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Founder of The Resilience Project, Hugh van Cuylenburg shares his top science-backed techniques to build your mental strength this year.

2020 was a hard year for many of us. The national pandemic changed the way we all work and live; and just when we thought that was enough, raging bushfires in Western Australia have emerged as the latest threat to Australian homes and livelihoods.

It seems 2021 will continue to test the strength of our resilience. We can’t help the cards we’re dealt but we can learn to better deal with them. Here’s 5 ways to build your mental resilience and cope with stress in 2021.

1. Practice gratitude every day

It’s a fact that practicing gratitude makes you a happier person. There’s 45 years of research to show that it helps you to feel happier, cope better during challenging times and have better mental health overall.

This is because when you practice gratitude you teach yourself to pay attention to what you’ve got and not worry about what you don’t have. A simple exercise to help you train this is by writing down three things that went well for you at the end of the day, or by answering any of the questions below:

  1. Who is someone you feel really grateful for today and why?
  2. What is it about your home that makes it your special place?
  3. What are three things that went well for you today?
  4. What’s something you’re looking forward to tomorrow?


2. Shift your perspective

Reconditioning yourself and the way you think is no easy feat. But if anyone knows the value of this lesson, it’s Hugh van Cuylenburg, founder of The Resilience Project.

Hugh’s journey began after he graduated from university when he visited a remote Indian village to teach English at a local school.

“In this desert community, there was no running water, no electricity and no beds; everyone slept on the floor of their hut. Despite the fact these people had very little to call their own, I was continually blown away by how happy they were,” Hugh explained.

“It was this experience that led me to some pretty simple conclusions about the things that we need to be doing here in Australia if we want to be happier.”

Now, as the founder of the wildly successful organisation The Resilience Project, Hugh delivers evidenced-based programs to schools, companies, and sporting clubs to help others discover the benefits of practicing gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.

Richmond AFL Player Dustin Martin is an avid fan of The Resilience Project. He uses The Resilience Project journal as a tool to assist and motivate his mental health and said: “If you want to be good at something in life, you’ve got to practice it, and your mental health is no different”.

Some of Hugh’s students in India at their beloved playground.

3. Avoid falling into the ‘what if’ trap

We’re all familiar with that little voice in our heads saying things like ‘If I buy a new car or house like that, then I’ll feel happy’ or ‘When I get a promotion, then I’ll feel content with my career’.

It’s natural for our minds to turn to external factors to give us joy, but as soon as you get it, you’ll most likely seek something else to seek happiness.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things, but you can’t pin your happiness to it. Continuously wanting more actually creates dissatisfaction with our present state, which means it becomes impossible for us to appreciate or cherish our current situation because we feel a sense of loss while we think about how the grass might be greener if we were on the other side.

Research shows that humans are more likely to focus on the negative over the positive as they try to make sense of the world. This is because negative events have a greater impact on our brain. Psychologists refer to this as the negative bias or negativity bias.

That’s why it’s important to make a conscious effort to be mindfully present – because it naturally lends itself to wellbeing. Doing this can rewire your brain to help you start thinking positively, look for the good in the world and boost your mental welfare.

4. Learn to be present and make mindfulness a habit

We’ve all heard of mindfulness by now. But what does it actually mean?

“It’s the ability to be calm. It’s the ability to be present,” says Hugh van Cuylenburg.

Spending your time thinking about things out of your control – like what the world will be like in a year – is anxiety provoking. The best way to combat this is to focus on what’s happening in the moment when it’s happening. Doing this will help you better cope with stressful situations in life, even if they’re minor things like sitting in traffic.

There’s no shortage of mindfulness and meditation apps these days, promising to help you hone your focus, combat anxiety, sleep better, and much more. So why not download one and test it out? Calm, Headspace and Smiling Mind are a handful of popular mindfulness apps to try for yourself.

5. Feel good by being kind

Being kind to others stimulates the production of serotonin, a feel-good chemical that calms you down, and makes you feel happy. Kindness is also contagious, so one good deed in a crowded space can create a domino effect and improve the day of dozens of people. 

So, what will your next act of kindness be? Even if it’s small – like opening a door for a stranger or buying a coffee for a friend – it has a positive effect in the brain.

Hugh (middle) with CGU’s Sean Pietersz (left) and Gavin Bourke (right).

Hugh puts it best, he says: “Happiness is a choice we get to make but it’s often not that simple. It’s a choice to put the work in.” 

Resilience doesn’t happen overnight. Like all habitual acts, it takes time to build and maintain. Nurturing our mental capacity for resilience can help us not only survive, but it can also help us thrive in the face of life’s challenges with confidence.

So, after the year we all experienced in 2020, we can each pause to thank ourselves for the resiliency we have already shown. From everyone at CGU, we wish you a healthy and happy 2021.  

If you or someone you know needs support or is experiencing emotional distress, help is available. Please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.