How to be resilient in tough times – the negativity bias, your resources & guilt

Life keeps throwing challenges at us and sometimes they're really hard. In this post, I dive into growing resilience. I talk about the way our brains scan for danger, and how to grow your inner resources so that you become a stronger and more resilient person.
how to be resilient in tough times

I’m not going to dwell on how difficult things are for many of us right now. We all know that. Instead, what I’m hoping to do with this post is to offer you some real practical tools to help you become more resilient in tough times such as these. 

I’ll first talk about something called the negativity bias of our brains because it’s such an important thing to know about.

Then I’ll focus on three main resources that you have access to wherever you are, no matter your circumstances.

And later in this post I’ll also talk about something that a lot of us women in particular experience: that feeling of real discomfort and guilt when you’re practicing gratitude. 

The negativity bias of our brains

Velcro for the bad, teflon for the good

It’s easy to succumb to fear, worry, darkness and a sense of helplessness in difficult times. Soo easy!

“What’s the point anyway?” and “I might as well give up” are very relatable and common thoughts. We can feel this big sense of overwhelm. Or we might worry that we’ll have a break-down. Perhaps we fear not being strong enough and that we truly won’t be able to cope.

These are all shared human experiences. They are not reserved for a particular subgroup of people. And in fact, our brains are hardwired to focus on bad and difficult experiences, thoughts and feelings. As Rick Hanson, a wonderful psychologist and bestselling author, puts it: “The brain is like Teflon for the good and like Velcro for the bad”

We are hardwired to scan for danger and threats in our environment, and this mechanism has helped us to survive the tigers and lions back in the days. Our brains also tend to dwell and ruminate on negative experiences, thoughts and emotions. Without this negativity bias, we wouldn’t be here anymore as a human species. 

But in our current times this focus on the negatives creates a lot of unnecessary suffering. 

You might, for example, be having a fantastic day with your friend but all you remember and think about at the end is that one little comment they made about you that somehow really touched a nerve. Or you’re presenting in front of a group of people and get eight wonderful compliments. But all you can think about is the one criticism…


Your brain's marvellous capabilities for change

The good news is that our brains keep changing all the time. Whilst it was once believed that our brains are fixed and permanent in their structure, researchers have clearly shown that this is not the case. You can develop as well as strengthen neural pathways and networks in your brain. The term for the brain’s ability to change and reorganise its connections is neuroplasticity

So yes, there is a negativity bias, but you can also intentionally grow and strengthen the positive experiences and emotions. So much so that “the good” will become a trait, rather than just being a fleeting experience. 

There are two wonderful phrases that I use all the time that highlight the brain’s power to change: Neurons that fire together, wire together” and “What you focus on grows“. 

We all have the capacity to change the way our brains and therefore minds work. It takes time and practice but it is so worth doing intentionally. It shouldn’t feel tedious or cumbersome, and you’re never too late to grow the good inside yourself. The good that you can then draw on in difficult times.

How to be resilient in tough times

So how do you cultivate the good in your life? How can you be more resilient in tough times?

First, experience whatever you want to grow and strengthen in your brain and mind. Really look for positive experiences and keep doing so. And then very importantly, internalise the experience. Stay with the experience for a breath or two. Slow down, and keep those neurons firing and wiring together. Really try to feel the experience in your body. 

The way to actually reshape your brain in this way is to seek out positive experiences, and then to harness the value by expanding the experience. Lengthening it and really feeling it within. 

I remember first learning about this technique and then applying it the next time I was watching a sunset. Instead of just watching the sun set into the sea, I paid attention to how this experience felt within my body. I can’t tell you just how much of an effect this experience had on me. Truly remarkable and it’s something I can still very clearly remember about two or three years later. So next time you watch a sunset, pay attention to how it feels within your body. Perhaps around your heart area. And then really try to slow down and stay with this experience, connecting to this feeling within. 

But before I finish the post, here are three more very specific tools to help you be resilient in tough times:

Mindful awareness of the present moment

Undoubtedly the first thing to actually do is to become aware of what is going on for you, in your life and in this world. Growing the good and focusing on all the things that are going well does NOT mean looking at the world with rose coloured glasses. 

