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Resilience is a journey, not a destination

If you were able to attend the IADMS conference last month, you may have heard Michelle Dwarika and I present on resilience – and many other presenters in fact, because resilience was a key focus of the conference this year. However if you were unable to attend, I thought it might be useful to summarise our presentation and give an overview of what resilience is, and how it can be developed.

Resilience is a term we’ve heard a lot in recent years, in reference to “bouncing back” from the pandemic, adapting to life with Covid-19, and adjusting to life after Covid-19 (although it’s not really over yet is it?!) We also often refer to resilience in dance, such as in relation to coping with injuries, setbacks and competition. Resilience is one of those words we hear a lot, but is rarely defined, and when we look at the research literature it’s quite complex. So here’s a mini deep dive into resilience!

What resilience actually is – and isn’t

When it comes to resilience, many myths abound. We might assume that resilience is about pushing through difficulties, working harder for longer, tolerating otherwise unacceptable situations or treatment, putting a brave face on things, or going through something alone.

But resilience isn’t any of these things: rest and recovery (and recognising when we need them) are critical components of resilience, as are help-seeking behaviours. The ability to tolerate and manage intense and sometimes distressing emotions, rather than try to suppress or ignore them, is essential. It also isn’t something that we do or don’t have, and for that reason researchers refer to people “demonstrating resilience”, rather than being resilient. This is also because resilience changes over time, and is context-specific – so we may demonstrate resilience in one area, but this doesn’t mean that we automatically demonstrate it effectively in other areas.

In essence what this means is that resilience is a process: it’s how we deal with various stressors, and overcome them to either return to our previous levels of functioning, or to adapt positively to them. Positive adaptations can include developing new coping skills, support systems, and confidence in our ability to face future challenges. Perhaps you can identify a time in your life when you went through something difficult, and felt stronger as a result.

Three key factors of resilience

Research suggests that in order to demonstrate resilience, we need 3 key factors:

1. Personal qualities – a combination of particular personality characteristics like high self-esteem and optimism, and psychological skills such as self-awareness and emotional regulation

2. A facilitative environment – a social environment that combines high levels of challenge, for instance setting appropriate goals, with high levels of support, such as a collaborative approach to learning

3. A challenge mindset – the extent to which we view a stressor as being a challenge or a threat. If we can view it as a challenge, this is far more likely to result in positive outcomes

The interaction of these factors is crucial in the development of resilience. The good news is that each of these factors can be enhanced, developed or modified. I’ll focus on the challenge mindset for this blog.

What is a challenge mindset?

One of the fundamental principles of cognitive behavioural therapy is that errors in thinking are the cause of emotional distress. We experience an activating event – something stressful or upsetting – which results in emotional and behavioural consequences. But the event in and of itself doesn’t directly cause those consequences: the event is neutral, neither good nor bad, positive nor negative. Instead, it’s our beliefs about the event that cause the consequences. For example, if I have a heavy workload, it may make me feel stressed, irritable, and fatigued. But the workload itself isn’t causing those consequences, it’s my beliefs about the workload, which may be along the lines of: “it’s too much to do, I don’t have enough time, I’m overwhelmed, I can’t cope”. My beliefs then lead to emotional distress and behavioural changes.

The challenge mindset works in a very similar way; it’s essentially about how we view things. Is this particular situation a challenge or a threat? For instance, is this upcoming performance an anxiety-inducing stressor that makes me doubt myself and my abilities, or is it an exciting opportunity to show what I can do and communicate with an audience?

The key to developing a challenge mindset is to become more aware of our thoughts. Often, our thoughts carry on unchecked, like a subconscious running commentary on our lives. But these thoughts aren’t facts, they are interpretations, judgements, perceptions and evaluations of the situations and people we encounter. So, tuning into our thoughts and questioning their validity is a really useful exercise. In particular, pay attention to negative thoughts – the ones which tell us we’ll never master that exercise, won’t get that job, or that there’s no point going to that party. Catch these negative thoughts in the act! And then challenge them: put the thoughts on trial! You are the jury, and it’s up to you to weigh up the evidence for and against those thoughts. Is there a different way of interpreting the situation? Can you create a more balanced and realistic thought to replace the negative one?

Going through this process helps us to take a step back from our thoughts, remove the power from them, and take the intensity out of the accompanying emotions. Keep practising, and you will find that you are better able to view situations as neutral events, and better understand the role that your thoughts play in interpreting situations and the resulting emotional and behavioural consequences. Greater awareness is a key first step in building your resilience. Give it a go, and see where it takes you.

Would you benefit from developing your resilience? Consider trying one of my courses which use evidence-based theory and practical techniques to improve your wellbeing. Or get in touch with me if you’d like one-to-one coaching to work on your thoughts and build your challenge mindset!

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