From my experience, I’ve noticed that resilience seems to correlate with adversity. The more adverse circumstances you are subject to in your life, the more likely you are to be able to recover from difficulties later on. As a ‘resilient person’, you may be blessed with a naturally ‘thick skin’, able to cope with whatever has come your way from a young age. However, it is more so likely that the circumstances you’ve faced in your life has forced you to reevaluate how you navigate yourself through the world. You’ve been placed in situations where it’s up to you whether you sink or swim. The choice has been yours, and you’ve chosen wisely.
At the end of the day, everybody has problems, regardless of whether or not the world is facing a global pandemic. People get sick, relationships collapse and terrible accidents happen. The world isn’t an easy place to live in, let alone when we’re surrounded by this uncertainty. The current social climate has created a whole new level of anxiety. From your next door neighbour who’s child is suffering with a mental illness, to the celebrity who’s had to cancel their shows, to the NHS staff who are working their a**ses off to keep patients alive; the repercussions that the citizens of the planet are facing at the moment are particularly destructive. The isolation side of COVID-19 is one of the most adverse situations that many of us have ever found ourselves in, heaven forbid if you’ve consequently lost someone due to the virus. It’s for this reason that building up our resilience, even just to deal with the stress of this situation alone, is so fundamentally important.
In an ideal world (for me, at least), we would all be consciously maturing our mental resilience from a young age, despite what we are going through. Some of us have higher levels of resilience anyway due to all sorts of biological factors e.g having naturally higher levels of serotonin (the ‘happy chemical’) in the brain; environmental factors e.g access to good nutrition and fair working conditions; or social factors e.g. having an extremely strong support system and meaningful hobbies. A combination of all three would alleviate a lot of stress. However, for many, there is an imbalance somewhere in the mix, which results in an inability to cope adequately in difficult situations. To fight the waves of cognitive unrest, which everybody experiences to varying extremes, we must work on cultivating this resilience intentionally. I don’t feel like it should take a global pandemic, childhood trauma or the loss of a loved one to push us to push us to foster this growth.
If unattended to from a young age, how mental resilience manifests is bittersweet. Unfortunately, the trigger it takes for individuals to embark on this introspective journey is often chaotic. It can feel like the world is spinning at a million miles an hour and there’s nothing you can do to slow it down. The domino effect of struggles in your life catastrophize to the point where you may want to give up. What’s the point in struggling on when everything that’s happening is out of your control? It may take some time, and a lot of mental energy, to realise that the one thing you can control is your mind. No matter how difficult the circumstance, no-one and nothing can wreak havoc on your mental resilience if you choose to cultivate it. I believe that the younger the age when adversity strikes, the deeper this seed of resilience is planted in the individual. Therefore in a way, we can almost be thankful, if the individual comes out the other side – as the saying goes, “there is no light without darkness”. I can’t imagine someone who has lived a perfectly happy, content and prosperous life would fulfil their purpose (whatever that may be) half as much as someone who has suffered some form of severe distress. How many renowned celebrities or nobel peace prize winners are there who have had everything handed to them on a plate? From Taylor Swift to Martin Luther King, these people have had to suffer a degree of hardship to get to a place where they had something worthy of sharing with the world. As a friend once said, “you should be proud of your scars, they’re signs of strength not weakness”.
Having been through what I have, I know I would’ve benefited hugely from being encouraged to become aware of my emotions and subconsciously developed coping strategies from a young age. Young people’s minds are like sponges – impressionable, adaptable and will soak up whatever information is cast upon them. This can have extreme benefits, but just as much negative impact. Mindfulness routines and mental health prevention-schemes should be cultivated in schools, and parents should be educated on ways to build up their child’s emotional intelligence. In my opinion, it’s just as important, if not more important, than learning your times tables or what year the Berlin Wall was built. These are interventions that would make a huge difference to how children view themselves, others and the world around them in times of stress. However, if this fundamentally useful skill is bypassed, and children are instead pressured into obtaining straight A’s or left to deal with a sick family member without a foundation of emotional awareness, nothing but further stress is built. In response to internal distress, a child might turn to unhealthy ways of coping to experience some sense of solidity in the chaos. For example, they might become reliant on social media for validation, or turn to food as a way of gratification. The tool used to relieve this stress isn’t necessarily the problem. The problem lies beneath the surface, below the superficial stimulus of control.