Rather, it’s about trying to see the whole picture. It’s about seeing things are they are. Not just looking at the bright side and pushing negative thoughts and feelings away. (Trying to do so tends to only amplify them… “What we resist, persists.”)

But ask yourself what is causing you upset and difficulty. Acknowledge those. And then try not to dwell or ruminate on those negative aspects of your life (which would reinforce them in your brain). 

Moreover, become rooted and grounded in the present moment. In your here and now, again and again. For example, right now you might be sitting on a chair, on the sofa or on the bed. Notice what that feels like. Notice any sounds or smells and notice what you can see or any sensations in your body. 

Notice how in the majority of times, like right now, nothing bad is happening. Ground yourself in this knowledge. In this present moment, you are safe. 

Radical compassion

Whilst being aware of what is happening in your life and in the life of others, open your heart to the suffering and struggling but also to the sense of love and connection. 

In times of difficulty, really try to cultivate your sense of compassion for others but also for yourself. Kindness wins. 

For more information on compassion and self-compassion, head to Kristen Neff’s website

A deep feeling of gratitude

Cultivating gratitude, and then really expanding this experience for example by feeling it within your body, is another way of cultivating the good and ultimately growing your resilience. 

Even when lots of things feel really, really difficult right now, there are still a lot of things that give us a reason to feel gratitude. (If you are struggling with severe depression, use your own sense of judgement whether practising gratitude is helpful to you or not.)

For example, we can still feel this amazing sense of gratitude for the water that flows out of our taps. Or for our healthcare workers across the world. Or the farmers growing our food. Or the arrival of spring here in the northern hemisphere. The list could go on and on …. and on and on. There are endless things to feel grateful for. But let’s take a moment to address something a lot of us women in particular feel.

Feeling guilty over your perceived privilege

Some of my clients tell me that they can’t practice gratitude without feeling this incredible amount of guilt. They feel that it’s unfair for them to feel grateful whilst also knowing that so many people are really suffering and struggling. As an outsider, it’s very humbling to witness somebody’s sense of empathy and compassion in this way.

But how can you still, for your own sake, take in the good in your life without feeling bad and guilty?

Your own sense of gratitude will never harm another being. Practising gratitude will not increase other people’s suffering. In fact, because cultivating gratitude is likely to make you more resilient and better abled to deal with stress and adversity, you will become more of a resource for other people as a result.

Feeling the good and practicing gratitude in your life doesn’t mean that you’re now no longer caring for other people in this world. If you want to help others, in whichever way that might be, you’ll need to play bigger in your life. Guilt and shame is only going to keep you small. 

The fact that some people have it harder than you is not your fault. You are not harming them by practising gratitude and growing your own inner resources, including your resilience. The opposite is the case: When you become more resilient, you are then in a much better place to be helpful for others. You can still be a very compassionate, kind and caring individual. Practicing gratitude in your own life does not take that away. 

Of course these things are easier said than done, but I truly hope you will find a way to cultivate a sense of gratitude over all the good things in your life. You deserve them just as much. 

Life throws challenges at us all the time. There’s always another storm and another winter round the corner. Trying to ignore those facts or even push them away is not going to help. 

But we can indeed grow our inner resources by seeking out positive experiences and then really harnessing the positives by expanding them. Some of those inner resources will always be a sense of groundedness in the present moment, mindful awareness, compassion towards yourself and others, and the practice of gratitude. Growing your resilience in this way is then not another task on our to-do lists, but rather a practice in our daily lives. Something that brings joy and ease right here, right now. 

I hope you’ve found this post on how to be resilient in tough times useful. If you are interested in working on your health and wellbeing together, head to my page here for more information on my services. I combine functional medicine with positive psychology coaching and offer 3 and 6 month programmes. 

how to be resilient in tough times

Welcome to the blog

I’m Claudia Smith and I help women get to better mental health naturally. Having overcome depression once myself, I am a qualified nutritionist, coach and practice functional medicine.

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