How can I cope better with setbacks?

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Jan Hills is one of our regular contributors - this article was adapted from the content in her new book, Brain-Savvy HR, available to buy in hard copy and for Kindle on Amazon.

You and a colleague have been working on a new project proposal which gets rejected by the board. You're gutted, and finding it hard to get past the sense of disappointment, the feeling that your career has stalled. But your colleague seems to be much more philosophical about the decision. She's shrugged it off and seems to be getting on with things. Didn't she have as much invested in getting the project off the ground – didn't it matter as much to her? Or is she just coping better?

The difference is resilience.

It's the art of adapting well in the face of adversity: when a proposal is rejected, when a valued colleague moves to another company, or if you lose your job in a downsizing. Some people describe it as the ability to bend without breaking.

Biologically, resilience is the ability to manage the physical and neurological impact of the stress response. Stress can have a significant impact on the immune system, and make us physically ill, but the effects are entirely dependent on how we, individually, react to it. (Read more about that in the chapter in this section "I can't avoid stress in my job."

What makes us resilient?

Studies of twins suggest that at least some of our response to stress, and our ability to cope with it, is inherited. Having a sociable personality that embraces novel tasks and interests, and being accepting of yourself and your faults makes someone more resilient.

But our environment also comes into play: the patterns of behaviour we've learned, our education, support from our family, our income and security. But research also shows that we can build resilience with some discipline and consistent practice.

Resilience in the brain develops through repeated experience. Any experience, whether positive or negative, causes neurons in the brain to activate. The strengthened connections between them create neural circuits and pathways that make it likely we will respond to the same or a similar situation in the same way that we reacted before.

This is the brain's natural way of encoding patterns that become the automatic, unconscious habits that drive our behaviours. It relies upon the neuroplasticity of the brain: its capacity to grow new neurons and, more importantly, new connections among the neurons. When we choose to act in particular ways, repeatedly, to the extent we form new habits and ways of behaving, we are engaging in self-directed neuroplasticity.

How can we become more resilient?

Some of the effective strategies that are well-supported by scientific evidence for developing resilience include:

Learn "emotional regulation"

Two approaches to self-regulation that have been extensively studied are reappraisal and mindfulness meditation. You can read more about both of these in our chapters "Would I pass the marshmallow test?" and "What's all the hype about meditation?"

Reappraisal is a technique for reinterpreting the cause of a negative emotion or stress. So instead of seeing your rejection for promotion as a failure, you reappraise it as an opportunity to build mastery and deepen expertise in your current role

Columbia University's Kevin Ochsner has found that reappraisal results in changes in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex: the centre for planning, directing and inhibiting. It also decreases the activity of the amygdala, responsible for emotion. The result is that an experience is less emotionally charged and it's possible for the person to interpret it more positively. People who practise this technique report greater psychological wellbeing than those who suppress their emotions.

So when you're faced with a negative experience you may find it useful to ask yourself: "Is there a different way to look at this?" Be like the optimistic friend who would put a different spin on it for you.  

Our experience of using this strategy with clients, especially in very tough circumstances, is that it can be challenging and it takes practice. Ochsner has found that training in reappraisal, especially using the technique of distancing from the problem, is successful.

Another method for increasing resilience and managing emotions is mindfulness meditation, which has been found to improve focus and wellbeing, and encourage more flexible thinking. Brain scans have shown increases in activity in the left prefrontal cortex (which is associated with emotional control), a boost in positive emotions, and faster recovery from feelings of disgust, anger and fear.

Adopt a positive outlook on life

Optimism is associated with good mental and physical health, which probably stems from a better ability to regulate the stress response. Psychologist Barbara Frederickson has found that negative emotions tend to increase physiological arousal, narrow focus and restrict behaviours to those which are essential for survival, like just getting your report done in the usual way, and avoiding social interaction and helping anyone else.

Positive emotions, by contrast, reduce stress and broaden focus, leading to more creative and flexible responses. In this frame of mind you'd be more likely to come up with a new report format which works better, get input from colleagues, or help your junior by coaching them to do the data analysis.

