I've been researching lots recently on resilience; the process of building resilience, what resilience is, what resilience is not and so on. I'm writing an extensive piece on the topic and so I want to share some of those findings with you.
I also want to share some of my personal findings on the psychological concept of resilience and what it means in practical terms, in real lives of people.
Right now we are witnessing a massive global shift across a multitude of dimensions of society.
- Work has shifted dramatically with millions of us on subsistence payments due to Covid19.
- Travel and trade have stopped.
- Technology is taking a major leap with 5G and advances in video communication.
- Medical treatments are being performed remotely and going to the doctor is likely to be a completely new experience.
- How we treat those with mental health challenges is shifting too.
- In the US in particular, there are riots on the streets. People have had enough with police brutality, bureaucracy and downright inhumanity.
- There is a madman in the White House.
- The environment in under threat like never before.
- Societies are moving away from dependency on oil as a source of fuel.
- Private companies are putting people into space.
- The stock market does not reflect whats going on on the ground.
The list goes on.
It's akin to the major shift in mindset people witnessed in the 1960s. It seems that this is our revolution, a series of apparent events that perhaps have not been witnessed in several generations.
These are challenging times. How can we develop resilience in the face of these dramatic changes and indeed cope?
What Resilience Is
If one thing is certain in life, it is change. When change is positive, it makes us smile. When it is negative, we face challenges that can be life changing. Death, serious illness, an accident, the loss of a job, riots in the streets of an apparent civil society. Change brings unique thoughts, feelings and emotions to the forefront. It demands our attention and consideration of new facts that have the potential to shift our worldview.
Studies have shown that most of us, over time, adapt well to dramatic change and a component of this adaptability has become known as resilience.
Carol Dweck in her 2017 book Mindset, says that resilience forms part of a “Growth Mindset” 1. Dweck suggests that a fixed mindset is, “believing your qualities are carved in stone,”. In contrast, a growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts”. She says that resilience is a dynamic process rather than a fixed trait and goes on to cite Alfred Binet, the French educator and inventor of the IQ test;
A few modern philosophers… assert that an individual's intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism…. With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before 2Alfred Binet | Modern Ideas About Children
What Resilience Is Not
Just because one person copes better under a given challenge than another, this does not mean they don't suffer equally, feel the pressure of stress, and react emotionally.
Resilience is not our learned ability to deny feelings, bury them deep within us and carry on like nothing is happening. We are not automatons.
Resilience is not about telling yourself a fanciful story that runs counter to your actual reality. Building resilience is, in fact, likely to be a rocky path filled with substantial distress just like many are witnessing now.
Although certain theories have accounted for resilience as a trait of personality, contemporary psychology does not broadly agree. Rather than a fixed component of personality gifted at birth, we can develop resilience in ourselves.
As we will learn, we foster resilience through community, friendship, familial support, and perhaps most importantly, challenges under controlled situations. Resilience is not denial, it is acceptance and willingness to take on the challenge and development of self.
A Definition of Resilience
According to the etymology of resilience, the word comes from the Latin resiliens, present participle of resilire “to rebound”, “recoil,” from re- “back” meaning to recoil, and dates back to 1620.
The American Psychological Association define resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress” 3. However, this is perhaps too simple an explanation.
Saul Levine 4 in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience goes further and defines resilience as;
…the ability to bounce back from some real, experienced adversity. Perhaps more elegantly, we can say that it refers to an individual's utilisation of inner strengths and outer resources in order to overcome seriously adverse, even traumatic, circumstances, and still continue to pursue and succeed in one's endeavours. It is a generic, multi-determined attribute (ie, there is no one gene site for resilience), and varies according to personal hardiness and social supports, as well as the nature and degree of the imposed hardship or impediment.
Success or Failure?
The above seems accurate to me, however, we are not guaranteed success, so rather that suggest as the author does… “…continue to pursue and succeed in one's endeavours,” I think it's more accurate to say; continue to pursue one's endeavours despite repeated failure. Because it seems that repeated failure is closer to the reality of our experience before we reach that which we would call success.
