Boost your resilience: Developing mental toughness to reduce work-stress

Have you ever wondered why some people at work seem to be able to remain happy when their work-conditions suddenly worsen? How can they keep smiling when the boss just dropped a presentation on them to do tomorrow? Are they just putting on a brave face or could they genuinely be unaffected by the extra stress?

When my friend’s identical twins were 5 yrs old, one of them was very timid and often hiding behind his mother’s skirts; however, the other twin frequently ranged afar exploring new things, climbing trees and running around. The explorer twin also fell down from the trees, tripped over while running and got bitten by some frightful new things but he quickly picked himself back up each time and was off again to adventure again. He had acquired (while his twin had not) some keys to resilience.

About 20% of the population have strong mental resilience (or toughness). When they suffer adversity or hardship of any kind their thinking style processes the problem in a way that minimises the amount of distress they experience from it. Their attitude prevents hardship from taking as great a hold on them compared to less resilient people.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make ourselves mentally tougher like them?! Well, we can and in fact mental resilience is now becoming a ‘life skill’ being taught in many New Zealand schools. So let’s learn some more to keep up with these young people!

Keys to mental toughness
1. Stay calm under pressure
2. In control of impulsive actions
3. Realistic optimism
4. Healthy explanations (“Not me, Not always, Not everything”)
5. Thinking traps – recognising and avoiding

In this article we look at just one of several techniques to boost resilience ‘You are what you think’.

Skills to boost your resilience

ABC’s of resilience ‘You are what you think’
In considering how we can change the way we are, the most fundamental concept to understand is that our emotions are triggered not by the events themselves but by how we interpret them. Most of believe that when something happens to us there is a direct unbreakable link between an event and the emotional consequence, for example:

Lose my job → Sadness

A (activating event) → C (emotional consequence)
A → C

However, there is an intermediate step that affects the emotional consequence –our interpretation or belief about the event affects the emotion generated.

Lose my job → Job loss is bad → Sadness
but it could be different…
Lose my job → Job loss is an opportunity for a better life → Curiosity

A (activating situation) → B (belief about the situation) → C (emotional consequence)
A → B → C

GOAL: Becoming aware of and separating out our belief from the event, and separating the belief from our reaction to the event. Doing this will allow us to focus on the changing the belief (and thereby the resulting emotion).


In practical terms, there are 4 things to do:

1. Learn what pushes your buttons – Identify events and situations that tend to trigger distressing emotions for you, so that when they happen you will know to be prepared to challenge the belief that follows (which will in turn change the emotional consequence).
Examples of triggers: conflict with authority, failing a task, too many tasks, criticism, loneliness, ambiguity

2. Challenge your beliefs when they are triggered – when adversity or problems appear, mindfully step back and consider what your current beliefs/thoughts are about the situation.

Our beliefs tend to fall into 1 of 2 categories:
● WHY response “why did this happen?” (past)
e.g. This is my fault for not checking with the boss first.
Realistically challenge your thoughts about
a. Is this me or not me?
b. Is this permanent or temporary?
c. Does this affect everything or not everything?
Often focussing your beliefs to ‘this is not about me, it is temporary and does not affect everything’ makes problems seem a lot less distressing.

● WHAT NEXT response “what’s going to happen next?” (future)
e.g. This is going to be bad, the boss is going to fire me!
Tame your expectations to be realistic – avoid catastrophising – if thoughts become repetitious, distract yourself.
Consciously shift your focus to an air of curiosity (rather than worry). Think “I wonder whether I could use the alternative approach to fix this”, “It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out”.

3. Memorise these common Belief-Consequence (B-C) pairs:
Violation of your rights———Anger
Violation of another’s rights—Guilt
Negative comparison to others—Embarrassment

It could be worse—————–Relief
It’s only temporary – it can be fixed or replaced, or
This only has a small effect on the overall picture
I can learn from this————–Curiosity

QUESTION: Which B-C pair do you experience often? This is your ‘radar’ belief, your attention is focussed to notice this more readily than other beliefs. Ie Anxious people tend to be alert to ‘threats’

4. Break down emotional distressing situations down into an ABCD Thought record (see appendix). The first times you do this write it out, until you become practiced enough to do it in your mind. Start by filling out boxes A and C first, then complete the belief last. Often there is more than just one belief/consequence pair involved.

Lastly, complete box D Dispute. This is a counter-belief that you create that will change the emotional consequence. Ask what realistic and grounding statement can I use to replace the first beliefs I had? Is there an alternative way of thinking here that is reality based and would result in a better emotional outcome?

A Adversity / Activating event e.g. Argument with my boss about which marketing campaign to use
B Belief e.g. I thought my boss wasn’t listening to me and dismissed my contribution.
I thought I had poorly designed my presentation and lost the opportunity to show my abilities.
C Consequence e.g. I felt irritated and a bit angry
I felt down and sad
D Dispute e.g. I will have opportunities in the future to show my abilities off again.
I’ll see what I can learn from this marketing campaign to improve my future proposals

Adapted from Reivich & Shatte’s ‘The Resilience Factor’, by Jonathan Moy of Careerology

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