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Changing our questions in order to build greater resilience in difficult times

By Stephen Burke, Director of Mindfulness

There’s an interesting parallel between elite athletics and our experience with Covid-19. It’s a curious fact that the first and last miles of a marathon are normally the fastest miles run by the athletes. In the last mile the runners know they are near the end and they are able to dig deep and use the end line as their focus. They know exactly how far they need to keep going until they reach the end. Conversely, in creating ‘the world’s cruellest ultramarathon’ the founders of the Big Backyard Ultra created a race that has no defined end distance or time. The race continues until there is only one runner left! The experience is defined as ‘mentally brutal’. What this highlights is our human tendency to identify and aim for an end point. Even when times are ‘brutal’ we look for an end point to fix our attention on and it helps us persevere and make it through. Even if that means that we fall on the floor or into our beds completely exhausted at the end of the gruelling day, project, life event or race. We made it.

Many of us approached the Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020 in this conditioned manner. For example, ‘we just need to make it until May and things will be back to normal’. With that in mind we could push through and make it. But then May came and went and here we are, at the end of 2020, still not clear on when this endurance race will end. We are all in a Covid-19 ‘Big Backyard Ultra’!! So how can we work with this in order to maximize our resilience and make the most of our situation. We have three pointers for you:

1. Coming directly from the enquiry above – we can change our question when things get tough. Our normal question to ourselves is, ‘what do I need to get to the end of this race?’ As we saw above, this doesn’t work when we do not know the end point. We can therefore make a simple, yet powerful change to that question to make it more helpful. The question becomes, ‘what do I need to be able to keep going?’ This question does not need to know an end point. It makes us focus on the present and brings potential answers more into our circle of control and immediately actionable. So when things get tough or continue to be tough, ask yourself, ‘what do you need to be able to keep going?’

2. Give meaning – Viktor Frankl taught us that, as humans, we have the capacity to give meaning to our experience. And that having meaning can transform our experience and gives us a level of resilience we never thought possible. Actively and consciously reflect on the meaning of this experience for you. A meaning that is true for you and not one you think you should have. A meaning for me of the Covid-19 experience so far has been being able to be more present with my family through 2020 (after several years of regular business travel).

3. Cultivate Gratitude – What can you be grateful for right in this moment? Gratitude is a game changer. And, even in our darkest moments, there are still things to be grateful for. Really! The science also shows (helpful for anyone struggling to nurture a gratitude practice) is that actively asking ourselves what can I be grateful for builds the mental muscle and the brain connections just as much as finding those things so keep at it. Start and end each day with identifying three things you are truly grateful for. Take some moments to notice how that gratitude lands in your body and in your emotions.

Take this reflection with you through this holiday period. Share it with your colleagues, family and friends.


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