Building resilience to help navigate life's challenges
In an increasingly turbulent world - politically, economically, and socially - the value of resilience has never been more apparent. Being able to withstand trauma and come through the other side regulated and grounded is a skill many of us wish to possess. Resilience training has become quite the buzzword in big-city corporations that want to keep their workers as far away from burnout as possible. And, although we would like to think this is from a compassionate standpoint, more often than not its reason is to do with efficiency.
However, they are right in a way. The less resilient we are, the less efficient we are. We get knocked over by life's challenges more easily and it takes us longer to get back up and regain our forward trajectory. So, of course, it makes sense to foster high levels of resilience. But is it as easy as we make it out to be? What really is resilience, and how can we work with clients to cultivate their own?
Charney and Southwick (2018) have conducted in-depth research with people who have been through traumatic life experiences. Prisoners of war, military personnel and holocaust survivors to name a few. Through their research, they identified 10 factors which they said predicted whether a person would have post-traumatic growth and resilience. In this article, I will be looking at these and understanding how we can translate them into our work with clients.
10 factors that can shape resilience
1. Confronting fear
Individuals with high levels of resilience stood firm in the face of fear. Rather than avoiding challenges or problems, they confront them directly. This is similar to when we ask our clients to be with the emotions of an event, rather than bringing in internal or external mechanisms to avoid or numb the fear.
2. Maintaining an optimistic outlook
Regardless of the circumstances, resilient individuals choose to adopt an optimistic view of other people, the world, and the future. This connects to many practices within counselling, for example, gratitude, or trying to take off the 'negativity goggles' that cognitive behavioural therapy talks about. Sometimes the simple act of reframing our cognitive outlook can then have a chain reaction with our emotions and behaviours too.
3. Seeking social support
Resilient individuals understand the importance of community. They actively seek support from others in both personal and professional realms. The connections they foster provide crucial foundations for resilience. With clients, and ourselves, sometimes it is important to ask who our support system is, and how could we lean on them if needed?
4. Imitation of role models
People who show high resilience tend to have role models in their lives who have successfully navigated their own challenges. This links to the ideas of attachment theory. If we were demonstrated resilience by our caregivers, this gives us a roadmap for when we need it in the future. Maybe it could be useful seeing if our clients can connect with a figure they see as having high resilience, whether that be real life or fictional, and understanding the qualities this figure possesses.
5. Inner moral compass
A resilient person's decision-making is grounded in a set of moral values. These provide a framework for navigating difficult choices and setting future goals. Maybe our client has lost sight of what these are for them? How can we help them re-navigate to align with this moral compass?
6. Embracing spiritual or religious practice
Believing in something greater than oneself is a common characteristic of resilient individuals. It can provide a sense of purpose and meaning, and offer solace in the face of life's inevitable challenges.
7. Accepting what cannot be changed
I believe it was Irvin Yalom who said, "Sometimes I simply remind my patients that sooner or later they will have to relinquish the goal of having a better past." Rather than dwelling on what has happened, resilient individuals focus on where they can make positive change. Therapists can guide clients towards mindfulness and present experiences, mitigating unnecessary suffering.
A recognition of the importance of holistic well-being. Tending to the mind, body and soul, and understanding that a healthy body and mind are essential if we are to navigate life's challenges. Promoting self-care behaviours with clients is critical in all aspects of therapeutic work.
Resilient individuals possess the ability to find meaning from the negative experiences in their lives. Viewing them as opportunities for growth, learning, and improvement. As the therapist, our role can often be to offer up these different perspectives and help our client see things from a different angle.
10. Personal responsibility
As with anything in life, it is important to recognise the part we play in what happens to us. Resilient individuals acknowledge their personal responsibility for emotional well-being. Igniting a sense of agency in our own clients that self-care is a choice only they can make; they may not have a power over what happens to them but they do have an ability to change how they react.
Throughout the rich experiences of life, resilience emerges as a constant thread. The protective factors explained above shine a light on the complex systems which underlie an individuals natural resilience. As therapists, we can help our clients reconnect with these different domains, and rebuild a resilience framework unique to their experiences. This will allow them to continue to move through life and remain steady in the face of any adversity they may come across.
Southwick, S.M. and Charney, D.S., 2018. Resilience: The science of mastering life's greatest challenges. Cambridge University Press.