So the question is, how do we cultivate this resilience now, in our everyday lives? For me this has been trial and error, and I know I’ll continue to learn new ways of managing stress as I grow my knowledge and my insight deepens. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, from the moment my twin sister was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa at the age of thirteen years old, my life was turned upside down. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of appointments, hospital visits and relapses. The severity of this mental illness has meant there are limited ways to support my sister, which is a lot harder to digest than if she had a physical illness which could be treated with a cast or a drug. I went through a long period where I felt powerless and victimised as I didn’t know how the universe could be so cruel to my family. On a side-note, the darkness doesn’t just go away, despite what action you take to control your thoughts and manage your stress. It can get easier yes, but it’s important to accept that your technicoloured spectrum of emotions are what makes you human. It’s how you manage them which is key.
At the age of sixteen years old, my mum tried to make me read (what I thought to be at the time) a airy-fairy-too-good-too-be-true book called ‘The Power of Now’ by Ekhart Tolle. You might have heard of it, I like to think of Tolle as the Beyonce of the spiritual red carpet (!). I remember the whole five minutes it took me to read the first two pages of this book. Honestly, I thought it was a load of bullsh**t. This is why I can empathise massively with anyone who struggles to be open to mindfulness jargon like ‘living in the present moment’. In this phase of my teenage life, where I was angry at the world, resenting anything that didn’t fit into what my fixed mindset deemed as ‘right’, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I could in fact choose to think differently. Under the current circumstances, this was too much of a challenge. I was living at home, had a difficult relationship with my parents who I felt abandoned by, and identified myself as the ‘victim’ of their neglect. My thinking was dogmatic and irrational, and I was completely consumed by the idea that this was the way it would always be. I couldn’t see how this chain of events could possibly have any positive outcomes, let alone eventually provide me with a sense of inner clarity.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered my spiritual side. From the ages of sixteen to eighteen I had made some progress with my inner conflicts at a surface level. I’d studied Psychology A-Level therefore became very aware, and passionate, about ways to help people struggling with mental health issues. I started to actively search out for knowledge that I could use to empathize my sister’s situation. This was a conscious choice that was such an important step in my journey. When I got to university, I wasn’t particularly happy from the word go. I knew something wasn’t quite right, despite being surrounded by beautiful palm trees, living right by the beach, financially stable and studying art. I was living the perfect life, everyone thought, and for a long time I convinced myself of this too. Ironically, it’s almost as if the more ‘perfect’ my environment was, the more dynamic my internal suffering became. There were a few things going on in my head at this point. I was worried about my sister, who at this point wasn’t in the best of states in an in-patient unit; I missed my friends who I made in America the summer before; and I still resented my parents, for everything. Up till now I’d always pushed through this anxiety, being a high-achiever and by this point an avid support system for my sister. But it was as though when I was finally left to my own devices, with complete freedom to live how I chose, I knew something had to be done and it was up to me to fix it.
This wasn’t a straightforward path, but I was open-minded. In hindsight, yoga was the first introduction I had into this more spiritual way of thinking. I’d begun to form a stronger relationship with the mental as well as the physical discipline, after attending a yoga retreat in Morocco at the age of eighteen. The spiritual philosophies talked about in classes were planted in the back of my mind, little did I know I just had to water them.
One day, whilst nursing a post-freshers hangover, I remembered the book that was given to me by my mum at the age of sixteen. I recalled my mum putting it on the bookshelf, after my stubborn dismissal, ‘just in case’ I was ever interested in reading it again. I swallowed my pride and asked my mum if she could send it to me.
