What is Resiliency?
“Resilience” seems to be a bit of a buzzword during the current pandemic, but what does it really mean to be resilient? Are some people born more resilient than others? Can we learn to be resilient? How can resilience help us?
There are a few different opinions on what the correct definition of ‘resilience’ really is. Psychologists Windy Dryden and Michael Neenan (2009) described it as; “a set of flexible cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses to acute or chronic adversities…these responses can be learnt and are within the grasp of everyone.”
When we generally think of a resilient person, we think of someone ‘bouncing back’ from adversity. We think of someone who has gone through a divorce and is dating two weeks later and so on. But bouncing back is not the same as being resilient. Resiliency involves going through the pain and struggle of adversity, rather than avoiding it or anaesthetising it with alcohol or other distractions.
What is Learned Helplessness?
Learned Helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. Learned helplessness doesn’t only occur after a major traumatic event, it can often occur after sustained psychological or physical abuse or any other situation where you have consistently been shut down or put down by someone in a position of authority.
Learned helplessness occurs when we believe that nothing that we do will change the outcome.
The American psychologist Martin Seligman describes an experiment, in the 1960s, where dogs who experienced painful electric shocks that nothing they did could modify, quickly gave up trying. They passively accepted electric shocks, even when these later electric shocks could easily be avoided (e.g. the door was open for them to leave).
How Are They Linked?
Dr Martin Seligman discovered that the difference between those who showed resilience and those who were susceptible to learned helplessness was rooted in the way that these people explain the things that happen to them to themselves. This is known as a person’s ‘explanatory style’.
Seligman argues that explanatory style can be broken down into three categories:
- Personalisation (internal vs external)
- Pervasiveness (specific vs universal)
- Permanence (temporary vs permanent).
So, let’s say that you lose your job. You might think “I’m such an incompetent accountant (internal). I was always out of my league at the office (internal). I’ll never be able to find a good job now (permanent). My partner is probably going to leave me now. My life is so screwed up (universal).”
Alternatively, you might think; “I got fired because there is a pandemic going on and the company is downsizing (external). The economy is really making holding down a job difficult, but things will eventually get better (temporary). At least I have my family and we are all healthy (specific).”
None of us always uses one explanatory style. We might use a mixture of these styles in one thought (i.e. that we were at fault for losing out job but at least we have our family), and sometimes the explanatory style that we use can depend on the context of the situation that we are in, i.e. our love life versus our work.
How Can We Develop Resiliency?
1. Observe and choose again
One of the first things that you can do to develop increased resiliency is to observe and alter your explanatory style. Increase your self-awareness by watching your existing explanatory style; are you catastrophising (i.e. it’s going to last forever)? Are you incorrectly blaming yourself? Are you blaming yourself for all the bad things and giving credit away for the positives (“it was just luck or fate”)?
The second part of this is the choose again. We have the power to control and manipulate how we think. As philosopher Roger Scruton said, “the best evidence you have a mind is when you change it.”
If you notice that your explanatory style is internal, permanent, and pervasive, you have the power to slow down and re-evaluate. Is this really going in impact every single part of your life? Is it going to last forever? Was it really your fault?
Gratitude is a powerful emotion, and when we learn to appreciate what we have, rather than complaining about what we don’t have, or stressing about what we might lose, we are already on the road to greater resilience.
Building resilience is about knowing ourselves and our minds backwards and forwards. This includes learning the A-B-C of our thought process. A is the activating event or adversity. B is the beliefs that we hold about what happened in A. And C is the consequences.
When we are less self-aware, we tend to go straight from A to C. Something happens and we respond without knowing why. When we develop a greater sense of self-awareness, we start to understand the B. What beliefs are we holding about the adverse event that happened, and how are these beliefs influencing the way that we respond?
For example, some people are terrified of heights whereas others choose to jump out of aeroplanes for fun. These two groups of people have quite different beliefs about the activating event (heights), causing vastly different consequences (jumping from the plane versus staying safely on the ground).
4. Practice self-compassion
Sometimes life can throw us a curveball and we get knocked down. We can berate ourselves for the fact that we have been knocked down or we can comfort ourselves. Ask yourself the following: “Would you teach your child or your friend the same thought process that you have?” If your child was learning to walk and fell down would you mock them, or would you comfort and encourage them?
Rather than getting angry at ourselves we can try talking to ourselves how we would a small child; “Okay, so this is a bit of a problem but we can sit down and work this out, and if we can’t work it out ourselves we can find someone to help us.”
5. Practice building your capacity
A knee-jerk reaction that many of us have to any discomfort is “I can’t stand this!”, and we start to get agitated, distract ourselves, and so on. But what does “I can’t stand this” really mean? Will we drop dead?
We can practice building our capacity for dealing with adversity, by dealing with small everyday frustrations such as a longer than desired queue at the supermarket, someone waiting too long at a green light, or an annoying colleague telling you about their kids’ birthday party again.
If you would like some professional support to build emotional resilience or increase your self-awareness, call our reception team on 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected]. We have sessions available seven days a week, by phone and online – and some of our therapists are also returning to offer face-to-face sessions at our centres in Clapham and Tooting.