Resilience: What it is, why it’s important, and how to develop it

A guest blog post from Dr Fin Williams, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist who has worked with children and families in the NHS for over 10 years

Let’s say that tomorrow, or next week, or next month something really terrible is going to happen. Why not? Something terrible could happen to anyone of us at any time. I don’t believe that there is a single person that hasn’t experienced something as terrible.

We can’t predict or control these things, and neither should we spend our lives trying to avoid everything that could be terrible, So how do we face it with resilience? Resilience is not the capacity to face something terrible and not feel anything; to glide through it as if nothing is happening. Resilience is the ability to adapt, and grow, in the face of stress and adversity.

Why grow? Well, because it is only through experiencing and negotiating stress that we can really develop resilience: that we can have a sense of ourselves as capable, that we can transfer our previous experiences of managing stress and carry that forward to help us face the next hurdle.

I’ll even go one step further: without stress and distress, and the resilience we build by experiencing it, we can never become at ease with uncertainty. Why is that important? Well because life is uncertain, and our ability to explore – physically and emotionally: be vulnerable – is dependent on our ability to tolerate uncertainty. If we don’t experience ourselves as resilient, we can never feel confident.

This is exactly why – no matter how protective we feel – we must allow our children to experience appropriate levels of stress and frustration. So how do we develop resilience? Well here are my top tips (please feel free to comment and add your own!)

1) Don’t avoid the experience

Rubbish tip right? You wanted to know how not to feel stressed! Well bear with me: When it boils down to it, stress is just a lot of noisy worries in our head; “am I going to get everything done in time” “how will I pay for it” “what will he/she say” “maybe they don’t love me” – notice that they all share an aspect of uncertainty? The more we try to control it, and avoid it, the more stressed we tend to feel. However, If you are able to experience them as what they fundamentally are: thoughts and fears about uncertainty, then what you will notice is that after a short while they become less noisy. You will fear them less, and you will start to be able to pick the odd one out and feel calm enough to do something pragmatic about it. Anxiety is one of those feelings that we are strongly primed to get rid of – quickly. In our evolutionary history .it was our alarm system to prepare us escape being eaten by something like a Sabre-Toothed Tiger. Nowadays – without the tigers – anxiety is only helpful in small doses. So wade into the mud, sit down and get comfortable with it. Mud is good for the skin! And if you still need something to ‘do’ check

2) Remember all the things that have helped previously

Believe it or not you are already resilient. To get to where you are now, you will already have had to take decisions that are uncertain. Find your way through times that have not been easy; take certain paths that were not the easiest ones. All of these decisions, the difficulties, and experiences have made you who you are today. Very few of us actually recognize all that we’ve survived before though.
Story your life this far in chapters: They can be as long or as short as you like, but what they share is that they represent a time that came to an end when something changed – for better or worse. Within these chapters there will be high points and low point, and between each chapter, a turning point when something changed. These transitions between chapters are times of stress – times of uncertainty and change. Understand how you got through these previous stressful periods – what helped, what didn’t, and what did you learn? Write it down – these experiences are like your stress arsenal and armour. If you need more information on this – download the toolkit

3) A problem shared is a problems halved

Yep! I know you hate the saying, but your grandmother was right – she was always right. Having friends or a partner who can be alongside you, offer support and comfort – even distraction – and help you to feel as though you are less alone will help to reduce your stress levels. Research shows that our cortisol levels (our stress hormones) are lower when we are cuddled. Having someone to share your difficulties with, will help you to feel more confident that no matter what happens, there will always be people there to help and support. Think of them like your safety net, and invest in them heavily: value them.

4) Pay attention to the balance

Balance is about making sure that for everything that causes us stress, we have something else that we experience as fun or positive. You’ll be amazed at how often the thing that we abandon first when our lives get busy or stressful, is one of the most important things that will see us through: fun. Feel like a lifetime ago? Well you must find space for it again. It can be anything: sports, film, friends, bingo, karaoke?!! Think of it literally like a bank account – you can only spend in stress, what you have in fun reserve

5) Get the small things right

These are the things that we’ve been told, and which we choose to ignore – usually because it feels a bit like being nagged by our mother when we were teenagers. Eat well: Eating up to five smaller meals a day can help to maintain your blood sugar levels, which can also help to keep your mood on an even keel. Get 7-9 hours sleep: I realise I’m nagging now, but research tells us that getting the right amount of sleep helps us to feel more energetic, and more optimistic. For the new parents, and heavily pregnant mums, this may feel like the holy grail and is likely to involve changing sleeping habits, but do everything you can to try and ensure that you both get the opportunity to get a full 7-9 hours at least once or twice in the week (expressing breast milk , for someone else to do the 2-3am feed worked for me).

6) Don’t forget the perspective

Often, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees: we get so caught up in the distressing experience, that we struggle to see a solution, or a resolution. Perspectives are all about the way you look at things. It is possible to take a different perspective on your problems, by framing it another way: seeing it as an important challenge, or accepting that sometimes, certain doors close in order for us to find others to open, and even that every difficulty helps to strengthen your resilience. Don’t forget that we have a great forum of parents who are all there to support, and seek support from you – because sometimes, having a different perspective can really help you to look at, and experience things, in a different way.

My own grandmother had a saying that I used to think nonsensical, and quite frankly, gibberish. I now find it my greatest comfort, so I’m giving it to you

“This too, will pass” Irene Dexter 1920-1992. And it will.