Top tips for resilience: The relationship between thoughts and behaviour

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Introduction

In these top tips, Cornelia Lucey, psychologist and leadership consultant presents some possible approaches to building resilience for teachers and educationalists and shares ways they can be applied to build resilience.

It is important to note that these are only some tips to help you cope with everyday challenges at work and beyond. It is advisable to seek out professional help if you need support with your mental health. Education Support, a charity dedicated to supporting the mental health and well-being of education staff, also provide many helpful resources.

What’s the idea? 

Simply put, the words that we hear, read and use can create an emotional response. Noticing all the wonderful things in our lives – the delicious food that we’re eating, the sunshine breaking through the clouds, the family member or friend who’s always there for us or the beauty of nature around us – is likely to activate plenty of recovery system responses. However, sometimes we generate words, phrases or stories that trigger responses from our drive system or our threat system. 

What does it mean?

Instead of trying to stop thinking such negative thoughts, or even trying to force ourselves to think ‘better’ thoughts, it can be more useful for our resilience to get better at bringing ourselves into the present moment to create some breathing space, and to start to develop a more recovery-based script.

You can generate more recovery-based or self-compassionate thoughts by being accepting of your emotional experience (David, 2016; Bond, Flaxman and Lloyd, 2016). This narrative thought pattern is kinder, more supportive and understands that nobody is perfect. For example, it might generate thoughts like, ‘I’m only human’ or ‘I’m doing the best that I can right now’, or even ‘I trust myself’.

What are the implications for teachers? 

One way we can start to reflect on our own thought patterns and how helpful they are to us is to simply start noticing them. You could notice when they trigger your different emotional regulation systems – your threat, drive or recovery system. You could try:

  1. Writing down any recurring thoughts you are having in a list.
  2. Noticing whether these are triggering a threat, drive or recovery system reaction 
  3. If needed, considering more compassionate ways to re-frame your thoughts. 

You could do so in a grid such as the following:

Recurring thought I’m havingSystem it’s triggeringHow helpful is the thought?If the thought is unhelpful, what is a more compassionate thought? e.g. something I might say to a friend in the same situation
I’m a terrible teacherThreat systemUnhelpfulWe all have good days and bad days; I know I’m a good teacher because feedback tells me so.  
    

All of the above can help to defuse moments of worry and reduce the impact these thoughts may be having on you. 

You could also start to develop a more recovery-based script for yourself:

  1. Write down three things you are saying to yourself related to a challenge you are currently facing. Then write down what you would say to a friend who was struggling with the same challenge you are facing. Notice the difference. 
  2. Start to say the more compassionate three things to yourself when you are experiencing negative thoughts that are challenging you, put them somewhere easy to find, such as in your diary or by your desk. 

Want to know more? 

Flaxman PE and Bond FW (2010) A randomised worksite comparison of acceptance and commitment therapy and stress inoculation training. Behaviour Research and Therapy 43: 816-820.

Hayes SC, Luoma JB, Bond FW et al. (2006) Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour research and therapy 44(1): 1-25. 

Kissler J, Herbert C, Peyk P et al. (2007) Buzzwords: Early cortical responses to emotional words during reading. Psychological Science 18(6): 475-480.

Parsons S, Kruijt AW and Fox E (2016) A Cognitive Model of Psychological Resilience. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology 7: 296-310.

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