Why is resilience important?
If you have not read our other article on resilience and why it is so important for our health, follow this link: resilience appears to have benefits for both physical and mental health.
What can we do to maintain and develop our resilience? Here are some suggestions:
- Surround yourself with caring relationships and make connections
- Develop a positive attitude to help build resilience
- ‘Rethink’ stress: train yourself to deal with it instead of falling apart
- Stay healthy – a healthy body can support resilience
- Build resilience at work
- Build resilience in children
Surround yourself with caring relationships and make connections
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that strong, caring relationships are the primary foundation of resilience: ‘Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person's resilience’.
To help build resilience, we can work to create good connections and social support with family, friends, and other groups in the community.
Develop a positive attitude to help build resilience
The APA also points to changes of attitude that we can strive to adopt in order to give ourselves a stronger foundation for resilience. Most of these changes relate to setting realistic expectations, and looking at the world with a positive ‘things will get better’ perspective, rather than letting stresses pile up. These attitude shifts include:
- Making realistic plans and following steps to move towards these realistic goals and accomplishments
- Realising and accepting that stress is a part of life that we all can handle
- Adopting a positive, confident sense of self
- Building ways to solve problems and to deal with stressful situations.
For example, the APA suggests that we ‘act on adverse situations as much as [we] can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses, and wishing they would just go away’.
A 2019 article in Positive Psychology provides further examples of characteristics associated with resilient people, including self-sufficiency, being calm under pressure, being optimistic and adaptable – while at the same time distinguishing resilience (and its focus on bouncing back from adversity) from other positive qualities such as mental toughness, grit and mental endurance.
‘Rethink’ stress: train yourself to deal with it instead of falling apart
Perceptions of stress
We know that our expectations can influence how we respond to situations. For example, a large-scale study in the US found that the perception of stress affecting our health is independently associated with an increased likelihood of poorer mental health outcomes.
High amounts of stress and the perception that stress affects our health are both associated with poor physical and mental health.
Anxiety as stress
Conversely, a German study found that people who saw anxiety as a source of energy (i.e., as a positive) were much less likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion than those who saw it as a threat or a sign of weakness (i.e., as a negative).
A change of mindset
Other research has found that when people were taught that stress could enhance their performance and contribute to personal growth this had a beneficial effect on their cortisol levels and resulted in a sharper increase in hormones that helped grow and repair the body’s tissues.
Interestingly, the expectation that our lives should always be happy may lead us to make more of the small worries and upsets that we regularly encounter in life. A 2018 study, with 1003 participants, concluded, ‘Overall [these results] suggest that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.’
Together, these studies suggest that rethinking our reactions to stressful situations can reduce our levels of stress, help us manage them, and help us bounce back from the effects of stress. In other words, we can train ourselves to react to stress in a different and better way.
Stay healthy – a healthy body can support resilience
Three different stress-reducing activities may help promote resilience:
Meditation: one study found that the positive effects on resilience of meditation over four consecutive days were apparent even three months later.
Regular physical activity appears to help protect the brain and prepare it to be more resilient, including reducing the risk of cognitive impairment. While a range of studies, including one conducted during the Covid pandemic, have found an association between regular exercise and resilience.
Sleep appears to influence resilience in adolescents, with sleep disturbance having a stronger (negative) effect on resilience. In another study, this time on US military veterans, it was shown that veterans who slept poorly had poor physical and psychological health, and a lower resilience. Conversely, however, the veterans’ resilience ‘may protect them against negative outcomes’ such as psychological stress.
Build resilience at work
Some research on resilience has focused specifically on the ways in which people handle stress in the workplace. This is important given the significant changes in the world of employment in recent years: changes such as continuing technological, economic and political change and their knock-on effects for employees.
