Growing up, my next door neighbour was into gardening. He kept a huge vegetable garden covering half their backyard. Back in those days blocks were a quarter and houses we covered less than a quarter of that.
I was reminded of his gardening exploits when I recently shared the same excitement that he did – plants growing in weird, and wonderful ways. He managed to get a tomato plant to grow, and fruit in the crack of a concrete path. It popped up all on its own, and so he decided to see if you could get it to fruit. Although I have not had success at the same magnitude, I have managed to slowly convert my dustbowl backyard into something that is making a small amount of fruit and vegetables. But, more importantly it is looking MUCH greener.
But what does this have to do with resilience…?
On one level, I see the plant as resilient. Despite the difficulties faced it still grew in the crack in the concrete. It was able to make the most of the situation it had and survive. Which then allowed it to be available to the opportunity of being cared for by my neighbour.
From his (and my) perspective the plant, and the wider garden is an opportunity to be mindful. Tending to the plants, and the garden. Being aware of what the plants need – water, sun, nutrients.
But, being resilient is more than having a garden. And although the plant metaphor might demonstrate what resilience is – recovering from set-backs – it does not help with how to become or develop resilience.
Analysing your thoughts can be a
good way to change your thinking
and therefore increase resilience.
There are many things you can do to increase your resilience. And the six suggested below are based on my lived experience (applying them), helping others and watching others. I should also say that I see resilience as preventive maintenance. Like taking your car for a service. It is aimed at preventing you from getting sick. It is something to practice and build when you feel good, so that when you experience adversity it does not lead to longer more serious problems such as anxiety or depression. But, of course, these techniques can also be used if/when you are depressed or anxious as a way of coping.
And yes – in my experience all are much easier said, written, and read than done…
- Identify – Identify unhelpful thoughts. This is a simple task of realising when your thoughts are not helpful. It might be getting bad news about a grant or journal article and then thinking “I’m a failure”. For this activity, the goal is to note that your thought “I am a failure”. Ideally, we’d like to change that thought (see below), but identifying it is the first step. You can read more about challenging thoughts in this workbook from the University of Exeter.
- Analyse – Analyse your thinking. It could be a range of analytic approaches. Take the example above, it might be to ask “What is the evidence for that thought?”. Yes, your application was rejected, but you have other projects. Or, yes, the paper was rejected, but there are only minor corrections needed. Therefore, it is not true that you are a failure. Furthermore, you are not your work. Or a grant. Or a paper. So, those things being rejected are not rejections of you. Another analytic approach might be to change the question. So, don’t ask “Why does everyone else succeed?” ask “what could I do differently?” There’s a nice ABC of analysis from the Centre for Clinical Interventions that might help here. A = Activating event; B = Beliefs and thoughts about the event; C = Consequences.
- Be – be mindful. Being mindful is about being in the present moment. Not in the past, thinking about what has happened (e.g. the rejection letter). Not being in the future (e.g. what could go wrong). Rather, bring yourself to the present moment. A lot of people talk about meditation. This is as simple as focusing on your breath and breathing slowly ( 2 seconds in and then 2 seconds out) for a minute. For other people, it could be doing a body scan. Focusing first on your toes and how they feel. Then your ankles, then calves etc. All the way through to your fingers and head. A technique that I like is progressive muscle relaxation. Like the body scan, you progressively tense and then relax your muscles. Here’s some data on the value of mindfulness amongst students.
- Look – Look on the bright side. Be gratefully. Have gratitude. Keep a gratitude. Half full or half empty? It is not always that easy, but that is essentially the idea. This is a concept I struggled (still struggle) with. Sometimes it is hard to be grateful. BUT. There is research to show that people who keep a note of the good or positive things in their life have improved mood and better able to deal with adversity. What I did to overcome my resistance to this was to just note good things that happen each day. Just one per day. It wasn’t necessarily about being grateful. Just acknowledging the thing was good.
- Have – Have a balanced life. One of the best things you can do to increase your resilience is to not have all of your eggs in one basket. As researchers, we can tend to get obsessed with research. We spend more than 50 hours at work per week, our social circles become researchers and so are our partners. But, this lack of diversity means set-backs impact all aspects of your life. Conversely, a balanced life with hobbies and interests and social life outside research mean research is not all encompassing. And thus, setbacks impact a smaller proportion of your total life. A balanced life also provides great opportunity to share your experiences – not to get advice but just to chat.
- Live – Live in alignment with your values. As your career progresses, it might happen that you end up moving away from your original values. And that might be okay. Maybe they have changed. But it might not be okay as well. So, checking in with yourself about what your goals are and what you value is important to ensure those things are prioritised. For example, you might start out not wanting to be involved in research using animals – but then you find yourself in a group that does. Or, you might not want to live away from your wider family, but find that your job takes you overseas or interstate heaps. All of these things make it harder to be resilient, because (perhaps without knowing) you have given up so much already, that set-backs have a much larger impact. And James Clear talks about adding your values to your decision making filter as a way to avoid these drifts.
I hope these tips help. As always, I’m here to help and I’d love to know how you go.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling to cope, there are people who care and are ready to listen:
- Black Dog Institute – https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
- Beyond Blue – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
- Life line – 13 11 14
- Resilience project – https://theresilienceproject.com.au/
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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