Articles on grit and resilience abound these days, blogospherically speaking. The concepts can be defined, generally, as the passion and perseverance to achieve your long-term goals, even in the face of adversity and setbacks. They’re the key ingredients for successful adaptation to the pandemic, many insist. Without it, you simply won’t be able to make it through this crisis.
That, surely, can’t be true. There’s no one character strength that all successful people possess, as tempting as it may be to make success formulaic. Even Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania professor and bestselling author on the subject of grit, acknowledges this. “Grit isn’t everything,” she’s said in interviews. “There are many other character strengths you also need to be truly successful and to flourish in life.”
More Isn’t Better
And even if grit were considered critical, more isn’t necessarily better. To assume this — the more of a good thing we add, the better we get — seems naïve. Heck, even too much water can kill you.
In fact, most high performers I’ve worked with possess grit in droves: Their weakness, however, often lies in not being able to contain it. Many of these people have spent years learning how to turn on the switch that activates their unyielding efforts to achieve greatness.
With thousands separately vying for a few coveted spots at the top, this switch must be in the on position most of the time. It’s turning off the switch and stepping back as a means of recovery that they have less experience practicing.
While research shows that we build resilience through dealing successfully with adversity, research has also revealed that the development of mental toughness seems to parallel the development of physical fitness or drinking water: Excessive exposure to it disrupts health.
[Read: How to Handle Extreme Stress]
The Magic Balance
In other words, resiliently speaking, following exposure to stress, try and establish deliberate periods of rest and recovery. Finding that balance — achieving the smooth pendulum swing between leaning into the tough stuff and then finding ways to settle back — is often where greatness lies in most fields.
Let’s consider what the settling back, or taking a mental break, can potentially look like. For many of us, a mental break won’t look like a spa weekend or a meditation retreat — our schedules and priorities simply won’t allow it. However, even a short-lived break can energize us to continue coping strongly with the stress that may unyieldingly accompany our journeys.
What may be happening to indicate concern or risk of excess “gritiness”? The warning signs aren’t necessarily the same ones to indicate a serious clinical diagnosis — but rather the quieter, day-to-day indicators that mean you’re not quite yourself.
— Are there slight physical changes, like altered appetite or sleeping patterns?
— Are your energy levels a bit lower during the day?
— Are you feeling less excited and motivated to do your work, especially if you’ve had to adapt your work to a less connected, more virtual environment?
— Are you more distracted, and not as fully present with your family?
— Are seemingly minor things irritating you, things that normally wouldn’t?
Again, a yes to some of these questions shouldn’t signify alarm, just that some attention on your mental health may be needed.
Find a way to regularly check in on these indicators. A study conducted at Stanford University years ago demonstrated that an occasional automated telephone reminder helped nudge participants into regular weekly exercise. The reminders were devoid of any individualized training advice, fitness coaching tips or direct human contact. They were simply expressionless, emotionless messages.
But the fact remains: Social support and accountability — even if light and phone-generated — helps prevent against relapse and can facilitate self-awareness to help make a lasting effect.
To that end, a simple, “How am I feeling?” Or, based on your indicators, “When have I last eaten?” “Have I been fully present with my kids?” or “How motivated do I feel right now?” periodically posed to yourself as a phone alert several times during the day is a start. Or, choose from the plethora of mood tracker apps available, which are constantly evolving.
Match the Strategy to the Symptom
This one seems almost too obvious to list, although is surprisingly neglected: Align your recovery strategy with how you’re feeling.
If it’s physical stress you’re experiencing, the strategy should be more physical in nature: Prioritize sleep, eat healthily and regularly, stretch, stay hydrated.
If the stress is more psychological or social in nature, try a psychological strategy: Learn meditation or visualization, use deep breathing exercises, take smarter breaks, monitor your self-talk throughout the day, set more manageable goals.
Don’t Wait to Look for What You’re Looking for
Resilience narrows our attention and centers us on excelling — potentially blinding us to the warning signs to take care of ourselves.
Ultra-marathoner Doug Hay writes about game-changing advice he once received from a fellow runner: The second you feel a little irritation or issue pop up, take the time to address it right away. If you wait until it’s a full-blown crisis, it’s too late.
Consider how tempting it may be to continue running with a small pebble in your shoe or a slight feeling of lowered energy, especially if it doesn’t seem to be slowing you down.
When something seemingly minor pops up, the thought of stopping to remove your shoe or pack, or to slow down enough to take in nutrition feels monumental. It’s easy to brush the problem off as unimportant.
Yet if you ask most athletes, usually addressing “minor” issues before they become major is well worth the inconvenience. There are many ways to address how you’re feeling:
— Through conversation with a supportive person.
— Journaling and labeling your feelings on paper.
— Immersing yourself in a relaxing hobby.
What’s important here isn’t the strategy as much as the timing of it. Take care of yourself before you have to take care of yourself.
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