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COVID-19 has tested business owners’ personal and professional resilience like never before and entrepreneurs continue to need internal fortitude as they face ongoing uncertainty.

So, what is resilience, and how can it be strengthened?

“From a psychiatric point of view, resilience is a complex concept but the easiest way to conceptualize it is one’s ability to cope with stress,” explains psychiatrist, Dr Frank Chow. “It’s how one deals with adversity and stress in your day-to-day life and also during a stressful period.”

There are two elements to resilience, external and internal. Examples of things that can nurture external resilience are a quiet, relaxing environment, surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good, and engaging in activities that promote positive emotions.

Internal resilience is more complicated. There is a biological component, and in the case of our diet and exercise, we can impact this, both positively and negatively. 

Dr Chow warns that some people attempt to influence their biological state by using substances to numb their negative feelings so that they can keep going. “Some people use drugs and alcohol to feel artificially high, to help them get through a stressful day,” he says. “The problem is that this only works in the short-term.”

The other two factors that affect internal resilience are personality and mindset. “We’re born with a temperament, and our childhood experiences shape our personality,” Dr Chow explains.   “What we’ve been taught, what we’ve been exposed to in our childhood, and our environment – not necessarily our parents but our attachment figures – have a big role to play in how we deal with stress. If your parents don’t know how to deal with stress and that’s all you have been exposed to, then you don’t know how to deal with it.

“If you’re born into a family where everyone thinks that adversity makes you stronger, then you can deal with it head-on, and you’re more open to talking about problems and more open to seeking help. So, you automatically will have a more resilient capability to deal with adversity in life.”

The impact of COVID-19

Dr Chow has observed that people’s ability to cope with the changes and uncertainty of COVID-19 has been determined by their baseline: existing biological factors and their internal capabilities.

“If you tend to use external ways to cope with stress, then during COVID-19 you may have drunk more and smoked more,” he says. “You will have sought external pleasure to make yourself feel better. 

“Those who have internal resilience and a positive mindset coped with COVID-19 better,” Dr Chow continues. “But to change how you look at failure and adversity, in terms of mindset, that’s a long process.  And that’s not an easy process compared to just having a beer.”

How to build resilience

Are there things that people can do to improve their self-belief and reinforce their determination that the business can survive COVID-19? 

Dr Chow says people need to develop self -awareness about their personality style, behaviour, how they interact with others, how they affect others, and how they manage their own emotions.

He warns that in times of stress, people who don’t have a good handle on their emotions tend to project their anxiety, anger and frustration onto others, creating interpersonal relationship dynamic problems. They can be more impulsive in making decisions, which can be costly for business owners.

“In an immediate sense, it’s about making sure we become more aware of our behaviours and give ourselves time to reflect on how we are,” says Dr Chow.

“Rather than thinking about a problem all the time, set aside a time to reflect on your behaviour, how you’re dealing with it, take a step back and make a plan. You need to have a clear head when dealing with problems.”

Dr Chow says having a reflective practice can help achieve clarity and help avoid burnout, but he says if you haven’t done this before, you may need to be guided through the process.

“You need to talk to other people to learn that others think differently to you,” he says. “Once you realize that other people think about certain issues differently, then you realize there’s more than one way to perceive the situation.”

He continues: “Successful people are very good at shutting themselves down when they have problems rather than talking to people. And the more successful and competent people are, the more they shy away from being judged and seeking help.

“People often feel it’s a sign of weakness that they need help. That’s the problem. It’s common for people to wait until they have a breakdown before they come to us. Therapy can help them to recognize that seeking help early is actually a strength. 

“My role is to help people open up their mindset and their perspective, so that they can see a few more ways out. When you’re depressed, you become very narrow-minded and myopic.  And what people are looking for is some kind of containment, but also a strategy to navigate them through the crisis.”

Getting help

Dr Chow says therapy is only one form of support.  If you are struggling with the financial pressures resulting from the pandemic, he says that reaching out to your general practitioner is a great first step. Other people you can confide in are friends, mentors or trusted advisors, and there are wonderful online mental health resources. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can also be a useful starting point.

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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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