In November 2008, when the legendary General George W. Casey, Jr., the army chief of staff and former commander of the multinational force in Iraq, asked me what positive psychology had to say about soldiers’ problems, I offered a simple answer: How human beings react to extreme adversity is normally distributed. On one end are the people who fall apart into PTSD, depression, and even suicide. In the middle are most people, who at first react with symptoms of depression and anxiety but within a month or so are, by physical and psychological measures, back where they were before the trauma. That is resilience.
What makes some people more resilient than others?
In Dr Steven Southwick's panel discussion on resilience in 2013 mentioned above, Dr Yahuda says of why some people are more resilient than others;
“If we think about resilience as a predictive trait, then we can think about it as having a biological or genetic base. However, when we think about resilience as a process, then we are talking about an organism actively interacting with its environment. I imagine what makes some people more resilient than others is better support systems, opportunities, DNA, and other non-DNA factors either appearing alone or interacting with one another.”
In the same discussion, Dr Ann Masten says;
“The capacity for resilience in humans is distributed across many interacting systems. We are a social species. I have argued in the past that there are fundamental adaptive systems that have come down to us through biological and cultural evolution and these are constantly being created and constantly changing. We are all living human systems that interact continuously with our environments. It's all about process.”
What Resilient People Do Differently To Non-resilient People
Resilient people recognise negative thinking in themselves and consciously decide to change it by seeking out positive aspects.
People who display resilience are not overly optimistic to the point of being polarised. Instead they accept that the coin has two sides.
Resilient people find purpose in daily work and life in general. With a firm purpose, this serves as their North Star in times of dramatic change.
People who are resilient take challenges and knock-backs as opportunities for growth and learning rather than feeling disadvantaged and victimised.
People who are resilient step up to the plate. They are willing to fail in order to succeed. It is not recklessness, but measured and deliberate.
Resilient people test themselves physically, they work out, run, walk and otherwise exercise to keep their bodies in good shape. They know that brain produces endorphins when they exercise and this positively impacts their mood.
Resilience is found in people who are non-judgemental. Although they may not agree with you, they accept other's opinions and way of life.
Resilient people generally avoid situations that may threaten their wellbeing. They also avoid over-indulgence in stimulants such as cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
Perhaps critically, resilient people have strong social networks and family structures that they can rely on when things become difficult.
It seems that there are a multitude of components at play on an individual level that influence our level of resilience. Heritability is a factor, but so too are upbringing, social and cultural aspects. Let's take a closer look at some of these factors.
Final Thoughts On Building Resilience
I've always been a bit of a tough nut, a resilient sort, it's just my nature. I can't say why that is exactly, but it's most likely a blend of early life experience and genetics. That's not to say I always come out on top–I don't.
Regardless, it has always been my interest to try get the best possible outcome from a given task. That usually means pushing boundaries, failing, dealing with people that don't provide support and, in fact, who are in direct opposition to where I wanted to go.
Building resilience in ourselves is not easy–it's not supposed to be. The nature of growth is that it is difficult, stressful and challenging and as with any skill, it takes deliberate practice to improve. Finding yourself in a challenging situation without some degree of prior exposure is likely to be a case of too much too soon. We tend to run for the hills.
How To Build Resilience
The best possible advice I can offer for building resilience is that you deliberately take yourself into new and challenging situations in a measured way. Take a little and often approach, gradually increasing your exposure to greater and greater challenges. Perhaps a coach or mentor can provide a safe place for this.
In all human endeavour, we've got to be willing to push beyond perceived limits and accept that not achieving the desired result is not only possible, but probable. It's that which makes success so sweet when it comes.
Academic definitions aside, building resilience seems to be a component of a ‘right-now' acceptance of conditions, of results. Lamenting the past or projecting ourselves to romantic notions of the future in the face of trauma only serves to take us away from the only moment we can be effective.
Therefore, to me, resilience seems to be the ability to deal with what's in front of us, what's important right now.
If you're feeling the weight of circumstances, either personal or the societal change we are seeing on a global scale, feel free to reach out to me. It's good to talk.
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- Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Hachette UK.
- Binet, A., & Heisler, S. T. (1975). Modern ideas about children.
- American Psychological Association. The road to resilience. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2014. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx.
- Levine, S. (2003). Psychological and social aspects of resilience: a synthesis of risks and resources. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 5(3), 273.
- Seligman, M. (2020). Building Resilience. Retrieved 5 June 2020, from https://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience