RESILIENCE – just another annoying buzz word or something more?

by Bernadette Healy
bernadettes blog<

Resiliencei refers not to a specific characteristic or trait but rather to a process or approach towards overcoming the obstacles faced in everyday life. Resilience is measured on a continuum. A strongly resilient approach is characterized by flexibility and perseverance, particularly with regard to thinking about adversity.

In the field of psychology, thinking styles are generally discussed within a cognitive behavioural model. Cognitive behavioural models are characterized by the assumption that our thoughts can and do influence our emotions and behaviours. Learning to understand and recognize unhelpful patterns in our thinking potentially enables us to re-learn and create new, more functional patterns.

You can increase your level of resilience by learning and then practising new ways of thinking about difficult situations. As you practice you will create new neural connections – and in doing so you will be demonstrating neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the term for the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections.ii Developing resilience is an example of such plasticity.

Reivich and Shatte (2002) describe resilience as being made up of a number of key competencies or skills, some of which we tend to be competent in but not all, though we can develop competency. The competencies they describe are:

  • Reflecting on your thinking style and where it fits in terms of common combinations of beliefs and consequences
  • Learning to recognize and question common faulty thinking in yourself
  • Being aware of when your reaction is out of proportion to the situation and then taking the time to analyse what is going on for you and to identify the core belief which is perceived to be under threat thereby causing the overreaction
  • Being prepared to question your beliefs and review them for relevance and currency
  • Developing relaxation and focusing or mindfulness skills to help reduce anxiety, encourage clearer thinking and increase the likelihood of your being able to catch yourself in the process of reacting and in choosing an alternative response

A resilient approach involves the conscious choice of an adaptive response for a given adverse situation. The concept of adaptive choice is critical and can be contrasted with the more typical response which is to react to adverse situations in an habitual manner as developed via early learning within our families of origin (the family within which you grew up). The family of origin is the context in which your core beliefs about yourself were learnt (underlying beliefs about acceptance, achievement and control are particularly significant). This early learning includes all the oughts, shoulds and musts, or rules for living. Exploring these beliefs, questioning / de-bunking /re-committing to a select few, are a common part of counselling work.

Reivich and Shatte suggest that core beliefs lead to consequences or predictable emotions and behaviours that follow the belief, that is, the likely reaction you will be feeling / having in response to the belief. They describe 5 core sets of belief/ consequences/connections (called B-C connections):

  1. Belief → Violation of your rights → consequence → anger
  2. Belief → Real world loss or loss of self worth → consequence → sadness, depression
  3. Belief → Violation of another’s rights → consequence → guilt (sometimes shame)
  4. Belief → Future threat → consequence → anxiety or fear
  5. Belief → Negative comparison to others → consequence → embarrassment

The consequent emotions above together with accompanying sensations and behaviour are typically counter-productive to successful problem resolution, being primarily motivated by a desire to alleviate the negative sensation and heightened arousal resulting from the perceived threat to ones core beliefs – i.e. we react to make ourselves feel better.

Increasing your resilience requires effort in untangling your particular B-Connections. It also includes avoiding common thinking trapsiii such as:

  • Overgeneralising (I was ineffective in that client meeting today, I will never be effective in client meetings)
  • Catastrophizing (My heart is racing, I am going to die)
  • Mind-reading (He thinks it is my fault)
  • Fortune telling (No-one will ever love me)
  • Discounting the positive / tunnel vision (Anyone could do that, it was nothing)
  • All or nothing thinking (If I don’t get x billable hours I am a failure as a lawyer) and
  • Personalizing (They are angry i must have done something wrong)

You can’t control what adverse situations will occur but you can control your response to that situation. To increase your resilience in dealing with adversity,

  • begin with your own experience
  • reflect on a sample of past situations
  • consider what sorts of consequences / beliefs connections and faulty thinking you may be caught in
  • practise awareness in the moment, that is, as you are facing a difficult situation and
  • find out about how relaxation and mindfulness techniques can assist you to observe your thoughts coming and going without becoming caught up in them.

i   The topic of resilience is part of the domain of positive (and popular psychology). It has been around for over 20 years and was first developed within the field of child psychology.

ii    A large body of research exists which supports the hypothesis that the brain is capable of displaying neural plasticity across the lifespan. Some very interesting work has been done on neuroplasticity as it relates to children’s development and the relationship between what is happening within the family context and the development of the mind and including the important role of relationships in the brain’s development. See refs: Daniel Siegal.)

iii   Common thinking traps were originally identified by Aaron Beck (father of cognitive therapy) and described as risk factors for depression.

Cayoun, B. A. (2011). Mindfulness-integrated CBT: Principles and practice. West Sussex, UK.: John Wiley and Sons.
Reivich, K. & Dr A. Shatte (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: 3 Rivers Press.
Simmons, J. & R. Griffiths (2009). CBT for beginners. London: Sage publications Ltd.
Siegel, D.J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W.W. Norton.
Siegel, D.J. (2000). Interview with Cynthia Levin, Mental Health Net October 1st 2000