The true meaning of resilience

Posted on 01 March 2020

The true meaning of resilience

I recently presented to a high-flying tech company on resilience and it is interesting how much the same questions come up:

  • What is resilience?
  • What is the meaning of resilience?
  • What is the definition of resilience?
  • How do you build resilience? Emotional resilience in particular?

This shows how difficult a concept resilience can be to fully grasp; but as with any concept, it is important to step back and ask why we even want to know about it…

Why do I need resilience?

Almost 1 in 100 of us suffer from work-related stress, anxiety or depression resulting in over 15million sick days in the UK. Stress is growing because we now work with global colleagues meaning our hours are no longer fixed, we move between jobs a lot more rather than having a career for life and technology means we constantly have to update how we work to keep up.

In the personal domain there are many challenges millennials face. Social media presents inspo but that same inspiration can become a source of frustration and constant comparison of oneself with an ideal reference point, leading to self-deprecation. As a second-generation UK immigrant, my parents and grandparents very much set up an incredibly sound base for me to prosper. Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they have fully taken care of my physiological and safety needs as well as love and I now look to build esteem and self-actualisation. This however should not come without an understanding and ability to look after the safety and physiological needs for myself. Unfortunately it seems much of society including millennials and gen-Z have not learned to be truly independent. Coupled with a yearning to build a sense of belonging, esteem and self-actualisation as well as the inadvertently harmful use of social media to attain them, we end up being more stressed and less capable as a generation.

Maslow

Building resilience is therefore an absolute necessity in order to cope with these stressors. Generations gone-by built this through sheer necessity but where that necessity no longer exists for our generation, we need to step up and build resilience more consciously.

What is resilience?

A concept like resilience is defined in multiple ways and the meaning of resilience needs to be thoroughly characterised in order to make the most of it.

What is the definition of resilience?

“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or stress.”

This could be in any context with any stressor: family, relationships, health, workplace or financial. Resilience is very much one’s ‘bounce-back-ability’ when faced with difficult experiences.

What is the meaning of resilience?

For many years I felt I had to be positive no matter what kind of stress I was under. The paradox there is that you can avoid addressing, understanding and overcoming your stress altogether and it manifests in other ways, including disease (it exacerbated my IBS). Being resilient is not about being able to smile while being beaten down by stress. It does not at all mean that you do not feel stress or experience difficulties.

In fact it is quite the opposite. To build emotional resilience, people face a lot of emotional distress. It is by facing and overcoming distress that people build resilience. Time and again you will come across mechanisms in the body and mind where we expose ourselves to non-overwhelming stressors and come out from the experience stronger. To get strong we lift weights that tire but do not injure us. Over time we can lift more weight. (Intermittent fasting follows a similar pattern but we’ll save that for another post.) Resilience is the same concept. Our exposure to emotional distress that is not overwhelming builds our capacity over time to face further stress. In fact a certain amount of stress enables us to perform at our best:

Screenshot 2020 02 29 at 11.33.45

The training analogy holds true even further in that resilience is not a trait that people inherit. It can be learned and developed by anyone through changing your thoughts, behaviours and actions. On first exposure to a given stressor you’ll follow the bottom Yerke-Dodson curve; it is difficult to perform at your best. When you build more resilience you work your way up the curves until, as in the top curve, you still perform optimally despite high stress exposure.

How do you build resilience?

So a this we can define resilience and understand the meaning of resilience and that it is dynamic. As exercise is to muscle, stress is to resilience. And stress is not going anywhere so we ought to get ahead of it by building resilience. So how do we actually build resilience?

There are lots of strategies you can employ. It is a good idea to approach building resilience using multiple approaches, just like how when you exercise you want to build strength, do cardio and maintain flexible, pain-free joints. Here are 6 approaches to building resilience:

  1. Build and maintain good relationships. This applies to friends and family. Actively build your sense of love, support and belonging. We tend to forget about those closest to us but we should invest in those most meaningful relationships.
  2. Keep a positive outlook. I don’t mean this in the way I described earlier where you hide from stress by maintaining a positive facade. This is about seeing a silver lining in everything. All problems are learning opportunities and they need to be embraced as such.
  3. Maintain perspective. Few problems are new. Someone, somewhere has likely been through what you are going through and has come out the other side. Moreover there are people who face more distress than you in every moment. This is not meant to make you feel guilty; but rather empower you in understanding that people can and do get through the same and greater stress.
  4. Love yourself. Not Justin Bieber style. This is about nurturing a positive self-image. In order to be successful people are often very self-critical. Self-criticism definitely helps you to understand how you can improve but when taken too far it can be detrimental. Acknowledge your successes daily, however small, and try telling yourself ‘I love you’ every time you look in the mirror.
  5. Recharge your batteries. Rest is as important as work in order to be optimally productive. You need to have a healthy pattern of work, rest and play in order to be able to perform consistently. However you plan your days or weeks, factor in down time.
  6. Find your stress-coping tool(s). Everyone needs one. There are a plethora of options out there. Meditation, mindfulness, music, walking, dancing, counseling, breathing exercises. The list goes on. Try them out and see which works for you. When you find one you love, do it daily. Why? Because we face stress every day.

For those of you who prefer slides see the deck below. It even includes a form that you can use to build your own personalised resilience plan!


Dr Dilraj Kalsi uses Lifestyle Medicine and Digital Health to empower patients to reverse disease via his online clinic Hippocrates Lounge. He is a Lecturer in Digital Health at the University of Warwick and publishes regularly on patient empowerment with colleagues from Oxford University. For all his latest health tips straight to your inbox, sign up here!