In this blog post I highlight eight simple positive psychology strategies that you can use to cultivate personal resilience during the holiday season. The winter holidays can be a contradictory time filled with both joy and stress, light and darkness, gratitude and longing. As you settle into the darker, colder months at the end of the year, it is an opportune time to think about resilience and remind yourself of the tools that are always at your disposal, even (especially) during uncertain times.
Simply put - resilience is the ability to adapt well to stress, trauma or loss. To face and overcome challenges and obstacles and come out stronger on the other side. It isn’t about never experiencing difficulties or feeling perfect all of the time, it's more about learning, growing and adapting as you face and move through challenges.
As a Jewish coach, I chose to offer eight strategies inspired by the eight nights of Hanukah. Hanukah is all about celebrating resilience, miracles, and finding light during dark times. My holiday wish is for you to be inspired to shine your own light and illuminate the world with your brilliance as you live resiliently through this season.
Exercise: Exploring Personal Miracles
This reflection is inspired by resilience researcher and expert Maria Sirois. There are many different ways to think about miracles. I like this definition, “A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences (Oxford English Dictionary).” We have all faced obstacles and challenges in our lives that seemed extraordinary or impossible to overcome when we first faced them.
Identify a difficult time in your past; an obstacle or setback, an unexpected challenge, that you overcame. A time when you were resilient in face of a difficult situation, big or small. A time when you realized that you are stronger than you thought. These are examples of personal miracles - Situations when you made the impossible; possible. Write about this experience for 3 minutes. Capture how you felt when you overcame the challenge. Identify what strengths or resources you used, who supported you, what actions you took, what beliefs or perspectives had the most positive impact during that time.
When you are done, take a moment to pause and notice how you feel. Resilient experiences expand your worldview. They can create a sense of increased opportunity or new possibilities. Maybe even an increased appreciation for life, a deeper sense of connection and belonging, or a greater sense of purpose and meaning. So - how can we make sure that you are resilient when you face new challenges?
#1 Experience Awe
Awe is an exhilarating and inspiring emotion. A moment of being fully present as you are overcome by the beauty, magic or vastness of an experience. Awe reminds us that we are a part of something greater than ourselves, can fill us with gratitude and appreciation, and can slow or pause our worries and fears. So, this winter as it becomes cold and dark and wet - I encourage you to find ways to experience awe as often as you can.
Go for a walk in nature, watch inspiring videos online, participate in religious or spiritual rituals, or look up at the night sky. You can even pause and feel awe inspired by the simple or mundane - for example, close your eyes now, and think about the incredible miracle that is your human body!
#2 Express Gratitude
As you think about the holidays this year, you may feel drawn to focus on the disappointments of what is not possible. But I would like to invite you instead to acknowledge and appreciate what is possible. Think of one thing you are grateful for this Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years or winter season and write it down or tell a friend. There are so many beautiful practices out there if you want to intentionally practice gratitude this season including creating a daily gratitude journal, writing gratitude letters (which can be incredible gifts!), verbally expressing gratitude to others, or meditating daily on what you are thankful for.
#3 Seek Connection
The first thing that comes to mind for many of us when we think about the winter holiday season is gathering together with family and friends. The past few years, we have collectively been living in varying degrees of isolation, which likely had a big impact on our collective wellbeing. Positive social networks and personal relationships are known to be vital for mental, physical and emotional health and can even boost your personal resilience. When you are faced with challenges or difficult times, you are going to want to know that there are people in your life who will support you and help you to get through it. Being a part of a loving and supportive community adds to your feelings of meaning, value, security and love.
So, even if you are unable to travel and you are feeling really over being on Zoom, I am going to encourage you to all find ways to connect with friends and family over the next month, whether it's in person, virtually, over the phone. Maybe even consider trying new types of connection that you haven’t tried before. Perhaps make a list of the people in your life you have lost touch with since the start of the pandemic and consider choosing one or two to text, call, or email in order to re-connect.
#4 Strengths as Gifts
If connection isn’t the first thing you think about when it comes to the winter holidays - I imagine gift giving is. I am not here to tell you not to give gifts this season, but I would like to invite you to expand your definition of gifts and the ways you might give to your loved ones and communities. When discussing resilience, Maria Sirois stresses the importance of identifying and recognizing our individual strengths. When we know our strengths we can leverage them during difficult times. Research shows that leading from your strengths can prevent burnout, helps us to achieve our goals, builds confidence and increases overall happiness.
If you aren’t sure what your strengths are, there are many wonderful tools out there to help you identify them, including the free VIA character strengths assessment. Ask yourself - What are your individual strengths and what gifts of service could you give to your community at this time of year?
#5 Activate Hope
There are so many definitions of hope out there. From a Positive Psychology lens hope is an active state of mind - it can be a belief that bad events will be temporary, a belief that you have a pathway to improve your life, a belief that a different, better future is possible. Dan Tomasulo, author of Learned Hopefulness, discusses in his book how ‘high hope’ people are resilient, resourceful, and have a high degree of agency. The good news is that hope is something that can be learned and practiced.
You have the ability to cultivate hope in your life. I am so inspired by how Maria Sirois talks about hope and resilience through grounded optimism - the ability to face reality as it is AND look for a path to a brighter future. Another exercise of Maria’s that I love is to actively look for that “AND”. Take a moment to give it a try. Without overthinking it - try to come up with one or two grounded optimism “AND” statements about this holiday season.
#6 Set Positive Intentions
Another way to increase your resilience is through setting clear goals and intentions for yourself. Resilience is about facing challenges and setbacks and coming out stronger on the other side - About finding the strength and perseverance to begin again. So, as you face another holiday season in uncertain times - What is it that you would like to dedicate yourself to? If you were to lean into that grounded optimism and active hope - is there a simple goal or intention you might want to set for yourself?
#7 Practice Self-Compassion
As you think about the ways you would like to show up for yourself, for family, friends and the communities you are part of, a sneaky voice inside your head might tell you that you aren’t enough or haven’t been doing enough. As you reach toward your intention or goals you may stumble or not accomplish what you thought you would. And that’s ok. An important part of resilience is to know that mistakes and missteps are part of being human. Things don’t always go as planned and how you treat yourself during difficult times matters. Cultivating self-compassion is an opportunity to stop judging and evaluating yourself and to simply accept yourself with an open heart.
If you are interested in learning more I lightly recommend checking out Kristin Neff’s books or website. She has many suggestions for self-compassion exercises and practices. One of my favorites that I have adapted is to give myself little self-compassion breaks when I am struggling, feel overwhelmed, or notice my inner self-critic speaking up. To take a self-compassion break: Find a quiet, private place to acknowledge your pain and provide yourself with comfort by speaking kindly and gently to yourself and giving yourself a little hug or massage.
#8 Be Mindful
There are many different ways to describe mindfulness, this is a definition used by the Wholebeing Institute: “Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an orientation of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” Mindfulness is about being present in the moment. And really, it's a precursor to all of the resiliency strategies on this list. You likely won’t experience awe without being present and mindful when you see that sunrise. A skill in mindfulness will allow you to notice what you're grateful for, be fully engaged when you connect with others, recognize and activate your strengths, cultivate hope for the future and set meaningful goals. And mindfulness is a fundamental component of self-compassion.
The easiest way to improve your mindfulness is to find time to practice. A common way people do this is to meditate - which can be as simple as sitting and noticing your breath. Another way might be to pick one activity each day this week to practice being mindful during; such as while brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, or going on your afternoon walk.