We do not like change. Yet for months and months now, we have been surrounded by more change and uncertainty than many of us will ever have experienced or expect to be experiencing in our lifetimes. It can be hard to imagine what it’s really like for young people right now at the start of their careers or studies. What should be an exhilarating, exciting and energising experience may feel anything but.
Welcome to this brand new series “7 Skills for Right Now”, designed to equip young people with guidance and support to enable them to thrive amidst uncertainty and change. These skills make a huge different in changing perceptions, raising awareness and strengthening confidence.
“Young people willing to push super hard to make something happen are among the most powerful forces in the world.” – Sam Altman
What are the 7 Skills? Grounded in research and in experiential learning workshops run with lawyers, medical practitioners and university students world-wide, we each have unlimited capacity to develop adaptability, critical thinking, empathy, integrity, optimism, proactivity and resilience. When everything around you is deeply uncertain, when you feel anxious, when you’re surrounded by rapid change, the best thing you can do is dig deep and harness these skills. They will enable all of us, to better manage this new environment and our constantly changing personal and professional landscape.
This week: ADAPTABILITY
Adaptability is our willingness to change in response to changed circumstances. Yet, how on earth can you tap into this willingness when the changes are unwanted and maybe even deeply disliked? This isn’t merely about adapting to a new life phase – like starting university or a new relationship or new job – this is about sustained adaptability in the face of constant change.
When we are faced with constant change and new information we can be left feeling stressed, overwhelmed, uncertain of what action to take which can lead to lack of energy, motivation and drive as well as decision fatigue. The result can be that we are in a state of alert most of the time leading to stress and inaction. Uncertainty pushes anxiety levels up, even in people who do not normally experience anxiety and stress.
One of the things we can start to do which will help us, is to focus on coping skills. Successfully coping when things feel difficult means continuing to function and engaging in day-to-day activities. One must solve problems (whether that means getting groceries or a virus test), regulate emotions and manage relationships. There are factors that predict resilience such as optimism, the ability to keep perspective, strong social support and flexible thinking. People who believe they can cope do, in fact, tend to cope better. Most people’s coping skills can be strengthened through strategies that buffer the effects of the stress. It’s classic mental health strategies: getting enough sleep, observing a routine, exercising, eating well and maintaining strong social connections. Spending time on projects, even small ones, that provide a sense of purpose also helps. Even those brimming with personal resilience need outside help if they face challenges on multiple fronts.
Acceptance is often, wrongly, interpreted as being passive. Actually what it means is choosing to not resist or fighting reality so that you can apply your energy elsewhere. Acceptance allows you to step into a more spacious mental space that allows you to do things that are constructive instead of being mired in a state of psychological self torment.
How much do you think about your future self? If your answer is not much, you’re not alone. It can be difficult to plan for a version of yourself you haven’t met yet, says psychologist Meg Jay. Sharing how to close the empathy gap between you and your future selves, she outlines courageous questions to ask about how your present and future can align, so you can begin to achieve your goals.
Adaptability is often seen as a personality trait and, yes, some people ARE more adaptable by nature, so in the current unpredictable world, we see some people taking the changes in relative stride while others are struggling and you’ll see this in your own behaviour also. BUT adaptability is a skill that can be learned, even if in a trial by fire.
Being able to adapt successfully amidst constant change is to get to a state of ACCEPTANCE. This is where our power lies because then we focus our energies on the elements and factors that we can truly control. So in everything we do, we need to move towards change rather than away from it (our default response).
How do we encourage our young people (and ourselves) to adapt? What strategies do we need to nurture and encourage?
1. Accepting discomfort: This is all about getting ourselves into stretch zone. New learning, new skills, new situations all encourage us to be in a state of discomfort – slightly anxious but not to the point where we can’t function. Each day, do something that encourages stretch. Override initial resistance.
2. Planning one step at a time: When we feel anxious, it’s easy for our minds to over-plan way into the future and “what if” everything. Instead, plan just for the day and just for the week. “Plans” should always be focused on things that are within your control i.e. getting to grips with that new online platform; connecting with others and arranging a virtual meet; going for a swim or a walk etc.
3. Taking the initiative: Linked with being proactive, this means recognising a step you may need to take towards acceptance: acknowledging the current reality and how you may be feeling; reaching out to your lecturer, colleague, co-student and having a positive conversation; limiting your exposure to social media and news (drains energy).
4. Nurturing wellbeing: This needs to be a priority for everyone. It means consciously planning for movement, oxygen, water, walking, eating healthily and sleeping. Most of good mental health is in our hands and in our actions and behaviours.
5. Look for activities, new and old, that continue to fulfil you – We don’t have a lot of control over the global pandemic but we do over our daily lives. You can focus on plans for the future and what’s meaningful in life. There are two ways the brain deals with the world: the future and things we need to go after, and the here and now, seeing things and touching things. Rather than being at the mercy of what’s going on, we can use the elements of our natural reward system and construct things to do that are good no matter what.
6. Focus on maintaining and strengthening important relationships. The biggest protective factors for facing adversity and building resilience are social support and remaining connected to people. That includes helping others, even when we’re feeling depleted ourselves. So making time to connect with people – from the past too – and doing things in your local community that support and nurture everyone.