No One Is an Island – The Forgotten Side of Resilience

Several pairs of hands placed from both sides along the trunk of a living tree.
Photo by Shane Rounce

If you find it hard to ask for help or tend to withdraw when you’re feeling out of sorts, it can be easy to fall into the trap of only doing things to feel better.

Meditate, exercise, sleep, eat well, write a gratitude journal… The list goes on!

These can all be wonderful activities, but they’re only part of the picture.

First, sometimes you need to make a change in your life rather than get better at tolerating a damaging situation.

But the “Do It Yourself” approach also misses something else.  We are not resilient alone.  We are resilient with and through others.  We are inter-resilient.

Modern individualistic cultures celebrate the lone hero like the Hollywood cowboy.  Much resilience teaching has largely followed the same route. 

But isolation is destabilising.  It’s why prisoners try to avoid solitary confinement.  It’s why in fairy tales the evil witch lives on her own in the middle of a forest, not with grandchildren at her side in the village. 

Loneliness is linked to depression.  It impairs immune function and increases inflammation.  Social isolation can increase the chance of premature death at least as much as obesity. (1)

Our emotional state is influenced by those around us.  Our mirror neurones and ability to empathise mean we feel what others feel.  It’s why you wince when you see someone else fall over. 

This can work against us such as when your moaning colleague brings you down. 

But it can work in our favour too when we co-regulate our emotional states.  We unconsciously soothe each other’s nervous systems.

Unfortunately, modern life (and at the time of writing the Covid 19 pandemic) tends to distance us from this.   We have limitless streaming entertainment at the click of a mouse.  Goods are delivered to our door.  Even if we go to a shop, we can avoid interacting with the staff by checking out ourselves.  The enforced isolation during Covid 19 has only intensified a trend that was happening anyway.

If you do nothing, you are likely to get carried along with the cultural tide.

So what can you do?

Nurture a Varied Social Diet

Do you have a smart friend, a fun friend, a heart-warming friend, an inspiring friend, a wise friend? 

We connect to people in different ways.  It’s healthy to have a variety of different kinds of connections.  When we’re busy, it’s easy to let some dwindle.

Have a look at people you spend time with. 

Especially notice the people you really like but whom you haven’t contacted for a long time.  If you do nothing for too long, the connection can wither. 

It only takes a minute to send a message to keep the friendship alive.

Too busy?  Notice the people you spend time with whose company you’re honestly not that keen on.  Put a bit less effort into those relationships to free up some time.

Learn To Open Up

“A problem shared is a problem halved.”

Simply sharing how you feel with someone who is willing and able to listen can already help you feel better.  You can get thoughts and feelings out of your head and become more objective about them.

We often hesitate to share.  Our primal instincts know we need the tribe to survive so we are wary of social rejection.  When we do share how we feel in a safe environment, though and the world doesn’t end, it sends your primal brain a deep message of reassurance and acceptance. 

That’s why when someone starts telling you about a problem, they often end up solving it for themselves before they’ve finished!  It is also why, when you’re listening, you don’t need to provide a solution.  Simply being that reassuring presence is already helping.  Practical can solutions come later.

If you’re a ‘strong silent “I’M FIIIIIIINE!” type’, consider whether you genuinely feel better that way or whether you’ve learned not to share.  If it’s the latter, try gently practising sharing a 10% more and see how it goes.

At work, consider adding a ‘check in’ at the start of some meetings.  There should be no discussion and it should run by someone with a timer.  Then everyone has, for example, 30 seconds to say how they’re feeling.  The time limit should stop you getting sucked into too many details.  Allowing the sharing without discussion helps the team understand each other better and to co-regulate.

Let Go and Laugh

Laughter is a communal activity.  People laugh up to 30 times more together than they do alone. (2)  That’s why comedians like to have a full house.  It’s why studio-recorded programmes add a laughter track.  Hearing other people laughing makes us find things funnier.

You can deliberately build laughter into your life – playing games or doing something silly. 

But you don’t need jokes or wit to laugh.  Bonobos laugh.  You can laugh for no reason too.  You already do.  It most often happens when you’re with friends and someone has an ‘infectious’ laugh.  At some point, everyone is laughing although no one can remember why!  One study showed that 80-90% of laughter in groups came from banal comments like “Where have you been?” or “It was nice meeting you, too.” Only 10% to 20% of laughter came from actual jokes.  (Remember bumping into someone at a party who keeps telling jokes.  If often wears thin quite quickly, right?

Experts believe laughter is an ancient response to the passing of danger that reinforces social bonds. This makes it a perfect resilience tool.

What can you do?

  • Notice who you laugh most with.  Spend time with them. 
  • Do an activity that makes you laugh – usually some form of playing.  Children are naturally good at it.  Some adults too.
  • Go to see comedy (when restrictions are lifted) live.  Notice the effect of the communal experience.
  • Try laughter yoga or a laughter club.  These sessions harness the innate laughter response.  They usually use some simple breathing exercises, trust-building and relaxation.  After the warm up, everyone is laughing for no reason!  (There are plenty online.)

Enjoy Connections Unrelated to the Problem

Sometimes you’ve thought about a problem enough and you’re just going round in circles. 

At this point talking about it more doesn’t help.  You need to change your base emotional state. 

You can do that by connecting with people even – sometimes especially – if you don’t mention what’s on your mind.  It might be playing with your football team, singing with your choir or turning up to your knitting circle’s Zoom call.

The resilience-building is in the social connection.

We Are Resilient Together

Modern technology and cultural narratives push us towards isolation but our resilience is deeply communal.  Sure – other people are annoying sometimes (!) but, connections reassure a primal part of us that everything is OK.

If you’re running out of self-care boxes to tick, maybe take a break and call a friend.


1 – Mental & physical effects of isolation

2 – Laughing more in person – Why Do We Laugh?

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