Resilience is one of those words that seems to have been more and more often over recent years, and these last 12 to 15 months in Australia have definitely called for resilience from all of us, particularly those who have experienced bushfires, droughts or floods (or all three) alongside the pandemic that we’ve all had more than enough of and it’s tested our personal resilience for sure.
When it comes to resilience, there are several definitions available including this one from Way Ahead Mental Health Org, NSW: “Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from stressful or challenging experiences. It involves being able to adapt to changes and approach negative events, sources of stress and traumatic events as constructively as possible.”
So being resilient is less about avoiding difficulties or challenges and more about experiencing them and coping at the time in the best way we can with whatever resources, (environmental, physical, physiological, mental and emotional) we have available. And what we learn from that helps to build our resilience for future events.
Notice that the definition above includes the word ‘stress’ (again open to interpretation) and although given bad press, stress is actually beneficial to a certain extent as it pushes us beyond what we think we are capable of, proving that we can survive the situation. It nudges us out of our comfort zone into our learning zone and. even though it may feel confronting and terrible at the time, causes us to grow and strengthen. Provided that the stressful situation is not ongoing and long-term, we are able to bounce back over time and multiple times.
In the background I feel there are two other important factors to consider.
The first factor is that everyone has a personal ‘tolerance band’ for stress (my definition) based on past experience and, provided we stay within that ‘band’ and create time out as opposed constantly at the upper limit of our tolerance, we cope with life ok. However modern life can feel relentless, with an endless stream of information plus many external and internal demands and extra pressure. Sometimes the combination can drive our stress levels way above our normal tolerance band and into the ‘warning’ and ‘danger’ zones (again, my definition).
We can end up living in the warning and danger zone but if that continues long-term, we may become accustomed to it being the way life is, while viewing it as building our resilience. It may even seem acceptable and normal, if not an expectation to us and others, to maintain that same relentless drive and feel at times that we’re coping but add even a small amount of stress on top and our coping mechanism fails. That small shift tips us over and it can create a perfect storm of overwhelm and distress.
The second factor is that, according to Dr Kelly McGonigal in her Ted Talk ‘How To Make Stress Your Friend’, it’s not stress that’s the problem, it’s our belief about stress being harmful that’s the problem. While that may sound like I’m contradicting myself, I feel it actually supports it. What McGonigal suggests is that stress helps to ‘tone’ the nervous system allowing it to activate our innate fight/flight response more effectively which is a good thing. It helps us cope better over time and my take on that is that, like most things in life, the best way to do that is to push beyond our comfort zone incrementally and at a rate that is sustainable and of our own choosing. Even then, we still need the down time to re-set, restore, and refresh.
Overall, I see resilience and stress being points on the same scale but consider that what may look like strength and resilience may actually be chronic stress or distress in disguise for some people, particularly if they are unwilling or unable to talk about it.
While our attitude to stress and a gradual building of true resilience helps us to handle what life presents, bear in mind the external image may conceal an inner struggle to cope and that’s very different, far from healthy and needs to support to work through.