Surviving to thriving – the relevance of resilience

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First of all, let me just deal with that word resilience. I know that for some the word resilience can sound judgmental – that those who experience mental health problems somehow lack resilience, and are therefore weak. I understand the sensitivity but:

  1. we haven’t found a better word;
  2. perhaps the problem lies in assigning a judgment to personality characteristics; and
  3. no one should suggest that a good stock of resilience is a sure fire vaccine against mental illness – it isn’t, but it might be one of a number of things that help.

Resilience is widely regarded as the ability to bounce back from setbacks, adapt to change and keep going in the face of adversity.

With this definition in mind, you would think that resilience is most needed to cope with significant life events or tragedies. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, however, 75% of people said that the biggest drain on their resilience reserves was managing difficult people or office politics at work, closely followed by workload and personal criticism. This certainly reflects the feedback that I get from coaching clients - it’s the day to day grind that really wears them down.

In the workplace it is clear to see why it is a useful quality to have in order to cope with the demands and pressures of work commitments.

Epictetus was the philosopher who first observed that it is not events that cause us problems, but our reactions to those events. In the same way, we are rightly familiar nowadays with the concept of post traumatic stress disorder – the adverse reaction to traumatic events. We are perhaps less familiar with the concept of post traumatic growth, but we often hear stories of people who go on to achieve incredible things after experiencing trauma or setback.

So what are the qualities of a resilient person which enable them to thrive better than others? Resilient people (and quite often we are all much more resilient when tested than we ever realise) tend to demonstrate some or all of the following:

  • They are realistic and understand that setbacks happen, and then look at what they can learn from them;
  • They have a sense of control and take personal responsibility for their actions;
  • They are good at problem-solving and staying solution-focused;
  • They have a strong support network of colleagues, family and friends;
  • They are able to ask for help when needed;
  • They can adapt to new situations or events.

One can see that many of these characteristics are to do with our thinking, the vast majority of which is unconscious, and which is learned by, or embedded into, us as a result of our experiences of life. Just as we (largely unconsciously) learn to think and react to events in particular ways, so we can learn to become more aware of our thinking, make it more conscious, and by doing develop greater resilience.

My personal resilience was certainly tested 18 months ago when I had a serious back injury, which required major surgery and has left me partially paralysed from my right knee downwards. It was a huge upset (physically and mentally), however I have learnt to reach out for help and support, and manage my expectations accordingly. I won’t be in the paralympics any time soon, but I’m slowly learning to walk and run again.

This blog was written by our associate, Anna Golawski.

byrne·dean provides a range of mental health training and support. To find out more click what we do or email, or have a look at this short film.

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