Despite having her right leg amputated at age five, Bonnie St John became the first African-American ever to win medals in the 1984 Winter Paralympics. Bonnie graduated with honours from Harvard and Oxford, and served in the White House. In her latest book, she shares some of her hard-won wisdom on how to build more resilience
Make the Problem Smaller
Most people think of resilience as bouncing back from a major setback like divorce, serious disease, or a natural disaster. But if you define resilience challenges in small terms - like rebounding from a difficult customer interaction or a dinner that didn't turn out well - practising resilience skills turns out to be much easier. For most of us, the hundreds of miniature bruises we experience each day determine our overall quality of life far more dramatically than the giant traumas that punctuate the decades.
I coined the term "micro-resilience" to target proven, research-based tools that are easy to do during a busy day and lead to immediate results. The world's super athletes all use tiny ways of recovering their energy along the way during sporting matches, so why not apply that same discipline to our everyday lives? Weaving small recoveries into your daily routine won't change what the world throws at you, but it can help you to be less drained by it. You can play your A-game all day long and still have energy left for yourself evenings and weekends.
Save Your Best Mental Energy for its Highest Uses
Tasks like prioritising your workload, coming up with new ideas, and making complex decisions, use more brainpower than menial tasks. Make sure you take on these mental challenges when you are fresh - first thing in the morning or after you've had a healthy snack to boost your energy levels. Don't try to run a Grand Prix without a full tank of gas!
Create Zones to Get More Time
Interruptions and multi-tasking can effectively lower your IQ and make things take up to four times as long to accomplish. I suggest creating islands in the stream of daily communication where you can temporarily turn off distractions and focus on more challenging duties. You may only be able to create a zone once a day or even once a week, but any time you can do this you'll find your productivity soars. Communicating to those around you is critical for successful zones. Give people guidelines around the thresholds for interrupting your zones. Once they see how effective these islands are, they'll be happy to support you - and may even start creating zones for themselves.
Have you ever said to yourself 'I exercised yesterday, and I will exercise tomorrow, but today I have this really important day, so I just don't have the time'? The data shows that small amounts of exercise can make us smarter for hours afterwards: fresh ideas, better access to memory, and more connecting the dots. So, your new, more resilient approach is, 'I have this very important day today, so I can't afford not to exercise'.
Reset Your Primitive Alarms
We waste a lot of energy during the day being triggered by things outside our control; we may tense up, become angry, or feel threatened. Car cut you off in heavy traffic? You didn't get invited to an important meeting? Our primitive impulses cause us to react swiftly and intensely to negative events or even the possibility that something bad might occur.
In ancient times, this fight or flight reaction helped us to survive, but in a modern world, it undercuts our ability to think of creative solutions, collaborate in teams, and accept constructive feedback. Reducing our physiological reaction to daily "threats" is a great way to increase your resilience. A soothing sound, a pleasing smell like cinnamon or spearmint, or a few deep belly breaths (not tightening chest breaths), can quickly and immediately reset these primitive automatic responses.
Use Amy Cuddy's 'Power Poses' to Reset
Standing tall and taking up more space, it turns out, has a physiological effect that can reduce our feeling of being triggered. This Harvard Business School professor found that - whether you are sitting or standing - opening up your arms, spreading your feet apart, and extending your posture, reduces cortisol (the fear hormone) and increases testosterone (giving more confidence to take risks). Once your body chemistry shifts from fearfulness to confidence, you can be more resilient about how you respond to what is happening around you.
Label Your Feelings, Reduce the Drama
Research from Dr Matthew Lieberman at UCLA shows that when your emotions begin to run away like wild horses, using simple words to describe them can give you back the reins. Whether you say a word out loud or simply hold it in | your mind, this labeling process can slow the intensity of your reaction and open up some room for you to make choices. Are you feeling frustrated or helpless? Think about how to change those states of mind by reframing those feelings. If you are angry, could you choose compassion instead?
Spiral to the Positive
Retraining our wiring not to dissolve so rapidly into the negative is like getting a software upgrade to the human operating system. But the next level of improvement comes when we train ourselves to spiral more strongly to the positive. Research shows that we can raise our average positivity with daily exercises in the same way you can get physically stronger with regular workouts in the gym. Things like making a gratitude list, five minutes of positive focus, or taking a moment to simply enjoy nature, can lead to dramatic shifts in positivity levels. Higher positivity is linked to better relationships, more creativity, and even higher pay.
Build a First-Aid Kit for Your Emotions
You keep a first aid kit on hand in case of a cut or burn; why not be ready to address emotional bruises that inevitably occur? Think about mementos, pictures, or pieces of music that can turn your attitude from negative to positive in an instant. Collect them up in a bag, box, or drawer and keep them accessible to grab when you need them. When the world conspires to put you down in the dumps, dip into your 'Joy Kit' to regain perspective and positivity. I have a note in my Joy Kit from my mother (who passed away more than a decade ago) that says: "Cherish yourself." Some people put their Joy Kit on their smartphone, including thank-you notes from work, funny pictures or videos. Even a recording of your dog's bark could be just the thing you need to snap yourself out of a funk.
Reverse Your Thinking to Reveal New Ideas
Write down on an index card a challenge or an obstacle that you are trying to overcome, like 'I want to get a higher degree, but I don't have the time or money' or 'I didn't get a budget increase so I can't bring on the creative project I'd like for my company.' Then, flip over the card and write the opposite - even if you don't believe it to be true. Write, 'I do have the time and money to get a higher degree' or 'I do have the budget to do that creative project.' Just by flipping your thinking, you will open your mind to creative solutions you may never have thought of. Posing your challenge in a positive way will also allow others to pile on with positive suggestions. It seems simple, but try it. You'll be amazed at the results.
Shift from Pessimism to Optimism with 3 simple questions
Shift from Pessimism to Optimism with 3 simple questions
When you feel yourself (or others) getting stuck, discouraged, or cynical about a situation, try asking the three Cs: What am I committed to? Find ways to focus on your values and what matters most to you in this difficult situation; What is the challenge to be faced? Pick a small piece of the puzzle that you can tackle if the whole thing seems too overwhelming; What Choices do I Have? Sometimes just remembering that you can quit your job or end your relationship reminds you that you are choosing to stay. You can always choose your attitude, too.
Micro-Manage Your Glycemic Level
You can be more resilient every day if you don't let your blood sugar levels go up and down like a roller coaster. Ever heard the term 'hangry'? Skipping meals or eating sugary treats, for example, makes it harder to stay positive, think clearly, or resist being triggered by life's daily challenges.
We all try to follow the advice about drinking six to eight glasses of water per day. When we are rushing, busy, or facing a tight deadline, however, these good habits tend to go out the window. Since the brain has a higher percentage of water than our bodies, we are likely to feel fuzzy and mentally off just when we need our wits about us the most. When this happens, grab your water. You'll get more resilience if you hydrate when you need to focus your brain and address tough situations.
Make a Tagline or Motto for Yourself
Companies have taglines or mission statements to communicate their values as well as succinctly state their unique purpose for existence. Make a date with yourself to reflect on your own tagline. Do people want you on a team because you are the behind-the-scenes problem-solver; the fearless crisis wrangler, or the truth teller who builds collaboration? What role do you play in your extended family or at work? Once you have a motto that reflects your values and uniqueness, display it in places where you will see it throughout the day - on your phone, in your car, at your desk. Reminding yourself of your strengths will give you a boost of energy when things start to feel difficult.
* Micro-resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, & Energy, by Bonnie St John, is out now, €18.19 at Easons