Bouncing back or mental resilience

What is resilience?

In science, resilience is referred to as a property that allows any given material to return to its original form if it is misshaped somehow. You can think of resilience as the property that enables you to bend a pipe back into shape after it has been knocked. It can also be explained as the factor that allows an elastic band to return to its usual length after being stretched. In psychology, the term has been borrowed from physics in a metaphorical way. Essentially, mental resilience is the human ability to bounce back from some form of adversity, be it bereavement, depression, physical illness or a mental challenge.

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  Why is resilience preferable?

In psychological terms, mental resilience allows your mind to recover from a negative or stressful situation or a trauma. Every single one of us faces stresses in our daily life as well as the occasional big event which can make our outlook seem bleaker. Unfortunately, mental stress has become a big part of modern life, and no one can totally escape it, and its side effects no matter how well prepared they might be. The point is, however, not to avoid such psychological problems so much as to try and find the tools to overcome them. In this, mental resilience is the key.

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What does being resilient mean?

Being resilient allows you to face down your problems, whether they come from work pressures, family issues, financial problems, or from struggles with your own mental health. Crucially, resilience is a preferable mental attribute to have because of the many benefits it can bring when you are going through something that is difficult to deal with. Being resilient does not merely mean that you recover more fully from hardship or stress that occur in your life, it also means that you are able to do so more rapidly, too, which might make it easier to overcome a negative situation and move on.

How do you go about building up your psychological resilience?

One of the most important factors for building greater resilience is to find acceptance of the truth of any given situation. Some things you can change and some things you can't control. If you can accept that, then recovering mentally from a challenge is likely to be easier. Equally, making better connections with others and building friendships can help you to become more resilient. It not only helps to keep a perspective on things and to engage in a support network. Crucially, any social connections work in this regard. Simply joining a club could be enough to help. Finally, it helps to break down problems into individual parts which can be dealt with on their own, step-by-step, since this means that they don't seem so insurmountable.

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Why is resilience important?

There are numerous good reasons to build up resilience in people. Although being resilient has other meanings in the contexts of ecology and engineering, when it comes to people, it is often described in the context of psychological outlook. In other words, being more resilient means being more likely to cope in stressful or difficult situations. You can think of being resilient as nothing more than developing coping strategies that help you to see beyond your immediate problems and focus on more important issues or a longer-term goal. In the main, psychologists will see resilient people as ones who can face their problems and even deal with catastrophes with aplomb. Conversely, not being resilient will often lead to detrimental psychological outcomes when adversity strikes. For example, someone who is not psychologically resilient may – when faced with something significantly negative, such as grief, for example – fail to cope, become depressed or even turn to substance misuse. In theory, a more resilient person is likely to be able to avoid such outcomes.

Who invented resilience theory?

Although the term has been around for a very long time, being resilient in a psychological sense did not start to come into common usage until the 1970s. Aaron Antonovsky was a sociologist and academic who started to apply the term in the way it is often used today in his 1979 publication, Health, Stress and Coping. An American developmental psychologist, Emmy Werner, best-known for a four-decade-long longitudinal study of children, was one of the first researchers to use the term academically. She noted how children in low-income families would often grow up with various social problems that they would replicate in their adult lives. However, her studies also found that about one-third of such children would avoid going down these negative social and behavioural routes, something she attributed to their resilience.

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Can resilience be taught?

Many academics now agree that a resilient mental attitude is something that can be taught. Although some aspects of it appear to come from within, there are techniques that can be learned that effectively give people a greater chance of making use of the resilience they already possess. A number of different theories exist about how best to go about this, however. Some of them focus on maintaining an attitude of kindness to oneself so that mental cycles of negativity do not immediately begin to start when something bad happens. Effectively, this means avoiding blaming yourself for problems and accepting them so that you can move on. Nurturing a positive world view is another way to teach people how to be more resilient since it helps to maintain a more balanced perspective and positive thinking when things go wrong. In some cases, it is more about learning how to stand up for core beliefs and enabling people to feel that they can say 'no' in certain situations without worrying about the potential outcome of so doing.

Which situations may require resilience?

