It's Christmas - the time we need resilience more than ever, writes Timothy Giles.
Resilience: "How individuals adapt to a variety of adverse life circumstances such as illness, poverty, grief and trauma."
Jonker & Greeff, 2009.
Stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, exhausted? It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
A Merry Christmas is quite a big ask really but, if we can build our resilience, maybe it's possible.
"Resilience coach" is a ridiculous job title but it describes my work and my passion. Getting a brain injury and living with its life-changing impacts made me passionately interested in resilience and, specifically, how to build it. I'm a magpie for resilience stories, listening to anyone who's experienced life's knock-backs and will tell me about it. How it hurt and how they healed. I've compiled a long list of hard won "how to's", on getting knocked down and somehow, getting back up again. Surviving, then thriving. Listening for their insights, the tips, that they know, really work. I want to share a few of those with you this Christmas. Insights to apply, when we need it most.
Which is where resilience starts. With the word "resile". It means to draw back from. This is fundamental to learning how to be more resilient. It recognises that we are experiencing something we do not want. A life event or situation that we do not choose. We draw back from it, we resile. The word also stems from resilire, resilio, Latin for "bounce". Pliny the Elder (the Roman savant and naturalist) used the word to describe the leaping of fleas and frogs. There are two separate ingredients in resilience, the drawing back and then the bounce, springing forward. Every resilience story I know tells both of these.
Resilience is not the same as being robust. It doesn't mean that you tough it out. Stay staunch. Harden up. Not at all, it is dynamic and it starts by resiling, drawing back. Usually, it begins with feeling like you can't carry on. It starts with conversations like this one, with, to my eye, a talented, attractive and successful young couple. It was a small business networking event, the beginning of Christmas party season. Karl was pushed (firmly), towards me by Lena, his partner in life and business. "Tell him," she said.
"I just don't feel resilient. I've got nothing left." He looked down.
"Carry on," she said. Her physical presence behind him both supportive and uncompromising. "Tell him."
"I'm just tired," he mumbled. "There's been so much I've done and it should be easier now, I should be stronger. I always was but I just ... can't. I just ... don't."
The mumble tailed off altogether. It was a great opener to the topic. With it, Karl's resilience building had begun. The bounce, the leap forward was already being worked up to. Try to bounce, without first drawing back. You can't. To recoil, this withdrawal, the gathering in, is vital.
Karl has had a big year. He lost his dad this year. Two years after Mum. Work has been hard, up and down. Money is tight. A health issue returned and he lacks the energy a fit, 30-something might usually enjoy. Christmas is coming. The first with no parents and a little girl expecting Dad (and her step-mum) to make it magical. In a house the builders promised they'd have finished by now. Merry Christmas, Karl.
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These are common challenges, it's life. Of course we resile from life's tough times. We don't choose financial stress, relationship break-down, the death of those we love and rely on, failing health, fatigue. The confronting realisation that others, especially children, are looking to us to make them happy. We resile and we face it.
Charmeyne Te Nana-Williams knows a lot about facing tough times. Founder and CEO of Whatever it Takes, specialists in providing care for profoundly impaired New Zealanders, Te Nana-Williams understands rehabilitation. "You have to sit in the crap first. Sometimes literally. Until you acknowledge what is actually going on for you, you can't face it. You can't adapt to it, you can't improve it," she says.
Academics studying resilience have adaptation as its key ingredient (see quote). Adaptation is a creative response to an event, challenge, setting or circumstance. Te Nana-Williams says it starts with acceptance, of where you are in life, of what resources you do and do not have. Identifying what options and impairments are yours. "You don't have mobility, you do have pain, you don't have the energy you used to have, the life you want to have or maybe used to have."
This is acceptance. Next comes the adaptation, the bounce and Te Nana-WiIliams knows that starts from owning where you are. She asks two key questions: "What is the life you do have? What are you going to do with that?"
This is where adaptation comes in, the recovery, the springing back into life. Potentially a full and happy life - but we'll come to that stretch-goal later. We've plenty of time. This isn't a momentary event. There may well be a time-lag between these two elements of resilience, from the drawing back, to the bouncing leap forward. You can't hurry resilience. In part because of our nature.
"We are wired to feel loss intensely," says Nola Forsyth, a counsellor with the Grief Centre.
"We grieve for people, places and things And we grieve intensely, throughout our life. Christmas is a powerful trigger to loss and grief."
Triggers, she says, are all around us. "Advertising appears showing happy families around the barbecue, at the beach, playing games. All together, happy and joyful. But those images are not how many of us feel. We can feel sad, pained, low. All when the expectation is there, that Christmas is a happy time. Even Christmas music can be a trigger, it is evocative and triggers grief easily."
