What is resilience? And where do we look?

Firstly, a few things that resilience is not. It is not about having a solution to every problem. It is not about always being ok / always being happy / always being calm. It is not the absence of fear / anger / this weird emotion that we don’t have a name for, but it […]

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Firstly, a few things that resilience is not.

It is not about having a solution to every problem.

It is not about always being ok / always being happy / always being calm.

It is not the absence of fear / anger / this weird emotion that we don’t have a name for, but it sure is irritating.

It is not about knowing what to do and doing it straight away.

It is not endurance and the ability to push through.

It is not about being prepared.

Most of us cope with life well. We deal with minor everyday nuisances, manage our emotions reasonably well, maintain relationships. In general, we lead good lives. Life still manages to surprise us and presents us with situations that are, to say the least, challenging. Maybe the coronavirus epidemic was the first big wave in your life, or perhaps you had experienced individual-level storms before. Either way, it might be a good idea to look at your coping mechanisms and assess how resilient you are. We can’t remove stress from the equation, but we surely can improve our coping.

Resilience can be defined as the ability to respond to adversity adaptively; “bend but not break”. Some authors go even further, as they suggest that resilience is not only about surviving but also about growing in the time of adversity. This approach emphasises that we are not simply acted upon by events that happen around us, rather their effect on us depends on our interaction with them.

Can I emphasise that coping is a dynamic process? As the situation evolves, we learn how to react to it better; we have a chance to understand the problem better and adjust our reaction. We try different things to see what works. Your default reaction to difficulty is to seek control? Great, but it will not work in every situation. Good coping requires us to (1) recognise the demands of the situation, (2) do something very difficult – find a creative response that is best suited to the particulars of the problem. My Resilience online course features an entire session dedicated to psychological flexibility. I called this wonderful skill “the holy grail of psychology”, and I had a good reason to do it. Indeed, flexibility in coping is what allows us to cope with new, unpredictable situations.

Emotions are a part of the process.  Yes, many definitions associate resilience with the capacity to avoid strong psychological distress following intense stress. Basically, resilience could be understood as the absence of pathological responses that could impair our functioning. I have ambiguous feelings about this definition. Now and again, we experience the so-called “pathological” states, such as episodes of posttraumatic stress, strong anxiety, or depressive symptoms. I am with those authors, who claim that those difficult mental states can actually be a part of the process – and we can adaptively react to them.

Research shows that acceptance is a good predictor of resilience. Emotions are natural – fear and sadness are just reactions to difficulty and that’s a perfectly natural phenomenon. Resilience, in my very humble opinion, does not begin at the level of basic emotional responses – these are automatic, just like involuntary tics. It starts when we make judgements about our emotions and reactions. Do we make room for them? Suppress them? Learn from them? Use them as information?

Our genes shape – to a certain extent – how we cope with stress. But fear not, there is still a lot we can learn. Even if we don’t thrive as a result of this epidemic, let’s at least use it as an opportunity to explore our reactions. 

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