However, reliable research findings on workplace resilience training are not always easy to find. This is because training programmes often vary in their aims, content, and conceptual background. They also often vary in how they are delivered and how long they last. Furthermore, there is no agreed ‘gold standard’ for measuring resilience, and evaluations of resilience often lack rigour. In addition, resilience training programmes are usually aimed at employees who are confronted with high levels of stress – such as police officers, members of the military, or doctors – rather than aimed at lower risk employers and managers.
When the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) reviewed the evidence for resilience training, it concluded (with a number of caveats regarding the different ways training was provided) that interventions aimed at enhancing people’s resilience have, in general, a moderate positive effect. It noted that most of the interventions it examined consisted of workshops or training. These interventions involved techniques to develop self-awareness, critical reflection, relaxation and mindfulness in combination with goal-setting, coaching and small group discussions to improve participants’ emotional self-efficacy and stress reactivity. It also noted that most of these programmes were based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The CIPD’s review correlates with a systematic review of resilience training programmes, published in 2018, which found that resilience interventions based on a combination of CBT and mindfulness techniques appear to have a positive impact on individual resilience.
CIPD also publishes an interesting and practical guide to employee resilience on its website.
The right environment
While workplace training can be useful, the way an organisation as a whole operates is arguably even more important. A 2017 review published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry defined the practical steps that organisations should take to enhance their employees’ mental health and wellbeing and help to create resilient employees:
Design work to minimise harm
Build organisational resilience through good management
Enhance personal resilience
Promote early help-seeking
Support employee recovery and return to work
Build resilience in children
The pros and cons of ‘protective factors’
Children who are resilient have been found to have strong, supportive social relationships with adults, both in their families and in their communities.
A 2017 systematic review of published research summarised the ‘protective factors’ that are associated with resilience in children. These include ‘strong attachment to family; high levels of pro-social behaviour in family, school, and community; high social skills/competence; strong moral beliefs; high levels of religiosity; positive personal disposition; positive social support, and strong family cohesion’.
However, it has also been argued that there has been a recent tendency to over-protect many young people, even if they are not at significant risk. This over-protection may (with the best of intentions) have unwittingly reduced resilience-building opportunities for children and young people.
Building children’s ‘sense of mastery’
Resilient children also possess an inner strength, high self-esteem and self-control that help them cope with stress. Some call this ‘a sense of mastery over their life circumstances’ and suggest that stress-coping skills can be learned through coaching and practice. For example, the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University reports that ‘programs that actively build skills for planning, organisation, impulse control, [and] cognitive flexibility’ can help children cope and adapt to adversity.
Children’s ‘executive function’
Other research refers to the importance of executive function for children – essentially a person’s ‘air traffic control system’ in the brain or the group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time; monitor errors; make decisions in light of available information; revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions.
Acquiring the building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities is critical. These functions can be built by ensuring a positive, non-adverse environment for children through early interventions and training in primary schools, and through other specialised practice and training.
Children have also been shown to develop executive function by getting involved in programmes and activities such as computerised training, non-computerised games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula. Central to all these is repeated practice and constantly challenging executive functions.
Important in the development of resilience in children is the balance of parental interventions. While a strong relationship is foundational to resilience, research has also shown that ‘overparenting or ‘helicopter parenting’ can actually result in poor resilience in the children.
In these cases, the child does not have the opportunity to work out how to cope with stress or how to find a sense of self-responsibility that is so important in developing resilience.
To help build resilience we can:
- Surround ourselves with caring, supportive relationships.
- Rethink the ways we react to stress, recognising that stress is an everyday part of life that we are equipped to handle and can learn from.
- Be more positive about how we see ourselves and more active in finding solutions when faced with challenges.
- Follow a healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise, enough sleep and possibly meditation.
- It is important for children to have opportunities to develop executive function and a sense of mastery so they know how to cope when facing adversity. We need to be supportive and enabling parents but need to avoid overparenting and ‘helicopter parenting’.
Jennifer Jamieson and Michael Baber, July 2022. Next review date June 2026.
Other relevant articles on the Age Watch website: