Building mental resilience during challenging times

We all know certain people who just seem to be able to adjust to any changing circumstance – quickly and calmly. Who stay composed almost all of the time, who experience adversity and then land on their feet again; dusting themselves off and getting back on with life.

Resilience is the art of being able to ‘go with the flow’. It’s defined as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’. My favourite image of resilience is a big tree, which can be blown about by the wind and rain – but whose roots stay firmly planted in the earth.

Ideally, this is how we humans strive to be.

And, for those of us who have just experienced yet another lockdown, there is nothing like enforced isolation (and all the complications that come with it) to put our resilience to the test. All our future plans are put on hold – or cancelled altogether, our usual coping strategies may not be available, we may feel isolated and we may be fearful about our loved ones or even our own health at this time.

Building resilience is a multi-pronged approach. There isn’t one factor that contributes to being mentally adaptable. Understanding this may help you to seek and adopt other methods (that you may not have even considered yet) to bolster your own resilience. Along with mental techniques, there are physical health issues to consider too.

If this is something you would like to strive for  –  keep reading. There are a few things to consider when thinking about resilience.

Your physical health

There are some physical health issues that can affect how robust we feel. For example:

  • Anaemia (which can be caused by low iron levels) can affect mood, energy and sleep and present itself like a mild depression affecting our resilience. About 11% of New Zealand women have low iron stores or iron deficiency.
  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) can present as feeling low in energy, fatigue and wanting to sleep all the time, as well as increased weight gain despite a reduced appetite.
  • Low vitamin B12 and folate can affect energy levels, mood and contribute to anemia. Folate (vitamin B9) deficiency has been shown in research to be common in those suffering from depression. In fact, people who have low folate levels are shown to have a poorer response to SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors) – a type of antidepressant medication.
  • Fluctuating blood sugar levels. You don’t need to be diagnosed as being a diabetic to have issues with your blood sugar levels (see below). If you are experiencing regular issues with ‘hanger’, this can signal that your blood sugar levels are not stable. And this definitely affects how resilient you feel!
  • Fluctuating hormones. PMS/PMT and the ups and downs of female hormones can certainly have an impact on how resilient we are feeling.

You can ask your GP to check these things for you and if you’d like, ask to have your results explained, even if they are ‘normal’. Borderline test results can still signify problems.

Food and Mood

Eating well can have a significant positive impact on your mood. A wide and varied diet is best. Poor nutrient foods that are generally labelled as ‘junk food’ can cause unsteady blood sugar levels: surges and dips that can cause irritability and anxiety. Junk foods containing trans-fats (found in baked goods, pies, pastries) are associated with increased irritability –  something one might regard as the opposite of resilience!

Sometimes foods that may be considered ‘good’ foods can have a negative impact on how you feel. I have had some clients discover, for example, that dairy products have a very negative impact on their mood, leaving them anxious and short tempered. Excluding certain foods, the most noticeable being sugar, alcohol, caffeine, gluten (or more simply wheat), dairy and highly processed foods i.e., fast foods and baked goods etc may support your ability to cope with stress.

You could try a food diary for a few days, or what I like to call a “Food, Mood, Poop” diary and see if you notice any correlation between what you eat (or what you don’t eat) and how you feel (mood). Include any gut issues you may experience which may include loose stools or constipation (poop).

There is increasing evidence that the bacteria in our gut can impact our mood. The best thing for promoting good gut bacteria is fermented foods and fibre from vegetables.

Exercise

In some studies, exercise has been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant. It doesn’t need to be strenuous and you don’t need to join a gym. Walking, preferably outside, in nature, is cheap, easy and requires no equipment. Yoga is simple to do at home (Every Day You offers a wide a range of online classes). Start by doing whatever you think you will enjoy. Even a five minute walk, swim, dance, stretch or yoga routine is going to be helpful. I find that even a fifteen minute walk outside helps decrease my agitation or frustrations if it’s been ‘that sort of a day’!

Many studies show that being in ‘green’ spaces has a positive effect on well-being. Try to get outside every day for at least 20 minutes, and if possible expose yourself to direct sunlight. This stimulates melatonin production to help you sleep at night and stimulates vitamin D production which has been shown to have a positive effect on mood.

Sleep

Sleep is incredibly important for recovery and healing, including recovery from stress. It’s the time the mind and brain are ‘swept clean’, processing the day’s events while undertaking plenty of repair work. It also helps reduce any inflammation going on in your body.

You don’t want to oversleep (no more than 10 hours) nor under-sleep. Ideally you should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If lack of sleep is a problem, you can try a supplement to assist with this (herbal or magnesium supplement can help) and start a good bedtime routine. (More about this in another blog  –  stay tuned).

Breathe

It seems a little ironic that something we do so unconsciously can have such an impact on how we feel. Taking a long, slow and deep belly breath supports the ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system which is involved in supporting the body to relax, digest food and promotes repair of the body.

Mind-body practices like yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Quong and other martial arts can be helpful as they also involve correct breathing techniques, which can help reduce stress all on its own.

Taking a breath also gives us time to think; to pause before we react, especially if we are feeling stressed. So stop, bring your mind to your belly and breath in and out: long and slow, relax your shoulders and take a mini-break.

This is part 1 of a two part series on Building Resilience During Challenging Times. In Part 2 (coming soon), Helen discusses the mental aspects of resilience, including mindfulness, therapy and the power of visualisation.

THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY Integrative Mental Health & Well-being Coach Helen Duyvestyn. GET TO KNOW Helen AND CHECK OUT HOW YOU CAN WORK WITH HER HERE.

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