creates a mental value system around learning. Opening our minds up to the possibilities of change exposes us to a world full of new skills, new opportunities, and new achievements. It takes courage to persevere in spite of setbacks. As Mark Twain put it, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Not succeeding is not the same as failing. We all experience successes and failures. But the only real failure is when we are incapable of recovering from setbacks. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” When you stumble, ask yourself whether you are focused on your mistake, or embracing the opportunity to learn from it.

Am I comfortable with my committee?

We all have experiences that color how we approach every aspect of our lives. Each of us brings our own filter into every interaction. It is this filter that creates stories, myths, and legends to resolve confusion and provide direction for each of us as we search for meaning. Many times, these stories come from authority figures – often family members, teachers, or others whose opinion means a great deal to us. And often, the stories are not kind.

There is a saying that a committee is a life form with several mouths, but no brain. Each of us has an inner know-it-all in our heads telling us we’re not good enough. We carry these voices with us throughout our lives, and they can hold us back when we need to move forward. Overcoming them means facing them head on and challenging the validity of the stories they are telling. Making peace with the inner critic means looking at our stories without judgement. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to help test the statements that your committee is making. Calling on past successes also serves as hard data that can help us challenge the negative assumption, move forward, and prove the committee wrong.

Am I choosing wonder over worry?

Research by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe increases well-being, giving us the sense that we have more time available. When experiencing awe, we are completely present, and time seems to stand still. We’re off autopilot and 100 percent engaged with the experience. We’re unlikely to be looking at our phones if we’re taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe. Awe is in the smile of a loved one, the kindness of people, the laughter shared with a colleague, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar. If we can harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Putting it all together

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” It’s easy to be optimistic, upbeat, and positive when things are going well. When we’re having a tough day, however, resilience can be more challenging. Consciously shifting our perspective to create optimistic neural pathways takes repetition, practice, and persistence.

By shifting our focus to the positive, we can change our perspective to take a longer view of any situation. In spite of the myriad demands of work and life, building resilience over time helps us to pick ourselves up and carry on in the face of adversity. Neurons that fire together wire together—the more we practice resilience and nurture our recovery from stress, the more natural it becomes to have an optimistic, forward-thinking outlook, and the more capable we are of overcoming stress and moving forward in spite of it.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

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Running on empty: How to kick your get-up-and-go into high gear

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Ah a new year, filled with promise, opportunity and resolutions. For many of us, the reality is that another year brings yet another cycle of feeling low on energy as we contemplate looming deadlines, responsibilities and obligations. The ebb in energy often comes from a festive season filled with indulgences that have left us feeling unhealthy, combined with the new year blues that afflict many of us in the coldest and darkest months of the year. We are in a vicious cycle of makes us crabby and fatigued, with no desire to eat well or exercise. We can be left feeling like a sailboat without a breath of wind to push us forward. It’s happened to most of us, but we can do something about it. It just takes a focus on three building blocks of energy: sleeping well, moving well, and eating well.

Sleep well

Sleep is more than beauty rest. It’s also brain rest and is one of the most important aspects of well-being. A good night’s sleep keeps our heart healthy, reduces stress, makes us more alert, reduces chronic inflammation, improves our memory, can help us lose weight, and may even prevent cancer. Our minds are surprisingly busy while we’re snoozing. In a process called consolidation, we strengthen memories or practice skills we learned while awake. Sleep also helps restore the brain by flushing out toxins that build up during waking hours, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. One of the waste products removed from the brain during sleep is beta amyloid, the substance that forms sticky plaques associated with the disease. As we sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases, washing away the toxic waste proteins that build up between brain cells during the day. Our brain needs this sleep cleaning cycle. It is not possible for it to clean itself and keep us sharp and functioning well during the hours that we’re awake. Without the cleaning cycle, we feel groggy and struggle to think clearly after a sleepless night.

Clear the clutter. Eliminate books, magazines, empty water glasses, and other clutter from nightstands. Mess sends wakefulness-oriented alerts to our brains—it screams “look at me, read me, check your email!” To give your brain a rest, make your bedroom an oasis of calm and relaxation.

Go dark. Our ancestors used to sleep in caves without artificial light, and our bodies still rely on the complete absence of light to cue us to sleep. Getting blackout blinds and losing the night light can help. If you have an alarm clock, turn the illuminated face away from you as even that small amount of light can trigger you to lie awake. Technology’s favorite color also isn’t doing us any favors. Blue light from screens and LED lights affect our sleep rhythms by inhibiting the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. Banish blue light from your bedroom. That means no phone, backlit device, or television for at least an hour before bedtime. Let’s not panic. We can do this.

