We can all think of someone in our lives we view as being “resilient”. They are the people we know who impress us with their seemingly endless ability to carry on – no matter what. We admire them, and wonder what it is that makes them able to cope so well. Perhaps we also believe that if the same events happened in our lives, we wouldn’t manage as effectively.
But this is not necessarily the case, because research shows resilience is something we all possess – and the way we become resilient is through experience. So what can seem traumatic and difficult at the time – such as the death of a loved one – can in the long run make us stronger and more able to cope.
Our ability to become resilient to new situations can depend very much on how we think. For some years, I have been interested in the work of Aaron Antonovsky, a medical sociologist, who researched something he named a “salutogenic” mindset. Antonovsky described this as an enduring ability – no matter what your circumstances – to focus on what is healthy and working well. This mindset is brought about by developing a “sense of coherence” – which basically means you are able to understand and care about what is happening and see the bigger picture.
Finding meaning and caring is arguably the most important factor in developing a “sense of coherence”. This is because if we no longer care what is happening to us – if we cannot gain anything worth learning from an experience – then our resilience falters and we may become mentally unwell.
This happens because, as research shows, resilience is not a fixed state – and a significant event, or an accumulation of events over time, can wear down our reserves. For example, if you are working in a very stressful environment – perhaps as a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, or an aid worker – then you might find that your resilience becomes eroded.
Realising the extent of the erosion can come as a surprise, as we often believe we are coping and that things will get better if we just push on through. And we may keep on pushing until we have a medical problem.
This is because “pushing on through” is actually counterproductive – lasting resilience is brought about by having what is known as “recovery time”. This makes sense if we think about recovery time in terms of sport. Think of a high-performance athlete – these people have competitiveness at their core. Not only do they compete against rivals but they also compete against themselves. But this isn’t the only reason why they are successful.
If you were to have a conversation with Tour de France champion Chris Frome, or Olympian Mo Farah they would likely tell you that while they push themselves to extreme levels of performance, their achievements are due, in part, to their taking time to allow their bodies, minds and emotions to recover.
And research shows the same is true of how we mentally learn and figure things out – mental breaks can increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity. So instead of pushing our brains to find solutions, if we allow our brains time to rest, they will be able to solve problems more quickly.
But as well as allowing ourselves recovery time, being resilient also means being able to adapt to changing realities – because all of our lives are constantly in a state of flux. So instead of resisting change we need to become resilient to it.
So if you want to enhance your resilience, consider developing a sense of coherence first. Try to see the bigger picture, while giving yourself the chance to recover, and think about what you can learn from difficult situations – you might well find the next time you conjure up a picture of someone resilient, you see yourself.