‘The Power of Now’ is one of those books you can’t put down if you come across it at the right place, at the right time. If you’re dipping your toe into the water of spirituality, this book is a great starting point. It’s incredible how quickly your mindset can start to shift once you’re open to a new way of thinking, once you want to change. The book is accessible to everybody, as it articulates the notion of ‘presence’ as a way of handling the daily stresses of modern life. It does seem very idealistic, as how do you stay ‘present’ when you’ve got a family to feed, a dissertation to write or a job on the line? However, the answer lies in surrendering to the uncertainty, of everything except from change. The reality is, and I’ve said it before, that no-one knows what they’re doing, but we’re all doing the best we can. You could structure the most pristinely timetabled routine for every day of your life, but that only exacerbates the anxiety when life doesn’t go to plan. Your happiness may be conditional on what you can control but, as comforting as that sounds, it’s an unsustainable way of living. This fixed mindset creates a never ending cycle of ups and downs because one minute the universe is working in your favour, and the next it’s not. When you let your mind dictate your life in this way, it’s very difficult to widen your perspective to see how your life could be any different. But it can be different. Once you start to become aware of the fact that you can control your fixed thoughts, you can start to catch yourself when your thinking becomes dysfunctional, when you lose objectivity. You can train yourself to act as a witness of the hypothetical stories that keep you up at night about what ‘could’ happen or what ‘might’ go wrong. You may even begin to forgive yourself and others for past mistakes, as you acknowledge how the lessons they taught you got you to where you are today.
These changes don’t come overnight, and you won’t reap the benefits of mindfulness straight away. It took me some time to understand how thinking in this (what seemed very impractical and unproductive) way could benefit my life. I thought I would lose my ambition, work ethic and determination to achieve my goals. Needless to say that didn’t, and hasn’t, happened. It’s a simple philosophy to live by, but by surrendering to uncertainty and living in the present, you can build the ultimate resilience. It strengthens that part of your brain that craves spontaneity, seeks out new opportunities and discovers ways to enhance your knowledge. You become a lot more objective when resolving problems because you know that all you can use is the knowledge and experience you’ve got right now. The amount of mental energy saved from dwelling, worrying or getting anxious is instead transformed into thoughts about how to make your current situation better. Instead of living in the past or the future, you’re living in the now.
There are many resources you can use to activate this way of thinking. The more routines that you implement into your day to day life, the more growth you will hopefully encounter. That’s not to say that even now, having practised certain routines for years, I still have days and even weeks where I struggle with being able to seperate my thoughts from reality. In these times I make an extra special effort to dedicate time to my spiritual practices. With my dad going through chemotherapy, my sister struggling with her mental illness and COVID-19 causing unpredictability for the future, it’s a difficult time. But instead of going straight into my natural ‘doing’ mode, trying to distract myself by keeping busy, I’ve become more conscious of my daily routine. I’ve become more intentional in controlling what information I’m exposed to, as the external circumstances around me are completely out of my control. Regardless of what’s going on, you don’t have to watch the news all the time, engage in speculative conversations or follow uninspiring instagram accounts. I’ve taken the reins of what my inner world is influenced by with the intention to plant as many seeds of positive energy as I can, as opposed to letting the weeds of negativity strangle any glimpses of lightness in this situation.
One of the tools that helps me the most is meditation. I’ve trialled and errored a few apps over the years, as well as experimenting with non-guided meditation, but I finally set my heart on the teachings of the app ‘Calm’. At the moment, I do two ten-minute guided meditations a day. One meditation is the set ‘daily calm’ (based on a specific philosophical theme), and the other is one of the various seven-day courses that is uploaded onto the app. To make it easier to stick to this routine, I meditate at certain points of the day. These aren’t fixed times as such, but I’ve found positive habits integrate into your routine more effectively if you associate it with a specific time of day. Therefore I choose to meditate after I do yoga in the morning, and before dinner-time in the evening. These times work well for me as I’m not rigged up on caffeine, I don’t have a full-stomach, and before mealtimes is a good time to let go of any mental tension, as anxiety and digestion aren’t the best of friends.