Stay cool. Experts suggest that we sleep best in a room between sixty-five and seventy degrees Fahrenheit with adequate ventilation. When we go to sleep, our set point for body temperature goes down. In a room that is too cold, the body struggles to achieve this set point. If the room is too hot, we’re more likely to wake up in a tangle of bedsheets. The comfort level of our bedroom temperature also affects the quality of REM sleep, the stage in which we dream. Find the sweet spot that works for you.

Stick to a schedule. Turning in and getting up around the same time every day sets our internal sleep/wake clock. Erratic sleep patterns leave us feeling groggy and irritable, as brains love routine and our circadian rhythm needs a regular schedule to operate at its best. Changing a sleep schedule overnight is not possible, however. Making small changes slowly, in fifteen-minute increments over several days can help you adjust your sleep schedule. By picking a bedtime and wake-up time and sticking to them as much as possible, we enable our body’s internal clock to get accustomed to the schedule. Insufficient sleep also decreases levels of the satiety-signaling hormone leptin and increases levels of the hunger-instigating hormone ghrelin. We lose our hunger control and eat more. Ideally, try to be in bed by ten o’clock in the evening. Any later, and you could consume up to 549 more calories per day.

Move well

The typical US adult is sedentary for 60 percent of their waking hours and sits an average of six to eight hours per day. Too much sitting decreases the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which burns fat. As a result, we are at greater risk of becoming obese. Sitting for extended periods also decreases bone-mineral density without increasing bone formation, increasing the risk of fracture. It increases blood pressure and decreases the diameter of our arteries—all of which lead to increased risk of heart disease. Sitting is the new smoking.

Get on your feet. Replacing two hours of sitting with two hours of standing every day lowers blood sugar and cholesterol (and burns calories!). Research shows that walking also enhances creative thinking, so walking while on the phone or when brainstorming can help us generate ideas. Working at a standing desk or taking a two-minute walk every hour can help offset the negative health effects from prolonged sitting. Combined with regular exercise in the form of strength training and cardio several times per week, getting on your feet can decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and premature death.

Watch your posture. Posture and health are closely related, as posture affects every physiologic function, from breathing to blood pressure. Posture and motion don’t only affect how long we live, but also how well we live. People with strong posture recover faster from injuries, exercise more effectively, have less pain, and even look more youthful. Posture even affects our mood, with good posture generating a more positive outlook. Whether we’re standing or sitting, paying attention to our spine and keeping our back straight is good for both body and mind. Channel your mother telling you to stop slouching, and you’ll feel better for it.

Eat well

Amp up the healthy fats. Omega-3s help increase the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with our reward response, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with our ability to access feelings of well-being. The typical Western diet has an overabundance of omega-6 (found in typical vegetable oils), which has been linked to inflammation on the brain associated with depression. The power of omega-3s—helping to protect our cardiovascular systems, normalizing and regulating triglyceride levels in the blood, reducing LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and elevating HDL levels (the good kind)—cannot be overstated. They discourage and reduce inflammation in the body, and play a preventive role against diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer. They support healthy brain-cell structure and contribute to the overall flexibility and fluidity of brain-cell membranes. And—as if that weren’t enough— they regulate the flow of proteins and neurotransmitters, which act as chemical messengers and are associated with fluctuations in mood. Eating two or more servings of seafood like wild salmon, mackerel, or sardines per week will increase omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. For those who prefer not to eat fish—seaweed, leafy greens, avocados, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are abundant in omega-3s. Throw in some omega-3 powerhouses like walnuts and brazil nuts, and you’ll feel more energized and focused.

Start the day with produce. Fruit is anywhere from 60–95 percent water in composition, depending on which fruit we choose. This means we’re re-hydrating after a night of dehydration. Starting off the day with fruit can help us avoid the mid-morning slump because they are easy to digest and can help flush toxins from our systems. Having the first meal of the day be produce eases our digestion into gear rather than overloading it first thing. Fruit also fills the energy tank with glucose, the vital fuel every cell in our bodies needs to function.

Hydrate all day. We lose fluids continuously, from skin evaporation, breathing, and waste elimination. Our cellular membranes are hydrophilic (water-loving), so it stands to reason that hydration is crucial for us to function. Water makes up 60 percent of our bodily fluids responsible for functions like digestion, circulation, transportation of nutrients, and regulation of body temperature. Unfortunately, when we don’t drink enough water, our body can send mixed signals on hunger along with sapping our energy. Dehydration causes us to believe we need to eat when we really need to take in liquid. Cue the repeated visits to the refrigerator for snacks. Drinking water or unsweetened herbal tea consistently throughout the day can help us avoid mindless snacking due to thirst, and increase energy levels.

Over time, a consistent focus on quality sleep, re-examining your food choices, and including more movement in your day will help you to shake off the apathy that comes from inactivity, mobilize your immune system, and re-energize your mind. You’ll have the wind in your sails in no time.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World, available in March 2019.

This article first appeared in LinkedIn.