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Resilience: Lessons from a brain cancer survivor

Having survived brain cancer, Stuart Taylor abandoned corporate life to teach others about managing stress and maintaining a healthy body and mind. Here's what he learnt during his extraordinary recovery.

"I'm sitting a nice 14 years down the track from brain cancer, which is pretty unusual when you look at the statistics – those survival rates are incredibly low. It's a cancer that hasn't had a lot of progress, or investment for that matter, so I am an outlier, if you like, and I'd like to think some of the changes that I've made along the way have been a contributor to that outcome," Mr Taylor said.

Those changes, he explains, have included a more focused effort on healthy eating and exercise, but the core shift has been changing his thinking about stress, his role in the world and how he approaches every task he undertakes as part of his daily routine.

His recovery also led him to an entire career change, which saw him not only build resilience and wellbeing into his own life, but also into the lives of other people, founding the Australian branch of the Resilience Institute.

"Even before that diagnosis, the life I was living was much more full-on in terms of rising up through the levels of corporate life; so [I was] really driven in that corporate environment. And I think the diagnosis was amazingly confronting for myself and for my family; obviously it knocked us sideways," he recalls.

"But coming out the other side of that, it has proved to be the most amazing sense of an opportunity for reflection on where I was up to, how I was living my life, how I was meeting different challenges and what choices I was making, and I used it for a number of months as a time to revisit some of those choices and really completely reset my life, in terms of the basics around nutrition and exercise and mindset, but also spirituality, and ultimately I changed my career on the back of that."

Why you should make time 

This may seem obvious to some people, while others may believe resilience is just "mumbo jumbo" they don't have time for. But as Mr Taylor points out, looking after yourself should always be priority number one.

"[We surveyed] 16,000 people across 250 organisations, and 23 per cent of them are living with chronic stress symptoms; 36 per cent in distress; 31 in worry; 81 per cent with high work intensity," he says.

"Unless you're practically getting down to some of these elements that I'm talking about, it becomes an unsustainable position and over time it absolutely catches up with you.

"I look at my own father, who was in small business: he died of a heart attack at the age of 49, and I am convinced an enormous part of that was due to chronic stress."

Understanding and managing stress

"I think number one is to be really clear on your purpose, to understand what is your 'why' – what gets you out of bed each morning; what are you trying to contribute?.

"If you haven't got that, it's very easy to lose perspective.

"Number two – and it's something I know wasn't that great for me previously – is to really understand where stress comes from. I really believe that my inability to manage or master stress contributed to where I got to, and I think that's the case for a lot of people, particularly in corporate but also in small business.

"[It is important to understand] that stress is a choice and it is allowing your brain to forecast a negative future outcome. And that choice can be disputed, it can be negotiated. You can bring in resources to improve that forecast. You can do all sorts of things to bring yourself back to the present to change that stress profile, if you are cognisant of that. I think the third point I'd make is – and this applies to everybody regardless of what you do in life – are you investing in self? I think the challenge in small and large business is [that] the intensity of those environments can overrule prioritisation of investment in self.

"Things get busy, things get full-on, [and] the first thing that goes out the window is my exercise or my diet or my sleep, and also relaxation or meditation practice. And when I do this, the stress hormone cortisol goes through the roof, and before I know it, I have started myself on a downward spiral. So this third area around taking the time and knowing it has to be a priority to invest in self, I think, is really fundamental."

Stuart's tips for creating a healthy, resilient self

1. Meditation: "Stop, slow down and do some form of meditation. When I look at meditation as a concept, or relaxation meditation as a concept, it is actually something that we've done for thousands of years. In the last 100 or 200 years, we seem to have forgotten about that, and that's right across the world, by the way. To me, that would be the starting point – it's all about starting with this building of awareness and mindfulness."

2. Routine: "The really practical starting point is to sit down and design your own integral daily practice, and that is the rhythm and ritual for your day, that you stick to most days. That might be designing your wake-up time, when are you going to exercise, how are you going to exercise, what's going to support your meditation practice, what sort of breakfast will you aim to have, how does the day unfold, when do you take breaks, when do you seek to shut down and set your priorities for the next day, when is your ideal bedtime that you seek to do most nights – getting a blueprint of that."

3. Use your time wisely: "A really nice routine and start to the day is locking away an hour that tends to an exercise routine, and that can be split up into aerobic as well as some strength training and some stretching, and then building in 15 to 20 minutes of meditation, followed up by a really nutritious breakfast, typically an oats-based breakfast, and that sustains that energy all through the morning. I know when I get that ritual in place each morning, it puts me in this place of being ready for the day. And it just means also that those practices are locked away, rather than getting to the end of the day and, with that lower energy you find at the end of the day, trying to lift that motivation to do it."

4. Maintain connections with people: "The key part of resilience… is about connection and reaching out to others. I do put this back to that list of suggestions that are incredibly important in small business. It tends to be a similar piece of advice for senior leaders in any organisation, where it does get lonely at the top – how do you keep that perspective? Resilient people know this is all about moving forward as a team, not as an individual."

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain