The risk of resilience

From Rowena Hardy, Minds Aligned

I hear a lot about resilience these days, particularly in the government and corporate world and in relation to communities, groups and individuals who may be doing it tough for various reasons. And I’m referring here to personal resilience.

What is resilience? One definition (from Way Ahead Mental Health Org, NSW) is “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 difficult or challenging events and more about experiencing them and coping at the time in the best way we can with whatever resources (physical, mental and emotional) we have available. And what we learn from that helps to build our resilience for future events.

The stress we experience at those times is actually beneficial to a certain extent (eustress), even though it may not feel that way, and provided it is not long-term (chronic). It helps us to move outside our comfort zone, take on something we haven’t done before and learn what we are capable of.

I see it as everyone having their own unique ‘tolerance band’ for stress and, provided we stay within that ‘band’ and not constantly at the upper limit of our tolerance, we cope with life ok. However modern life can be highly stressful with an endless stream of information, demands and extra pressure we place on ourselves and, at times, that can lead to our becoming accustomed to stress levels above our normal tolerance band. If that continues, it can seem acceptable and normal to us and others and we might appear to be coping until some extra stress or trauma is added on top. It doesn’t have to be a major event that tips us over and it can create a perfect storm of overwhelm and distress.

So I see resilience and stress being points on the same scale and my suggestion is that what may look like strength and resilience may actually be chronic stress or distress in disguise for some people, particularly if they are prone to burying their feelings or emotional response. While 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 and far from healthy.

So if you know someone who has gone through a lot, particularly if it’s over an extended period, please gently check how they really are and be prepared to pay attention to their answer. They may be doing ok, or need a conversation and a cuppa or some specialised professional help; in any case they may have been waiting for someone to ask the question.