Do you believe you're in control?

Psychologist Julian Rotter has developed the concept of "locus of control." Some people, he says, view themselves as essentially in control of the good and bad things they experience: they have an internal locus of control. Others believe that things are done to them by outside forces, or happen by chance (an external locus).

These viewpoints are not absolutes, says Laurence Gonzales, author of Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. "Most people combine the two," he says, "But research shows that those with a strong internal locus are better off. In general, they're less likely to find everyday activities distressing. They don't often complain, whine, or blame. And they take compliments and criticism in their stride."

Developing an internal locus takes discipline and self-awareness, but it enables you to envisage options and scenarios based on intuition and foresight, which means you can create plans in anticipation, or in the midst of a challenge.

And what about optimism?

Resilience is associated with a type of realistic optimism. If you're too optimistic you may miss negative information or ignore it rather than deal with it. Over-optimism results in taking or ignoring risks, which may actually increase stress. The most resilient people seem to be able to tune out negative words and events and develop the habit of interpreting situations in a more positive manner. Oxford psychologist Elaine Fox says we can train ourselves to do this.

What this means for us in business is that we should take a positive outlook whilst carefully assessing and acknowledging risks using techniques like pre-mortems and appreciative enquiry.   

Get fit

Aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve attention, planning, decision-making and memory. And exercise appears to aid resilience by boosting levels of endorphins as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin which may elevate mood. It also suppresses the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

Develop your resilience muscle

Researchers recommend "workouts," or tasks that get gradually more challenging. This idea of "stress inoculation" is based on the theory that increasing the degree of difficulty teaches us to handle higher levels of challenge and stress.

If you dread giving presentations then offering to give the after-dinner toast at an annual dinner, and signing-up for a speaking club, can be part of a process gradually training yourself out of the fear.

The same approach as training for a marathon also works for mental challenges, according to the authors of Resilience: the science of mastering life's greatest challenges. However, just as with an athlete's training and competition programme, it's important to build-in recovery time: extended periods of stress without a recovery period can be damaging. One of the skills of resilient people, according to performance psychologist Jim Loehr, is knowing when they need a break.

Maintain your support networks

Developing your network of supportive friends, family and colleagues is another important way to enhance your resilience. Don't be too busy to do lunch, help someone or stop and talk to a colleague: it reduces your stress response and bolsters your courage and self-confidence, and creates a safety net.

Social ties make us feel good about ourselves: they activate the reward response in our brain. Objectively evaluate your network and analyse its strengths. You may have support in your home life, but do you also have it at work? Who do you know who could help you with different types of challenges? Who understands you, and has the skills you could call on in a crisis?

Follow good role models

We're familiar with the idea of role models in business and leadership development. But thinking about who your models are for resilience may be a new idea for you. Consider who you know who has been through tough times in the business and has come through. What are the characteristics of their strength and how did they manage the challenge?

Psychologist Albert Bandura believes modelling is most effective when the observer analyses what they want to imitate by dissecting different aspects and creating rules that can guide their own action.

It's all about belief

Psychologist Edith Grotberg believes that everyone needs to remind themselves regularly of their strengths. She suggests we cultivate resilience by thinking about three areas:

  • Strong relationships, structure, rules at home, role models: these are external supports.
  • Self-belief, caring about other people, being proud of ourselves: these are inner strengths that can be developed.
  • Communicating, solving problems, gauging the temperament of others, seeking out good relationships: these are the interpersonal and problem-solving skills that can be acquired.

At the heart of resilience is a belief in ourselves. Resilient people don't let adversity define them: they move towards a goal beyond themselves and see tough times as just a temporary state of affairs.

About Jan Hills

Jan Hills is the author of several books including Brain-savvy Woman. You can read more on creating an inclusive culture in the book. Her company Head Heart + Brian uses an understanding of neuroscience in leadership development, gender consulting and inclusion. 
 

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