Resilience is a very commonly used term, but it is a concept that is understood differently by different people.

Some people talk about resilience as a skill people can learn to be more hardy or mentally tough.  Others focus on resilience as the ability to bounce back after a stressful event, with resilience development supporting people to cope with stress more successfully. While others, perhaps cynically, sometimes suggest that resilience is a concept that people use to try to get others to do more with less resources… for example, a more resilient person or organisation can get through this challenge… 

While there are elements of truth in all these perspectives, its sometimes useful to look back to the original psychology behind a term like resilience. 

In order to begin to understand how to build and manage resilience from a more psychological point of view requires us to understand our relationship to stress.  In fact, understanding the relationship between stress and resilience is an integral skill for anyone involved in health and social care.

What we individually see as “stressful” is related to how we evaluate and make sense of a situation. Not everyone gets stressed by the same things. Different people make sense of different experiences in different ways, and as a result the way we experience stress varies greatly.  We all know some people who are massively stressed out by things which we find easy, and similarly, there are no doubt stressors that you individually face which other people thrive on. 

Therefore, at the core of our understanding of stress needs to be an appreciation of the way that an individual perceives and appraises an event, that is, do they see it as stressful?  In this way, stress could be defined as our response to the situations that threaten or challenge us to the point that we feel we are required to make some kind of adjustment, either physically, mentally or emotionally. 

Psychologists have shown that there are 2 questions that we ask ourselves when we meet a new stressor: 

  1. Is this new event or situation a threat or stress to my current reality?
  2. Do I have the capacity to manage or cope with the perceived demands of this new event or situation?

Effectively, if we see the stressor as requiring more of the inner or outer resources than we have at the moment – then we conclude it is stressful.  So in this sense, stress involves a real or perceived discrepancy between the demands of a situation and the resources we feel we have to deal with it.

It is important to say that this is not necessarily a conscious process.  Rather, we make these assessments or appraisals all the time, often automatically or unconsciously.  Further, we are usually making many of these assessments at any one time as we navigate through our busy lives, taking care of the mundane and the urgent, planning for the future, and balancing our responsibilities at work with those we have at home. 

We process things very quickly, often without really thinking about it.  Therefore, the processes we use to appraise the demands or a situation and of our ability to manage it is very likely to contain many of our usual biases and patterns.  If someone is making lots of situational appraisals where they (consciously or unconsciously) experience a gap between the requirement of the situation and their perception of their resources to handle it, they are very likely to feel stressed or under pressure.

The issue is that all of these conscious and unconscious assessments and appraisals of what is stressful and what is not, and what do we believe we have the capacity to cope with and what do we not, can add up.  There can be a resulting sense of discrepancy between the general requirements of the situations we find ourselves in and our general ability or resources to manage what we believe is required of us to cope, and this is what can impact our overall sense of resilience.  It is very important again to make clear that all this is entirely normal.  We all have times when our perception of the demands being asked of us are in excess of our perception of our ability to cope.

One very simple, but highly effective, step in building resilience is learning how to bring more “consciousness” to the appraisal process.  This effectively means slowing down our assessment of the demands of a situation, and our assessment of our resources and abilities to manage it, thereby disrupting some of the biases and patterns that we might unconsciously be exposed to.

Questions that we have found to help people slow down their automatic appraisals and bring more consciousness to how they engage with stressful situations, include:

  • What do I notice about my immediate response to this situation/task?
  • When have I experienced this kind of challenge before?
  • What of this is really within my control?
  • How quickly have I jumped to thinking I have to take action?
  • What internal pressures do I feel (e.g., the need for pace) and what else is evoked in me?
  • If I take a step back, how do I appraise the demands of this situation?
  • How might someone else look at this situation?
  • What process could I use to appraise my ability to manage the situation?
  • When have I face something like this before and what could I learn from that?
  • What cognitive strategies could I use to address this?
  • What emotional strategies could I use to address this?
  • What/who are the resources I can draw upon?

Stress is a complex psychological process, and managing how “stressed” we feel is a very important part of it.  Slowing down how we appraise a situation can be a proactive process, supported by taking the time to ask ourselves some questions and create space for the answers to emerge.  Asking these questions won’t necessarily change the situation, but they might just support you to change your relationship to it.

Please do contact us if you have any comments or questions.