The list of situations where being resilient will be beneficial is virtually endless. This is because being resilient may be useful in just about any negative situation you can imagine. Typically, however, being more resilient will help at work since it will mean dealing with negative feedback from managers, clients or colleagues without necessarily feeling down about it. It can also help when you are faced with a medical problem that may involve invasive surgery or drugs that might have side-effects. There again, being more resilient can help with sporting endeavours and coping with losses or a dip in form. It is also often thought to be useful when dealing with big life changes, such as the death of a loved one or dealing with breakup.

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Which factors foster resilience?

Anyone who wants to foster a more resilient outlook on life should first start with how they deal with stress. If you are under stress, then you will necessarily need to be more resilient to cope with it. Therefore, if you can alleviate some of the stress you feel, then you should require less psychological resilience. This might mean making positive changes in your life to avoid stressful situations or feeling over-burdened. Part of stress management is recognising there are limits to what you can control in your life. This realisation is, of itself, a way to feel more resilient. If you cannot control what you cannot control, then why punish yourself for it? Equally, working towards personal goals or life objectives tends to foster greater resilience since you can always look back at what you have achieved if one or two things go awry on the way. Another way to foster a more resilient attitude is to show compassion to yourself and others. Self-compassion is particularly effective in recovering from bad episodes and gaining a more resilient approach to the future.

Are resilience levels hereditary?

The scientific research into how naturally resilient people are based on genetics is something of a mixed bag. Yes, there appears to be some hereditary link that means some people are more likely to be resilient than others, but there are many environmental factors at play, too. Certainly, children who have tough upbringings are often found to be more resilient than others in later life, but there is no proven causal link, and even siblings can go either way with their resilience levels. In the end, it appears that more resilient people have neural pathways that help them to cope. Whether these are innate or a result of neuroplasticity is an open question. However, some receptor genes appear to be at play, such as NPYergic and HPA Axis. These are already known to contribute to certain anxiety disorders among teenagers and adults.

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What is cross-cultural resilience?

Resilience means different things in different cultures. In an individualist culture, being resilient might be centred more on being self-assertive, confident, strong or innovative. However, not all societies are built around such high levels of individualism. In certain collectivist cultures, there is more emphasis on teamwork, family life, selflessness and fraternity. In such cultures, being resilient is more likely to be interpreted in different ways. These might include traits such as being a dutiful family member or a loyal friend. Trustworthiness, honesty, sensitivity, tact and other interpersonal skills are also more likely to come to the fore when thinking of how resilient someone is. People with the sort of resilience that is likely to function well in both societal models are, therefore, said to be more cross-culturally resilient.

What criticisms of resilience theory are there?

Some people think that being resilient is not all positive. For example, it may mean that an individual is so focused on overcoming whatever hardship it is they are facing, that they do not fully engage with it. A bereaved person who does not fully grieve but who simply 'moves on' might fall into this sort of category. Some writers have also criticised the idea of being resilient as it places the onus on individuals to resolve their issues. They suggest that seeking psychological help might be thought of as the wrong approach where being personally resilient is unduly championed. Equally, some say that is an intrinsically individualistic notion that – in the face of global challenges like climate change – places an insufficient onus on governments and leaders to take collective actions.

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Resilience Summary

In the end, resilience is something that relates intimately to our inner selves because it is the quality that makes us less susceptible to the pressures and strains of life. When you feel that you cannot cope, walk away from a situation that you know in your heart that you should or if you ever simply feel overwhelmed, then it is a lack of resilient sentiment that is at play. Having said that, not being resilient about something shouldn't be viewed as anything like a disaster or a terrible lack of character. After all, a building that is not resilient could end in catastrophe if it were to fall down. However, people have the ability to recover and come back from even the most dire of situations. This is where the relationship between structural and human resilience starts to become a bit of a false analogy.

Overall, being resilient – especially in modern societies – is seen as a good thing. People who can stand up for themselves, who are not liable to peer pressure and who know their own minds are often applauded as examples of what everyone should strive to be. There is no doubting the merits of resilient behaviour when it comes to enduring tough situations, after all. And yet, this is not the full story. Being kind to oneself may also mean accepting the limits of resilient behaviour and being at one with – for want of a better word – failure. Indeed, some may argue that being accepting of a lack of resilience in oneself may, paradoxically, be a true form of resilient self-confidence. This is something that psychologists and philosophers are likely to argue about. From an everyday perspective, however, being more resilient is likely to lead to more favourable outcomes than unfavourable ones given today's societal norms and expectations.

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