Why you need resilience at Christmas – and five ways you can build it

Already panicking at everything you need to do this Christmas? Or dreading the inevitable family rows? Read five ways you can develop resilience to help you survive (and even enjoy) the holiday season.

You know the feeling. You walk into the supermarket and they have an aisle dedicated to mince pies. Or the John Lewis Holiday Season advert is showing on the BBC news. And your heart sinks.

You get flashbacks of the overcooked turkey, the undercooked sprouts, uncle Charlie spilling red wine on your new armchair (the stain is still there if you look closely) and the favourite toy breaking by the time the Queen’s speech is over.

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And as these flashbacks happen your heart speeds up, you begin to sweat, and you have a sick feeling in your stomach.

You need resilience to get through Christmas

What you need right now is resilience – and contra to popular belief, it is a skill you can develop. And having experienced challenging Christmases in the past actually sets you up to do better the next time a similar challenge comes along.

One of the things which makes the holiday season a time when you need resilience is it’s full of emotion: about family, friends and the media images of the perfect event where everything is ‘just so’.

So, the first bit of advice isn’t about resilience. Rather it’s about letting go of the perfect image you have created.

Look at Christmas 2017 (or however you describe the season) from a distance. Will it matter if everything isn’t just so when you look back from June 2018? Make a list of the things that you really want to be right. For most of us that’s not perfect sprouts but happy smiles, connection with family and being relaxed.

When we are emotionally charged about a challenging event, viewing the event from some point in the future takes the emotion out and enable you to see what is really important and what you can let go of.

And in terms of Christmas that can be anything from not doing it all yourself and co-opting family and friends to contribute, or letting your partner do the cooking and just grabbing a glass of bubbly, closing the kitchen door and letting then do it their way.

But if you still have the sinking heart, here is how to build your resilience this Christmas (or any other time).

What is ‘resilience’?

Resilience is sometimes described as the ability to bend without breaking. It’s the art of adapting well in the face of adversity: when a proposal is rejected, when a valued colleague moves to another company, or if you lose your job in a downsizing, or you Christmas lunch is a disaster.

Biologically, resilience is the ability to manage the physical and neurological impact of the stress response. Stress can have a significant impact but its effects are entirely dependent on how we, individually, react to it.

We know that having a sociable personality that embraces novel tasks and interests, and being accepting of yourself and your faults makes someone more resilient.

Our environment also comes into play: the patterns of behaviour we’ve learned. Like needing to be perfect, the expectations we set up, our education, support from our family, our security.

Five ways you can develop resilience

If you’re aware that you lack these qualities, take heart: research also shows that we can build resilience with some discipline and consistent practice.

Resilience develops in the brain through repeated experience. Any experience, whether positive or negative, causes neurons in the brain to activate. The strengthened connections create neural circuits that make it likely we will respond to a similar situation in the same way that we reacted before.

This is the brain’s natural way of encoding patterns that become the automatic, unconscious habits that drive our behaviours. It relies upon the neuroplasticity of the brain: its capacity to grow new neurons and, more importantly, new connections among the neurons.

Developing resilience is about strengthening these neural connections, and there are several strategies that are effective. Here are five that can help.

1) Develop a positive outlook

Optimism is associated with good mental and physical health. Research by psychologist Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina has found that focusing on positive emotions like being optimistic, noticing joyful events and even small moments of success all build up and result in an ability to regulate the stress response and improve mood and resilience.

How can we become more optimistic? Is it possible to change an Eeyore? Actually, yes. We can re-train ourselves with techniques like:

  • Noticing when positive things happen.
  • Keeping a log or a journal of positive events.
  • Reviewing all the positive events in your day before you go to sleep.
  • Spending time in nature.
  • Adopting a practice like mindfulness meditation.

2) Be realistic

Developing resilience doesn’t mean you have to turn into a ridiculously perky cheerleader putting a positive spin on everything. In fact, the science research says resilient people are well aware of difficulties but they are also motivated to work out how to overcome them.

Instead, what’s needed is a realistic optimism, a subtle but powerful shift in perception, and if you analyse your friends who sail through challenges you’ll recognise these qualities.

The most resilient people seem to develop the habit of interpreting situations in a more positive manner. They’re not denying reality. What’s needed is the confidence to carefully acknowledge and assess risk and putting in contingency plans – sit uncle Charlie in the oldest chair you want to replace anyway!

3) Sit in the driving seat

Influential psychologist Julian Rotter developed the concept of ‘locus of control’. Some people, he says, view themselves as essentially in control of the good and bad things they experience: they have an internal locus of control.

Others, meanwhile, believe that things are done to them by outside forces, or happen by chance (an external locus).

These viewpoints are not absolutes. Most people combine the two, but research shows that those with a strong internal locus are better off. In general, they’re less likely to find everyday activities distressing. They don’t often complain, whine, or blame. And they take compliments and criticism in their stride.

Resilient people focus on what they can control, rather than ruminate about what is out of their control (“How will I get all these presents wrapped in time?”) and when we do this it’s often more than you realise (“I know I’ll just buy some Christmas bags”). There is often more in your control than you first think.

4) Take care of your relationships

Spending time with our network of supportive friends, family and colleagues isn’t just something we do instead of work: it’s another important way we develop resilience.

Don’t be too busy doing the preparation to do lunch while shopping for the holidays, offer a bit of help, or talk to a colleague: it reduces your stress response and bolsters your courage and self-confidence, and creates a safety net.

Social ties make us feel good about ourselves because they activate the reward response in our brain.

5) Strengthen your self-belief

At the heart of resilience is a belief in ourselves. Resilient people don’t let adversity define them: they move towards a goal beyond themselves and see tough times as just a temporary state of affairs.

And if you are resilient and see the holidays as the best and most relaxed time of your year good for you. Have fun and pass this article onto friends who need a bit of help this season.

Jan Hills is the co-author (with her daughter Francesca) of Brain-savvy Wo+man. She works with organisational leaders and also runs the Brain-savvy Wo+man’s career development programme. Find out more on her website.