For several years, I travelled the world constantly – home for one week, gone for two, home for two weeks, gone for four, etc…heading from the airport after international flights directly to day-long high-stakes client meetings, then client dinners, then working into the early hours to keep up with other work...
The schedule – and pressure – was relentless, so downtime was rare. At first, I felt unproductive, even guilty, if I wasn’t also working while in the air. Eventually, I realised that with little time for myself on the ground, whether home or away, I deserved – and needed – downtime.
I gave myself permission while flying to read a book, listen to music, or watch a film – and in doing so gained more energy and capacity. I also prioritised sleep (to optimize brain function), consciously made healthy food choices (not always easy in far-flung locations), kept alcohol to a minimum, and (for the most part) stuck to my exercise regime (to maintain my physical and mental strength and flexibility). These self-care decisions helped me keep pace with my schedule without sacrificing the quality of my work; these practices built up my mental resilience and enabled me to enter meetings clearly and confidently, ready to think creatively and collaboratively. While I no longer have to travel that way, my self-care protocol is deeply ingrained and continues to serve me well today.
Lowered resilience can be caused by constant and overwhelming feelings of being threatened — or months of high risk and high challenge without enough support or recovery time. If I hadn’t listened to my body or given myself permission to spend time relaxing and taking care of myself, I very easily could have drained my resilience and not only eroded my inner strength, but my capacity for creativity, and my ability to sustain effort for long periods of time.
The Effects Run Deep
When we lack resilience, our adrenal glands struggle to cope with the pressure we’re under. They keep us going at pace, but if we operate too long in overdrive and don’t give our adrenals enough recovery time or too few resources, toxins build up in our brains and bodies and put us at risk of burnout. In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially named burnout a syndrome described as “the ineffective management of workplace stress”.
In today’s challenging work environment, too many people spend long periods of time in overdrive, with their foot flat on the accelerator, draining their adrenals – and their resilience. Think of it this way: if you drive by flooring the accelerator and slamming the brakes, the car will break down faster than if you operate smoothly and service the car regularly. The same theory applies to our adrenal glands.
When we need to perform, our adrenal glands produce cortisol so that we can rise to the occasion with confidence. To recover quickly, they then need relaxation. Without that, cortisol levels remain too high for too long – leading to adrenal fatigue (burnout). At its most serious, burnout can be life-threatening. Thankfully, most of us only ever experience mild burnout, an increasingly common condition given today’s increased pace of change at work and home. Keep an eye out for early warning signs of low resilience: high blood pressure, low level anxiety, mood swings, inability to cope well with change, feeling regularly fatigued, going into overdrive, obsessing over things, and being short-tempered. At the first sign of even one of these, intensify your use of resilience techniques.
How to Prioritise Yourself
The key is to build resilience before you need it. Fortunately, that’s relatively easy if you focus on and prioritize it. Things like physical fitness, good nutrition (especially vitamin B and magnesium) and hydration, meditation, massage, sunshine, and effectively processing negative events (to regain optimism) all build resilience. Each week and especially after intense effort, block time for rest and recovery. For me, it’s a hot bath, high-quality dark chocolate, calming music, and a good book. For others, it may be a weekend hike or bike ride, a weekly football match or round of golf, going to the theatre or to a film. Figure out and make time for whatever rejuvenates YOU.
Allocating time for self-care has benefits that help us manage stress at work and at home. To borrow a line from the flight attendants I met during my travels, “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” In other words, by using self-care to build your own resilience, you’ll be in a better position to recognize overdrive or burnout in your colleagues, family, and friends and support them in improving their own self-care.
Establishing a self-care discipline will create a solid foundation that you and those around you can use to achieve more, stress less, and live and work more happily.
Are you thinking about building your resilience? Read a former senior police officer’s take on bounceback ability, or if you’re a member, sign into ManagementDirect and search for ‘Resilience’.
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