Three Simple Ways to Enhance Mental Health Resilience
Cultivating resilience can lead to greater confidence, autonomy and mastery.
Posted February 15, 2018
There is a consensus among professionals that ‘mental health’ is a positive state where an individual is flourishing, thriving and meeting their full potential in life. There are many cognate terms for ‘mental health’ including subjective well-being, quality of life or simply happiness.
Another term commonly used in relation to positive mental health is ‘resilience’. This phrase is actually borrowed from engineering, where it refers to the ability of a physical material to withhold external stress. A resilient material thus has hardiness, flexibility and strength.
What is Mental Health Resilience?
In psychiatry, the phrase is used similarly, referring to the ability of an individual to handle stress and adversity. It is sometimes referred to as ‘bouncing back’ and can be particularly important after people have experienced difficult circumstances such as losing a job, divorce or bereavement.
Research on resilience indicates that it is not a fixed attribute, but can change over time. Indeed, individuals can cultivate resilience, though this can require time and effort.
In fact, the road to resilience often involves pain and struggle, as does the mastery of any new life-skill. For example, learning to ride a bike often involves falls, cuts and bruises, but results in a new-found ability and autonomy. The same can be said for the resilience-enhancing strategies described below.
Evidence suggests that the acquisition of new skills can play a key role in enhancing resilience. Skill-acquisition helps develop a sense of competency and mastery, which can be deployed in the face of other challenges. This can also increase self-esteem and problem-solving ability.
Skills to be learnt depends very much on individual circumstances. For some, this will mean learning cognitive and emotional skills that may help everyday functioning, for example active listening. For others it may involve pursuits, hobbies, or activities that involve the mastery of new competencies.
This is explored in the insightful documentary below, detailing how the acquisition of art skills enhanced resiliency among a group of people with mental illness. Interestingly, skill-acquisition in a group setting maybe especially effective, as this gives an added benefit of social support, which also fosters resiliency.
Much research indicates that the setting and meeting of goals facilitates the development of resilience. This helps develop will-power, as well as the ability to create and execute an action plan. Goals may vary in size, depending on individual circumstances, but often involve a series of short achievable steps.
For one person, it may be related to physical health, for example exercising more regularly. For another, it may be related to social or emotional goals, such as visiting family and friends more frequently. Goal setting that involves skill-acquisition, for example learning a new language, will have a double benefit.
Interestingly, some research indicates that goal-setting involving a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the individual self (e.g. volunteering or religious involvement) can be particularly useful for resiliency. This may give a deeper sense of coherence and connection, valuable in times of trouble.
This involves the slow and gradual exposure to anxiety-provoking situations, thus helping individuals overcome debilitating fears. Numerous studies indicate that controlled exposure can foster resilience. Controlled exposure can offer a triple benefit when it involves skill-acquisition and goal-setting.
For example, public speaking is a valued skill that can help people advance in life. People who are fearful of public speaking can acquire this skill through setting small goals involving controlled exposure. They can start with an audience of one or two friends, progressively expanding their audience over time.
A controlled exposure action-plan can be self-initiated, or developed in tandem with a therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Again, successful efforts will result in increased self-esteem, as well as an enhanced sense of mastery and autonomy. This can be harnessed to surmount future challenges.
An amassed body of research suggests that resilience can be developed and cultivated over the life course through simple (though challenging) self-initiated activities. This often involves discipline, will-power and hard-work, but the results will be bountiful: greater autonomy, mastery and confidence.
Try it and see for yourself.