Coming up to 8 weeks in lockdown, the plummet in mental health continues to be part of the discussion. You wake up, don’t get dressed, move five meters to your desk and get prepared for the day. Fit in your 20 minute workout, homeschooling, overindulgence of snacks, maybe a walk and your day still finishes with a Netflix binge. Groundhog Day is very much alive. Some people are coping; many are not. We are experiencing a collective adversity. So in the midst of this societal crisis, one word arises from the ashes: Resilience. This blog post aims to unravel what resilience is and how to be resilient.
What is resilience?
Resilience is not a new hot topic. Every school wants their students to be resilient. Every parent wants their child to be resilient. And every individual wants to be resilient. Some would describe it as a skill that you learn. Others would argue that it is something you’re born with. And in truth, both of those statements are probably correct. So let’s start with what it is. Put simply, resilience is our ability to bounce back from difficult situations or adversity. It is essential because adverse situations have an influence on our brain development and operating correctly. Difficult situations can cause strongly unhelpful emotions and thoughts, which can then lead to alterations in brain chemistry if we are unable to bounce back. Therefore, resilience is needed to protect us from future mental health problems. We always hear the saying that as we get older, ‘life’ hits us. And life is difficult. It throws many burdensome circumstances at us. Disasters, war, pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, the list goes on. Some people are able to deal with it and others are not. The ambiguous psychological concept of resilience is what differentiates either side of mental survival. The reason why resilience is not something we can achieve is because it is the ability to adapt to difficult situations, and so, it is a skill that changes with each new challenge. Referring back to cognitive behavioural therapy, this refers to always being able to think in helpful ways, no matter how difficult the situation is. When we feel a negative emotion, this is our brain telling us that there is a problem that we need to deal with. Therefore, we need to use a degree of problem solving. How can I deal with this situation in the best way possible?
Promotive and protective factors
Therefore, it is important to note that it is not protection from any adversity that causes resilience, because at some stage, we will all experience some sort of adversity. Remember that we cannot control every single situation. Instead, there are other factors that influence how resilient we are. Some make us better able to deal with adversity, also known as protective factors, and some make us less able to deal with adversity, known as promotive factors.
Of course, the type of adversity and the amount of times exposed to adversity matters. For example, someone who was sexually abused as a child is more likely to be less resilient than someone who got punched at a teenage party. Likewise, constant bombardment of difficult life events will have a greater negative effect on people than someone who only has to deal with a handful. This is why studies have continuously found that poverty is the strongest predictor of brain development. Children who live in poverty experience more adverse childhood experiences, which then stunts brain development.
Probably the most important promotive factor is social support. A study by Chiang and colleagues in 2018 found that social support acted as a buffer against death for people who were abused as children. This supports the commonly referenced research that children just need one supportive adult in their lives to prosper.
Another hugely important factor is timing. The earlier adversity happens, the more likely it is to have a detrimental effect. This is why there are high links between maternal post natal depression and the developmental of child psychopathology. There are also time windows in which resilience can flourish or collapse. These time windows include transitionary periods such as the transition into secondary school or University.
Masten (2018) noted other factors including motivation, problem solving skills, self efficacy (belief in one’s self), optimism, routine, meaning and education. As mentioned already, many of these are genetic traits such as motivation, self-efficacy and optimism, but what is re-assuring is that many of these can be learned, such as problem solving skills, routine, meaning and optimism. Of particular relevance is meaning, which emphasises the important of education. If the education system can give a child meaning, they become more resilient as a result.
The Mental Health Vaccine
Just like our immune systems need vaccines, we also need adversity to build resilience. We need to experience challenging situations in order to grow and learn how to deal with similar situations in the future. That is why we have memory. You want adversity to be challenging but not overwhelming. This can come in the form of role playing adversity, better known as stress inoculation training. An unfortunate example of this would be children practicing school lockdown drills in the face of school shootings and terrorism. Therefore, we are not trying to remove all adversities because this isn’t possible and worse again, it isn’t healthy as it creates snowflakes. Instead, we are trying to remove detrimental adversities and remove the detrimental impact of lesser adversities.
Therefore, resilience is experience of using effective emotion regulation strategies in difficult situations. And you can’t just tell someone or teach someone to be resilient. You teach them how to deal with difficult situations and let them experience it. But at the same time, this doesn’t mean you let a child out into the world with no protection. Instead, you find the balance between the two. Rather than stepping in straight away to save them from their adversity, teach them how to deal with it and let them try first hand. If something isn’t working, you go back to the drawing board, let them try something else and if that still doesn’t work, then you can step in. If it doesn’t work, the negative emotions that come alongside adversity will hurt both them and you but the long term lesson from it is far more beneficial. It’s difficult but that is how you build resilience. A mental health vaccine.
So in conclusion, resilience is not protecting ourselves and our children from the difficulties of life. It is being prepared for them and facing them head on. We achieve this through education and new experiences. The term ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ is a blueprint to resilience. It’s better to have lived and suffered than never to have lived at all. That is resilience.
Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.