Thinking Your Way To Building Resilience
I had recently set up business on my own. I had been networking furiously to build awareness that I was open for business. This involved plenty of travel to meet with various contacts, some of whom I hoped would be interested in becoming a client.
One day I had set off a little late for a meeting about 30 miles away. The route there was a fast road and I was sure that I would make up the time. But, disaster struck halfway along my journey. Two lorries had collided and the road was completely blocked. Traffic had backed up. The road was too narrow to do a u-turn. In any event, the alternative route was way too long and I would definitely arrive late. To make matters worse, I didn’t have any phone reception.
My heart started pumping. My mind raced ahead. This was a really important meeting. If I gave the wrong impression by turning up late, any chance of business would be gone. My mind started transforming what had been a speculative meeting with no guarantee of work into the make or break meeting of my fledgling business. I imagined myself unable to pay the mortgage. You get the picture. I was in full panic mode.
In some ways, how I was feeling was not my fault. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution of the human brain and body was to blame. I had gone into full on fight or flight survival mode. But the problem was that I couldn’t flee anywhere and there wasn’t anything obvious that I could fight!
“My heart started pumping. My mind raced ahead. This was a really important meeting. If I gave the wrong impression by turning up late, any chance of business would be gone.”
Our ability to think logically and strategically and to employ advanced emotions like empathy are all severely curtailed when we are experiencing stress symptoms.
So, What’s The Answer?
Resilience is how we respond to stress, how we bounce back or overcome adversity. The good news is that resilience can be taught. But it requires understanding on how and why we each respond to difficult events.
So, why doesn’t everyone descend into road rage at the first sign of a traffic jam? Why do some people seem to handle stress better than others? To answer this, we need to dig a little deeper, into the psychological perspective.
Many people believe that the event or stressor is the cause of the consequence. How often have you heard people say, “That guy really wound me up!” or “The deadline is really stressing me out!”
An alternative way of looking at the situation grew out of work by the eminent behavioural psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis. His A-B-C model suggests that the consequence is not caused by the event itself, but it comes about as a result of the beliefs that we hold about the event, which are often irrational beliefs.
In Ellis’s model, A is the activating event, B is the belief we hold (which causes the perception that the activating event is stressful) and C is the Consequence, how we respond. Perception is key here. If we perceive an event to be stressful, then we will start experiencing the biological responses to a stressful event.
What Influences Our Perception?
There are many factors that influence our perception, from attachments we form as children to defence mechanisms we adopt to protect ourselves from anxiety.
To explore the role that perception plays, let’s go back to my journey to that important meeting, which I told you about earlier. The accident between two lorries did not cause my tension. There was an important, albeit rapid, intervening step going on. And that step was my perception or belief about the entire situation. My thoughts about being late for the meeting, being unable to control the situation and what I thought the person who was meeting me would think as a result caused an unhealthy response in my brain. It triggered a stressful response. My emotional amygdala started dominating my thinking and overruling my rational frontal cortex. As cortisol and adrenaline flooded into my system, my thinking became more fuzzy and I imagined ever-worsening crises – such as becoming homeless. All as a result of the blocked road.
Now, unfortunately, to make matters more complicated, a number of our beliefs at the B stage of this A-B-C process are unconscious beliefs. I spend a large part of my time as an executive coach helping people to become aware of such unconscious beliefs, sometimes also known as cognitive distortions or ‘thinking errors’. Because if you are aware of something, you have the opportunity to make a choice. And that choice is whether to allow that thinking error to activate the response – ie. to allow stress to arise – or not; to choose a different response.
My experience is that lawyers are particularly prone to certain thinking errors, such as (and there are many more…):
• All or nothing: Thinking is black and white rather than shades of grey. “I have to get this 100% perfect. I always make this mistake. I’ll never get the hang of it.”
• I should/must/can’t: This is a big one. It refers to when we set unrealistic standards for ourselves. It can be really damaging. Examples include: “I should be able to cope with all this work.” “I must not make any mistakes.” “I can’t handle this.”
• Magnification: This involves blowing things out of all proportion. “I failed my promotion interview. My career is in ruins.” “We made a mistake. This is terrible.”
“Develop self-awareness of when you are starting to get stressed. For me, I started to lose my sense of humour, taking things too seriously and becoming snappy with others.”
How To Go About Building Resilience
Stress occurs when pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope: This definition suggests that stress is caused by external factors, such as work pressures and deadlines. And internal factors, such as the attitudes that we have to deadlines, have a role to play that hinder our ability to cope.
Develop self-awareness of when you are starting to get stressed. For me, I started to lose my sense of humour, taking things too seriously and becoming snappy with others.
Notice it in your colleagues and offer to help them out. My former PA always used to say that if I had eaten a chocolate bar before 11am, then it was bad sign! And she would ask me if she could help with anything, move a meeting or delegate work to a team member.
2. Practice Better thinking
It may not always be practical or wise (from a career progression standpoint) to avoid activating events, like making presentations, altogether. Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden later (1987) extended the A-B-C model by adding two additional stages, D and E. And in their excellent and practical book How to Deal with Stress (Kogan Page: 2007), Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper describe a further stage: F.
D: is to dispute the belief – in other words to alleviate stress by noticing and challenging your thinking. E: is creating an effective new strategy to deal with the activating event. And F is the Future Focus: what am I going to do differently going forwards based on what I have learnt about myself?
Now, I’m not underestimating how difficult it is to challenge stories in our head that we’ve held for some time – decades even! But there is always a way forward. Going back to my interrupted car journey to that ever-so-important meeting, I noticed that my thinking was skewed. So, I started to breathe slowly and deeply. I realised that I had been guilty of two massive thinking errors: I had obsessed about the importance of punctuality and how a professional ‘should’ behave and magnification: missing the meeting would not be the end of the world.
Clarity of thinking emerged as my cortisol levels dropped. I remembered that there was a pub close by. So, I parked my car on the verge, walked to the pub and used their landline to call my contact. He was running late and lived close to where we were due to meet. We came up with an alternative plan that I would call him when I was on the move again.
And with that, I returned to my car, turned on some music and chose to relax whilst I waited.