Building a Holistic Well-being Portfolio as a Pathway to Personal Resilience

By IHMA USA Chapter Board member – Aqeel Tirmizi, Professor of Leadership, Management and Service at Antioch University

Note: This essay originally appeared at Medium –

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Nelson Mandela

The COVID-19 pandemic has been labelled the biggest crisis that humanity has faced in the 21st century. It is impacting us psychologically at the individual level, socially at the interpersonal and community levels, economically and politically at the global level. The emergent uncertainty and volatility from this pandemic have induced anxiety and stress among people, communities, and nations all around the world. The current environment requires us to draw upon our resilience as we pursue sense-making and well-being.

While basic ingredients of resilience reside in all of us, becoming more resilient means accessing and strengthening these ingredients mindfully. American Psychological Association defines resilience “as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress… As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.” This definition highlights the importance of adaption to deal with adversity and notes that this successful adaptation can also be a source of meaningful personal development. In that sense, the current environment, with all of its challenges carries a need and opportunity to develop personal resilience.

The purpose of this article is to describe some key factors that help nurture and build personal resilience. The factors are not a fixed recipe to address all adversities and challenges. Rather, they offer pathways that individuals may consider, test, and adapt in line with their individual strengths and needs.

Examine Within and Commit

It is accepted wisdom that all personal change starts with an honest examination of self. Building our resilience potential partly depends on how intentionally and meaningfully we tap our inner resources and personal abilities. Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence emphasized the importance of self-awareness and self-regulation in personal development and success. This personal journey of self-awareness and self-regulation can play an important role in developing our personal resilience.

Self-awareness begins with self-reflection. On the one hand, an honest examination of self allows us to determine our sources of anxiety, fears, and concerns. On the other hand, it helps us think through our personal strengths and identify steps we may take to address our sources of stress. In other words, building individual resilience is facilitated by proactively facing what makes us anxious and developing strategies to deal with those anxieties by tapping into our personal assets. Once we have thoughtfully outlined some personal approaches, we are ready to self-regulate and actively take some helpful steps to deal with adverse circumstances on a recurring basis.

Cultivate Authentic Relational Networks

Our relationships play an important role in living a fulfilling life. These relationships come in many forms and may include ties with friends, spouses, colleagues, mentors, among others. Building and maintaining these relationships are important ingredients in our ability to be resilient.

In fact, a large body of research has revealed that having authentic relationships is a key factor in becoming resilient. Authentic here means that these relationships are characterized by honesty, reliability, and dependability. We draw on these relationships as we deal with personal loss, pain, and confusion. They give us perspective and help us reframe as we experience trauma and setback.

Our professional relationships help us understand and navigate complex organizational politics and norms. We may also draw on these relationships to strengthen our professional networks inside and outside organizational boundaries. Similarly, our relationships in the form of social capital — networks of individuals and groups that may cooperate and help each other in a variety of ways, plays an important role in our resilience-building and pursuance of well-being.

For instance, a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute argued that, “Local social capital systems can play a positive role in individual, household, and community risk-smoothing and risk-sharing practices by providing bonding, bridging, and linking capital that allow people to better cope, adapt, and transform.”

Learn and Adapt

Commitment to life-long learning is a hallmark of personal and professional success. In relation to building resilience, learning allows acquisition of skills and knowledge that plays a key role in adapting to our changing environments. Adaptation means embracing flexibility in attitude and behavior when dealing with difficult and ambiguous situations. For resilience building, our ability to reframe how we perceive traumatic and adverse situations is particularly important.

Following the work of researchers at Columbia University, Maria Konnikova captured the importance of individual resilience and learning in her article in The New Yorker by posing the following question “Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow?” In other words, when we are able to focus on adversarial events in terms of lessons and growth, such a perspective strengthens our current and future ability to deal with similar trials. The resulting sense of growth and progress also gives us confidence to embrace future challenges from a position of strength.

Recognizing the role of learning in resilience enhancement, Mayo Clinic offers a resilience training program comprising emotional, cognitive, mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Mayo’s resilience program introduction states, “Training in these areas can improve your resiliency, enhance your quality of life, and decrease your stress and anxiety by teaching you to view life’s inevitable challenges as opportunities.”

Build and Maintain a Well-being Portfolio

There is a wide recognition that individuals must seek a balance in their personal and professional endeavors to ensure their short-term wellness and long-term well-being. Attaining this balance and effectively pursuing well-being strengthens our capacity to be resilient. Self-care starts with physical care through common sense practices such as exercise, yoga, walking and running.

Similarly, mental care is equally important in the well-being equation. Mindfulness practices provide a number of pathways that help with stress management and anxiety reduction. Kira Newman summarized a number of science-based meditation strategies that have proven helpful in building resilience. Her list included body scan, mindful breathing, and raisin meditation.

In addition, simple and powerful practices like being intentionally thankful can contribute to our inner strength and sense of well-being. The ten thousand step-a-day program is popularly followed by many. There has been a boom in nutrition and exercise programs and many have successfully demonstrated their potential to improve health and well-being.

Technology has opened many new wellness and well-being access possibilities. A number of apps have emerged in recent years that facilitate mindfulness, focus, and relaxation. Kayla Matthews offered a comparison of six such breathing apps. Someone may feel healthy and fulfilled with the three-mile walk and journaling on a daily basis — while a rigorous set of three workouts in a gym, a nutrition program, and reading poetry may be a more fitting portfolio for someone else. In conclusion, a successful portfolio may differ from individual to another, as long as it offers a suitable combination of physical and mental well-being.

Approach Resilience Holistically

The ideas and approaches outlined above have been compartmentalized for ease of sharing and explanation; however, it is important and useful to think about them as a holistic framework. The holistic framing recognizes that these ideas and approaches intersect and work in conjunction with each other. For instance, it’s only through critical self-awareness that we may recognize that our network of relationships is limited and needs expansion.

Similarly, for learning to be transformative and sustainable, it may require disciplined self-regulation. Finally, the list of factors shared here is not meant to be exhaustive. There are additional considerations and factors (goal setting, sense of purpose, optimism, forgiveness) which individuals may find helpful in developing their personal resilience capital.

Resilience is a humble concept that has received some well-deserving attention in the recent years. The current pandemic is a reminder that this humble concept has a powerful potential that individuals may tap into during times of crises. In the words Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

S. Aqeel Tirmizi is a Professor of Leadership, Management and Service at Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change. Since its founding in 1852, Antioch University has stayed at the forefront of social justice, inclusion, and equality for all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, creed, orientation, or ability. Built upon that 165-year history, Antioch is proud to announce their new Master in Leadership Practice — a 16-month program that can help you increase personal, organizational, and community resilience and develop bold strategies to create healthy cross-sector and multicultural teams.

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