Every December 25 brings with it the ghosts of Christmas past. A landmark that reminds us of loss. We are present to memory of summers past and noticing again who is no longer here. That is a poignant thought in itself, as I write it, my stomach has lurched and my throat thickened with memory and loss. But we lose and grieve much more than people. Forsyth speaks of grieving people, places and things. I'd add in health, wealth, connections, confidence, hope, a home.
Preparing this article I spoke with a friend who I've not seen since, his partner pointedly reminded me, for "nearly two whole years".
Not since they finally got the payout to rebuild, post-earthquake. These are friends I know to be resilient in the way so familiar to Cantabs.
"I'm not feeling resilient. I'm really struggling with Christmas," he says. "I should be happy. We don't live in the garage anymore. The house is finished, it's almost furnished. The insurance company are out of our lives. But I just dread Christmas. I feel sad, tired. It's like a heavy duvet I just can't fight off and I know I should be able to. I should be happy. We are so lucky, it's all got better. We should be so happy now."
Should, is a word to resile from. Feelings will come and go. If we let them. But fighting them, harshly judging ourselves for feeling a certain way, stops us from letting these unwanted emotions pass.
In conversation with Forsyth, of resilient New Zealanders we have known, we hatched a plan for you. A resilience building plan:
You are resilient. Life has not always been kind, you have experienced tough times and come through them all. Experiences you didn't choose, want or enjoy. And you adapted, you didn't just bounce back, you leaped forward and here you are.
Face more challenges
Life is like that. So it's fortunate that, as Forsyth says, "We are resourced to build our capacity for resilience." Think of children, who can be tearful, enraged, distraught and in a matter of minutes, move on. Finding laughter and pleasure again, in something new, or loved and familiar. We can regain and rebuild that adaptability as adults.
First, have one. Know that Christmas is going to be a challenging time, so plan to be resilient.
There will be times, people, places, expectations of others, maybe music, that will bring up feelings. Varied feelings, grief for some, exasperation, anger, for others. We can't control the triggers, some are completely unexpected. But we can shape our response.
Whatever the barrier to a happy Christmas, overcoming anger or surfacing through grief, these will help you survive intense moments that can derail a day.
Physically moving shifts our attention, energy and experience. It might be getting outside, nature heals. Even changing rooms will help.
Get busy. Take on chores. Mundane tasks - like cleaning, sweeping, pulling weeds, fixing something, getting in the groceries - change our thinking.
A book, a game, music. A drive, a walk, time-out with the kids, any pastime you enjoy can distract and shift your thinking, allowing a challenging mood and moment to pass.
Have a friend or whanaunga enlisted to help you get through. Young or old, have a signal agreed that they will act on to interrupt at any moment. To help you move through a stressful encounter. How do they help? See above - they move you or distract you.
If you notice repeated triggers, remove them from your environment or change your movements to avoid them.
Emotions capture our body. Breathing, deliberately and slowly gives us back control. Practise this, it'll help when your body feels out of control to an emotional trigger.
Gratitude has got some great press lately and it is all deserved. Emotions drive our thinking to reinforce the feeling. Shift your thoughts from an unwanted emotion by listing the things in your life you are thankful for. A list of five is good. As I write, I'll stop and provide an example. I'm thankful for: 1) the blue sky, 2) the noise of people laughing nearby and their happiness, 3) my calm breath, 4) head clear of pain (brain injury brings headaches) 5) I can read and write. As simple as that. The emotion is still present but so, now, is my gratitude for the good things in and around me.
As Forsyth says, "Grief - like anger, despair and loneliness - is intense and we are wired to experience it very strongly. This intensity feels out of control, but it's entirely normal. It is intense at the time and it passes."
These responses to triggers help us direct our emotions and experience more control of our experience moment to moment and day-to-day. This is the practice of building resilience, surviving each challenging moment and growing in our knowledge that we can overcome.
Knowledge of resilience is growing and adapting all the time. Making resilience a terrific topic to discuss with friends (and strangers). Everyone has a resilience story and in it, is their proven pathway. I've found that asking about their way, will help you in yours.
Resilience is a recurring challenge. But is not constant. There are good times, easy, fun times that we can just relax and enjoy. Knowing that they will be interrupted. By life. The parts of life we don't choose and they come along anyway.
When I resile, I find some energy in reading poetry. There is a line in a Sam Hunt poem that, for me, describes resilience.
"everyone creating their own sort of light
throwing it out their kind of way"
Have a Merry Christmas, creating your own sort of light. I hope you have the courage to throw it out your kind of way.
Timothy Giles is a resilience coach and funeral celebrant, he enthusiastically welcomes resilience stories at listengiles.com
Poem excerpt from That feeling-of-being-in-the-country, by Sam Hunt.