In 2021 it’s not after-work martinis, often, that get you to the end of a week, it’s resilience. With COVID-19 seeing social activity suffer, and squeezing the job market into a tight tube, many Australians are thrusting themselves head-on into their careers, relying on grit and determination to get ahead.
Before you accuse us of covering Australia’s current crop of young professionals in cotton wool – hear us out.
First, just because one generation was forced to go through something negative, doesn’t mean the following generations should – by default – need to also.
Second: in an economic context where experts are urging Australian young professionals to go the extra mile just to keep their jobs (let alone get ahead), it would be absurd to completely dismiss the Viking mentality of being tough, independent; resourceful.
However, we shouldn’t be dependant on ‘toughness’. Resilience should be just one tool in your ‘life skill’ belt. Other tools like vulnerability, openness, self-awareness and a willingness to share (and seek help with) problems, are all as or more important – both in terms of succeeding at work, and in terms of maintaining your mental health.
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Dr Lars Madsen, a forensic and clinical psychologist, who is also the lead clinical advisor for the mental health charity The Mindshift Foundation, told DMARGE often the bravest path is to be vulnerable and show your emotions.
“Stoicism is not helpful really, the whole harden up, suck it up kind of mentality.”
Madsen also said you need to find a balance between cutting yourself slack, and employing grit.
“If you want to pursue any kind of goal in your life… a lot of the time, it’s not going to be fun; there’ll be a lot of times when it’s hard and challenging and unpleasant, and just difficult.”
“We need to be able to be gritty to achieve those things that mean so much to us, and gritty means being able to stick it out and get through the challenging times.”
“However, [when this is] a blanket approach to [everything in] your life… then that’s when it becomes problematic. That’s when it’s toxic and damaging to people.”
On that note… let’s talk about stress. It’s something we all suffer from time to time. Whether your boss is breathing down your neck for you to reach a deadline, the kids are just being kids, or your mother won’t stop calling to ask the most absurd questions, we all have our own personal boiling points.
It is, therefore, important for our mental health that we recognise when we’re feeling stressed and actively address it to help reduce it. Better still, some experts suggest we can build up our ‘resilience’ to help prevent becoming stressed in the future altogether.
In other words: ideally, we would treat ‘resilience’ like an umbrella, not a towel…
Writing in the latest issue of Shape magazine, journalist Mary Anderson speaks to a number of industry professionals, with one, Mary Alvord, Ph.D, a psychologist in Maryland, putting forward the idea of resilience: “Resilience is the ability to deal with stress, and people can develop protective factors to increase it.”
Mary has dedicated much of her research to the topic of resilience, and the small adjustments we can make in our lives to help us build and strengthen this mental barrier. “One hallmark of being resilience is feeling you aren’t powerless against challenges – even big ones – like living in lockdown.”
DMARGE reached out to Luke McLeod, founder and director of Soul Alive and a meditation teacher, to get his take on how building up resilience can have an impact on our mental health.
The term is a new one for Luke, with him stating, “I most hear resilience being used in context when someone is talking about how they’ve coped with difficult times, not so much as using it as a remedy to fixing the problem itself.”
“But it totally makes sense that it should be considered more when ‘prescribing’ ways to deal with stress.”
“Resilience isn’t about being tough or having thick skin. It’s more about having a level of self-awareness of not letting stressful moments/experiences ‘get to you.'”
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Luke’s advice? “I think a great way to build resilience is to try to consistently practice exercises that develop self-awareness, e.g. meditation, self-reflection and constructive, open conversations with people you trust.”
So, with how to help prevent stress taken care of, how do you even know if you are stressed and, therefore, need to take action against it?
Luke admits it’s harder than you think.
“The hardest part with stress is actually noticing when you are stressed.”
“Most stressed people don’t take the time needed to do self-inquisitive exercises to realise how stressed they are, they’re ‘too busy’, to do that.”
“Which is so ironic, because that is exactly why they are so stressed. Therefore, unless someone else points it out to you, you probably won’t know how stressed you are until you either get sick, or really tired.”
“Pretty much when your body has had enough.”
Indeed, Healthline says some of the most common symptoms of chronic stress include, irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches and insomnia. These, among other factors, can lead to “fatal illnesses including high blood pressure, cancer, accidental injuries and even suicide”, says Luke.
If you want to prevent something like this from happening to you or those around you, Luke has provided DMARGE with his top 3 tips for dealing with stress.
- Admit that you are stressed: Working hard isn’t a badge of honour. Aim to work smart instead, take regular break and aim to have high quality focused work periods.
- Physical exercise: A commonly prescribed solution, but one that is proven to still be one of the best ways to relieve stress, is to keep yourself active.
Don’t let this make you think you need to pump some iron 5 days a week in the gym. Far from it. In fact, Dr Kathleen O’Moore of Sydney’s, Black Dog Institute has previously told DMARGE that “even just an hour of exercise a week has been proven to lower depression and anxiety.”
Mary Anderson backs up these claims in her Shape article too, with Mary Alvord adding, “We know that movement helps our mental and physical health. I tell people to go outside at least one a day to move.”
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Ellen Epstein, M.D., an allergist-immunologist at Rockville Centre, New York adds that it’s not all about physical fitness, but it is important for people to work their social muscles and skills too, “Just set a daily routine, if you can’t meet up [with someone], use Zoom or Facebook. If you can’t go to the gym, stream workout videos.”
“Mental exercise: Meditation is the yin to physical exercises’ yang effect on stress. It’s the recovery component and a highly effective exercise to help with stress.”
Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe shared a video in April 2020 (amidst the height of the global pandemic) to explain why self-care was so important, but his message of, “the better we take care of ourselves, the better we’re able to show up for the people around us”, can be applied to life outside of lockdown too.
Sleep, the good-quality kind, can play a major role in reducing our stress levels too, as Brian A. Smart, M.D. says, “People who don’t sleep well have much higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”
“And if you’re chronically dehydrated, it’s another source of stress on the body since cortisol levels may be higher as a result.”
Bringing it all back to grit, and resilience, we’ll leave the final word to Dr Lars Madsen, whom DMARGE interviewed last year.
“Getting gritty when you need to put in that last 2km because it means so much to you is great, it’s important, we need to be able to do that. But if we apply that harden up, don’t feel your feelings, don’t feel vulnerable, don’t feel any kind of self-doubt across the board all the time, then it’s dysfunctional.”
“It’s not me saying: ‘you’d be a nicer person if you just talked about your feelings.’ People end up having all kinds of physical and medical conditions when they ignore that kind of stuff. It’s well documented within scientific literature.”
“People end up burning out and ultimately having mental health problems, anxiety, unravelling because they adopt that kind of robotic, ‘I have no feelings and I don’t need to pay attention to my feelings’ approach.”