Resilience and Mental Wellness in Uncertain Times

Resilience and Mental Wellness in Uncertain Times

February 17, 2024

A Software Engineer's computer on a desk in a room filled with books, highlighted by a visual burst representing Stoic philosophy

In this post, I’m taking a moment to reflect on a topic that’s become increasingly important to me: mental health. I have been thinking a lot about it recently, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I share some thoughts.

We live in an era marked by unprecedented change. For us working in the tech industry, the multiple waves of layoffs during the past two years have been particularly challenging, and a source of significant stress and uncertainty. In such times, it’s vital to remember that our brains, while remarkably complex and resilient, require nurturing to manage these stresses effectively. Fostering our mental health is not just beneficial but essential for navigating the challenges ahead.

The importance of resilience

Common causes of stress

It comes from all directions. Wars, natural disasters, pandemics, rising costs, job insecurity, and climate change are just a few of the challenges we face. The rapid evolution of technology, particularly in AI and automation, is awe-inspiring but also anxiety-inducing. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the pace of change and the uncertainty of the future. I know I do, frequently.

But it’s not just external events that cause stress. Our own thoughts and perceptions can also be a significant source of distress. To me, the easiest way to combat stress is to start by understanding its sources, so we can address them directly. Typically, it can often be attributed to the following factors:

  • Attempting to control external events that are inherently beyond our control.
  • Placing too much importance on external outcomes, such as job security, economic status, and social standing.
  • Misinterpreting events and circumstances, allowing our judgments to cause distress.
  • Focusing on competition and comparison with others rather than on personal growth and self-improvement.
  • Attaching our happiness to material success and the acquisition of possessions.
  • Failing to accept the natural flow of life, including the inevitability of change and loss.

Coping strategies

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.” — Marcus Aurelius

I’ve been a long-time admirer of the Stoic philosophy, which teaches us to focus on what we can control and let go of what we can’t. I find that this philosophy has been a source of strength and resilience for me, especially in turbulent times, and over two thousand years later, I can still extract coping strategies from it.

Perception and reframing

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca

When we’re faced with adversity, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. But by reframing our thoughts, we can shift our focus from what we can’t control to what we can. This shift in perspective can be empowering and can help us to take action and make a positive impact.

Realize how far you’ve come. You’ve made it through every challenge you’ve faced so far, and you’re still here. What’s the worst that can happen? Can you survive it? Can you recover from it? The answer is almost always yes. And if not, then it’s not worth worrying about.

Focusing on what you can control

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius

A key tenet of Stoicism is the idea that we have power over our minds, and not outside events. But how do we distinguish between what we can control and what we can’t? The answer lies in our perception and our ability to reframe our thoughts.

Can we control the outcome of a war, a natural disaster, or the impact of inflation? The answer is invariably “no”. But we can control how we respond to these events.

We fear job insecurity, but why? Perhaps because it threatens our financial security, or because we fear the loss of our identity, or because we fear the loss of our social status. If we can identify the root of our fear, we can address it directly. We can save money, we can invest in our skills, we can build a support network, and we can work on our self-esteem.

Sure, it is often easier said than done. For example, I was once on a work visa, and the fear of losing my job was truly terrifying. There is no easy answer to how to address this fear, but giving in to panic and despair won’t help either. Sometimes saving money is not an option, but we can still invest in our skills, and we can still build a support network.

Even if we uncover the root of our fear, it is not always trivial to address it, but it is the first step to finding a solution and do the best we can with what we have control over.

Embracing adversity as a path to growth

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” — Marcus Aurelius

Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I don’t think that’s always true, but I do believe we can reframe adversity as an opportunity for growth and turn it into a powerful teacher. It can help us to develop resilience, strength, and wisdom. It can also help us to develop empathy and compassion for others who are going through similar challenges.

Support your peers, and seek support from them. Part of what make great teams truly great is the ability to be open, geniune, and supportive of each other. While we are still working with people, and not just AI, we should make an effort to see each other as humans.

Don’t lose sight of what’s important

“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” — Seneca

In the face of adversity, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. We can become so consumed by our fears and worries that we forget to appreciate the present moment and the people around us. We forget to take care of our mental health, and we forget to take care of each other.

Life is inherently uncertain, and that’s fine. There is no point in focusing what we can’t control, and trying to change it. But there is great power in addressing what we can control, and in embracing adversity as a path to growth.

But above all, spend time with your loved ones, and take care of your mental health, do what you enjoy ouside of work. Life is too short, we ought to remember it and make the most of it. I know I often fail to do so, and I hope this post will serve as a reminder to myself as well.