Just like anything, meditation is hard at first. You might procrastinate starting meditation because the thought of bringing your awareness to your restless thoughts scares you. Or you may have tried meditating but the changes are so subtle and gradual that, to you, nothing seems to be happening. This can be frustrating, especially if you thrive on visible progress or struggle with perfectionism. These factors make the meditation practices even more challenging, but in the same breath (pardon the pun), even more worthwhile. As you commit yourself to the daily practise, you’ll begin to understand that with your awareness, you can control your wandering mind. Consciously bringing your attention back to your breath when your mind gets distracted by thoughts grounds you back to the present moment, to what is alive right now. Over time you can start to relate this practice to when you’re anxious or stressed, as this simple but effective relaxation technique can be used anytime, anywhere. Being able to remain present and grounded in a world that can feel chaotic and disorderly is an invaluable skill that will serve you through whatever challenges you may face.
Yoga can be used as a moving meditation. It’s a physical practice which forces you to remain present as you focus on coordinating your movements with your breath. The aim of yoga is to enable you to quieten your mind and body so you can remain still for seated meditation. For me, getting into the habit of doing yoga before meditation has had a positive impact on my meditation practice. Finding parts of your routine that complement each other will again make the positive habits you are trying to incorporate into your life a lot easier to follow through with.
I’ve never been a big reader. I always had trouble following storylines and wasn’t really interested in non-fiction growing up. However, ‘The Power of Now’ opened up a whole new realm of potential knowledge that I was absolutely captivated by. I went on to read Tolle’s next book called ‘A New Earth’, which gives further insight as to how we can become more conscious as a human race. In true Law of Attraction style, once I dedicated myself to this journey, I started to manifest more and more relevant material. I ordered lots of books, one of my other favourites being ‘An Untethered Soul’ by Michael A.Singer. This one encourages you to think more about the relationship you have with your specific thoughts, feelings and emotions. I make a conscious effort to read every single day – whether it’s a page or a chapter, this is part of my routine. Ideally I like to read first thing in the morning as your mind is clear and ready to absorb information. However sometimes your circumstances might not allow for this, so finding time to read at any point of the day is just as productive. There is one book that I turn to as soon as my alarm goes off in the morning, and that is ‘Journey to the Heart’ by Melody Beattile. Here are short, written daily meditations for every single day of the year. Starting my day by reading a snippet of wisdom, which entails a valuable life lesson, has made a massive difference to my headspace from the first five minutes in which I wake up. The relatable anecdotes she includes make me feel like I’m not alone on this path, and constantly reminds me that I’m dedicated to this spiritual journey. Learning from other’s experiences, positive or negative, shows just how interconnected we all are. This alone should dampen any doubt we may have to share our experiences with others, because in a way, it is your duty to do so if we want to make a difference.
There have been stages of my journey so far where I’ve chosen to take a break from not only social media, but my smartphone all together. It’s been dependent on the circumstances of my life at any given time e.g. if I’ve had a technology based job or a family member needs close contact with me. But where I can, I do find deep satisfaction from the simplicity of the digital detox. It intensifies my feeling of presence and I feel connected with nature on a whole new level. In a world that currently is very invested in algorithms and the latest iphone, it’s immensely rewarding to take myself out of ‘the norm’, even just for a day.
Constrastingly, there are other parts of this journey where I thrive off the information that I can soak up online. I receive motivational emails from self-improvement websites like ‘The Daily Om’; I listen to inspirational podcasts like ‘Feel Better, Live More’ by Dr. Chattergee; I watch insightful YouTube videos by spiritual teachers like Echkart Tolle; and I love talking to like-minded people on social media who share similar interests and ambitions to me. Going through periods of time technology-free makes me appreciate all of these incredible resources even more, especially in the current lockdown. It is your choice whether you sit on your phone scrolling on instagram for hours, or whether you use your time online intentionally to serve your personal growth.
This generation genuinely does have the world at our fingertips in terms of being able to access a never-ending stream of information and stimulation to keep us entertained. However, with this comes the personal responsibility to use this freedom wisely – whether this is through implementing a degree of control over your screen-time, or by taking the time to actively unfollow instagram accounts that don’t uplit you. Holding yourself accountable for how you choose to spend your time online is the first step. It’s easy to bypass the little things you can do that will positively impact on your ability to cope with challenging times. For me, identifying with the idea that i’m a ‘lifelong learner’ has been really useful. It means that whatever you listen to, watch, read or talk about is absorbed with the intention of gaining insight and knowledge. For me, even on the most unproductive of days, pursuing any one of these activities means I’ve learnt something, no matter how small.
Finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about writing. I’ve written a diary since the age of ten years old, which is kind of unusual I guess. It began as simply a way to jot down what I did at school that day, who had fallen out with who, and what I had for dinner (nothing exciting). As the years went on, naturally, my diary became more introspective. I’d write about how I was feeling, especially once my sister got ill, which I found to be a very cathartic way to process my emotions. I then began to do more research into the more personal growth-focused idea of journaling, which I see as very different than keeping a diary. Journalling is another trial and error process. I have lost count of how many techniques I have experimented with over the years, as there are SO many directions to go down. Here are some of my favourite daily journaling prompts:
- Gratitude – Listing three things you’re grateful for each day
- Questions – Finding self-reflection questions online to answer each day
- Novelties – Listing three unexpected things that happened that day
- Contributions – Listing three things you did to help others that day
- Self-value – Listing three things you’re proud of that day
- Affirmations – “I am …. (strong/ grateful/ enthusiastic/ etc…)
- Purpose – How I made a difference today…
- Positive Points – 10 positive points for today…
- Values – The value I will focus on today…
- Intentions – “Today I intend to …. (be kind to my family/feel connected with nature/challenge myself in some way/ be a positive role-model/etc)”
Through periods where I’ve found it harder to motivate myself to stay positive I’ve also found it extremely useful to write weekly and monthly reflections, for example:
- Three things that I’m proud of this week/month…
- Three goals I have for next week/month…
- How do I want to feel when I achieve my goals this week/month?
- Three things that I challenged myself with this week/month…
- Three things that surprised me this week/month…
- Three people that I’m grateful for this week/month…
The prompts I use are very dependent on what I’m struggling with at the time, which involves a degree of self-awareness in order to be able to articulate this to yourself. Sometimes there might be tension in my relationships, therefore I find it useful to focus on cultivating gratitude for the people who have dedicated time to help me. Other times I may feel like I’m not achieving enough, therefore find it useful to set myself specific short-term goals to work towards. In periods when I’m caught up in the wraiths of imposter syndrome, it’s good for me to turn my attention towards things I’ve done that I’m proud of. So as you can see, there’s no ‘one size fits all’, and that’s what I find so refreshing about journaling. There’s no pressure because no-one is going to see what you’ve written. Your journal is your personal, private and customised timeline of self-discovery. For me, there is no better way to uncover repressed emotions and gain deep insights into your psyche as you strive to develop your personal growth. The more you water those seeds of awareness, the more objectively you will be able to deal with life’s challenges. If you get to know yourself on a level deeper than your interests and hobbies, you’ll get to know your emotional threshold and ways to keep the water from rising. If you dare to dive underneath the surface, this is a wonderful place to swim.
Writing pieces that are published online is therapeutic for me on a whole new level. Despite not intending for my posts to be viewed by hundreds, knowing that even one person is inspired by the workings of my brain is an empowering thought. This is something I never dreamed of being able to do, as before I would’ve been so anxious about whether I’d offend someone or say something ‘stupid’. However, strengthening your mental resilience, using whatever tools work for you, is a process which will change your whole outlook on how you perceive yourself. What I’ve gained from putting myself out there online hugely overpowers the self-deprecating knocks my mind tries to inflict upon me. This means I can brush off the worries and sooth any anxieties with a greater sense of ease, which leaves space for me to focus on what I want to share with the world. I’ve discovered that in order to make a difference to others, you first have to break down any battles you have with yourself. Think about it, like a boxer in the ring, how are you supposed to defend yourself against the sh**t life throws at you if you don’t train the right mental muscles to fight?
You deserve to be able to deal with whatever challenges come your way, no matter how big or small. You are the master of your own mind, despite how well it does of trying to convince you otherwise. Regain your control, and live your life as if you’ve got nothing to lose. The only person you are harming by holding back from your inner potential is yourself. Stay committed to the process of learning, growing and sharing your gifts. There is no-one quite like you, so take the time to strengthen the warrior within.
Aware by choice, resilient by design.