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Tackle stress like the SAS, Part 2: 5 tips to build your personal resilience

Avant media

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Building Resilience Dr Dan Pronk

Resilience expert, Dr Dan Pronk learned about building better resilience the hard way. Serving five years as a combat doctor with the SAS in Afghanistan, he experienced countless personal traumas, and witnessed the major injuries and deaths of mates in combat, which resulted in him developing post-traumatic stress. In his post-military life, he began exploring methods to improve his responses to stress and therefore improve his resilience – his ability to bounce back from adversity.

Dan’s experience led him to develop, together with two other ex-SAS servicemen, The Resilience Shield, a methodology to help others develop greater resilience in their professional and personal life.

Innate layer

In part one, we shared Dan’s tips for building professional and social resilience, together with the benefits of post-traumatic growth. Here, we’ll look at improving how you handle stress, using Dan’s Resilience Shield mind and body techniques.


1.Your personality is not set in stone

The Innate Layer is the resilience already inside you, a result of your upbringing, and influenced by your personality and values.

Dan explains: “We know there's an innate layer and certainly there's a genetic but also an epigenetic [influence]. So, how we're brought up, what stressors we've had at what key stages in our life play into this and how we've dealt with those stressors.”

TIP: Maybe you’re born with it, but you can change it

  • Studies show only about 40 per cent of your personality is hard wired. You can change the remainder. Take one of the many personality profile tests online (Dan recommends the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a starting point) and see what it says about you. If you find something you don’t like – set about changing it!
  • Choose how you respond to and recall experiences, by reframing things in a more positive light. This is called ‘cognitive reappraisal’. Owing to a human bias known as negativity bias, we tend to overvalue and dwell on negative things far more than neutral or positive things. This can often be the case with our memories of events, although if you think hard about these events, you just might be able to identify some positives as well. For instance, even though a resuscitation might have ultimately failed, there may have been many successful interventions under duress, such as cannulation, defibrillation, CPR, good teamwork etc. Focusing on these positives allows for cognitive reappraisal.

Hear more from Dr Pronk on the ‘innate layer’ in this 3 min video

Building your resilience shield - innate layer


2. Meditation

Mindfulness meditation in particular is key to improving resilience. This type of meditation encourages you to observe the present moment, without judgement or emotional involvement and has been found to reduce the brain’s perception of pain.

Dan says meditation strengthens the bonds between the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala. “We know long-term meditators will shrink their amygdala, reduce their stress response and minimise the duration of an amygdala response. We know overwhelmingly this is something we should be doing in medicine.”

TIP: Make meditation matter

  • Meditation is a form of training like any other.
  • The benefits are proportionate to your effort.
  • Quick gains are possible in minimal time – 10 minutes daily, three or four times a week.
  • Download a meditation app to your phone, so you can meditate whenever and wherever you have time.

3. Gratitude

Gratitude and optimism are greatly correlated with resilience, Dan says. He tells how he sustained a badly bulged disc in a helicopter hard landing, and later treated an SAS mate for similar back pain. “We assumed it was going to be a bulged disc or sciatica. It turned out to be a spinal tumour, and he was dead within about six months.” Dan reminds us “It's easy to lose perspective in a modern day, first world, middle class environment, but taking that step back and thinking, ‘hey, you know what, life's good’ really provides perspective.”

TIP: Accentuate the positive

  • Keep a gratitude diary. Dan recommends writing down a few things each day that you are grateful for. These don’t need to be big events or gestures. Tuning in to gratitude is positively correlated with optimism and resilience.
  • Step back from your problems to gain perspective.
  • What are the positives or lessons you can take from a stressful experience?

Hear more from Dr Pronk on the ‘mind layer’ in this 10 min video

Building your resilience shield - mind layer


4. Exercise

Not surprisingly, exercise is strongly correlated with resilience. And whatever your preferred exercise, you can make big gains from even minimal exercise interventions. “The literature shows that the gains you make in resilience from exercise are exponential at first and then you get this petering off, but little bits do make a huge difference,” Dan says.

TIP: Move more

  • While it takes a bit of extra organisation and effort, if you are able to walk or ride a bike to work, or grab a workout during your lunchbreak, then they are brilliant ways to fortify your body layer. Failing that, even simple measures like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking further from work and walking, can add up to meaningful benefits.
  • Short, sharp sessions have been shown to have the same, if not better, health impacts as longer, lower intensity exercise. For those who are capable and willing, high-intensity interval training is a fantastic way to maximise exercise benefits for the time poor. 10-15 mins of HIIT a few times a week can make a massive difference to your health, wellbeing, and overall resilience.

5. Sleep optimisation

The medical community often runs on minimal or interrupted sleep, and studies show that sleep deprivation is akin to alcohol intoxication. So, sleep optimisation helps your body, and mind, function better, increasing your resilience.

“When we looked at data from our resilience survey for the body layer, sleep was above everything else correlated to resilience: above exercise, diet and BMI – sleep was the one that really made a difference,” Dan says.

TIP: Prioritise sleep

  • Track your sleep: Use an app to monitor your sleep quality. Aim for 25% of your sleep to be in REM phase, to feel rejuvenated.
  • Block blue light at night: Blue light from digital devices interferes with your body’s circadian rhythms, reducing deep, restorative sleep. Invest in a pair of blue light blocking glasses or lenses.
  • Decrease alcohol and caffeine: While alcohol can help you get to sleep, it can reduce its quality and duration. Caffeine also affects sleep quality, so have fewer coffees and have them earlier in the day.

Hear more from Dr Pronk on the ‘body layer’ in this 6 min video

Building your resilience - body layer

Take the Resilience Survey, for a scientifically backed summary of how your resilience scores against the Resilience Shield methodology.

For more health and wellbeing advice, including information on key support services visit Avant - Doctors health and wellbeing.

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