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The Interplay between resilience and stress

What is resilience?

Have you ever noticed some people deal with difficult situations better than others?

Some people fall apart at the first hint of trouble, while others carry on despite whatever is thrown at them.

The ability to ‘bounce back’ or adapt in the face of adversity is called ‘resilience’. It’s not a talent or a gift you are born with, but something that all of us can learn and develop over time.

Characteristics of resilient people

We all have the capacity to become more resilient. The more open we are to experiencing life’s ups and downs and learning from its lessons the more resilient we become. Becoming resilient involves changing your thoughts, behaviours and actions. It involves having the courage to feel and work through your emotions as opposed to stuffing them down. It’s about learning to adapt and be flexible.

Sooner or later, all of us will have to deal with disappointment, stress, trauma, and crises. Resilient people find a way to face, feel and move through the hardship, while those who aren’t so resilient become stuck. In our personal life this can present as physical illness, social withdrawal/ relationship issues, self medication or mental illness. In the workplace its impact is evidenced by increased absenteeism, sick leave, interpersonal conflict and decreased performance. Stress is simply a signal indicating that you are under too much pressure and the way you are doing things is no longer serving you.

Resilient people are not immune to the challenges of life. They are not immune to feeling sad, angry, overwhelmed or frustrated by circumstances. Instead they look at these challenges very differently to their less resilient counterparts.

A Case study to consider resilience

 Miriam is a 44 year old town planner working in the planning department of a newly amalgamated local council. The recent merger has led to a new work location, boss and team dynamic.  During the merger employees from both councils needed to reapply for their positions and as a result two of her friends / most trusted and experienced colleagues were not re-employed. 

 The transition period proves difficult with an underestimation of workload, lack of resources, incomplete policies and procedures along with poor communication pathways between management and front-line staff. This has led to a delay in planning approvals, reduced site inspections, poor support and frustrated external customers. General public enquiries at the council front counter can be quite heated. Standards are slipping and Miriam is worried mistakes are and will be made. She feels guilty for letting the general public down.

 Meanwhile home life has not been so great. Miriam and her husband have noticed their 15 year old son is becoming increasingly isolated in his bedroom, is eating less and has withdrawn from family and friends. Upon discussing their concerns he becomes combative, yelling and swearing at them. They don’t know what to do.   

 Needless to say Miriam is feeling enormous pressure to do her job well despite what is occurring and to help her son.  In the last three weeks she is going home constantly thinking about work. She can’t stop feeling anxious and getting to sleep is proving difficult. If Miriam wakes up in the middle of the night her thoughts immediately go to her worries. To assist sleep she has started to have a couple of glasses of wine each night. Upon waking in the morning Miriam is immediately struck by the feeling of dread- she is uneasy about what the day will hold.  The way Miriam is doing things is clearly no longer working…  

  How can we help Miriam become more resilient?

 There are many ways but here are a few

  • Develop a support network — Miriam needs a safe place to vent her distress instead of bottling it inside. Seeking support from her husband, family and friends and learning to ask for help is important. Miriam needs to learn even though she might feel it; that she is not alone. A counsellor/ psychologist would benefit her- a safe place for her to be real.
  • Attend to Stinking Thinking – This is where a psychologist or counsellor becomes useful. Miriam has a lot of ‘shoulds’ in her thinking; work ‘should’ be like this and ‘should’ be like that. This only serves to feed anxiety.

Change is a normal part of life and we need to learn to accept it, not fight it. Chaos is expected in times of transition irrespective of how well it has or has not been planned. It doesn’t make some organisational behaviour right but holding on to unrealistic expectations of herself fosters distress. Changing perspective and focusing on the long-term by asking “If I live to 90 will this really matter?”, makes a difference (1).

Cognitive distortions such as black and white thinking which is stopping Miriam from effective problem solving need to be addressed. Miriam needs to learn to utilise the word “and”. For example “How do we achieve this”‘and’ “that?” This leads to more creative problem solving.

  • Effective problem solving- At present Miriam is worrying about the problems instead of focusing on creating solutions. Focusing on solutions prevents rumination-rumination feeds the stress response. Focusing on what she is doing well, what she can do and acting on it will provide her with a greater sense of control and help to foster hope.
  •  Embrace personal growth — every event, no matter how difficult offers an opportunity for personal growth, helping her to see and embrace the opportunity is important. (1)
  •  Techniques to calm herself down– Miriam needs to learn how to notice her anxiety and settle herself through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Mindfulness – Introducing mindfulness as a way to give her mind a break and restore balance is a life skill we all need. Thinking uses energy and neurotransmitters: we need to rest both our brain and body.
  • Taking care of herself– Introducing factors that protect us from stress. These include 30 minutes of daily exercise, eating healthy, good sleep hygiene and doing something kind for herself such as lighting a candle or a cheap massage. It replenishes our spirit.

In time Miriam will learn how the dynamic process of resilience alleviates stress. This learning and adaptation will assist her to face, feel and work through other difficult life circumstances that may present in the future.

Seeking Help

Sometimes life can be difficult and you may need some professional help to enable you to move forward. This is not a sign weakness: it’s a smart move to maintain your quality of life and protect you from stress that can trigger mental illness. Don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor who can refer you to an appropriate health professional or use your EAP (employee assistance program) for free counselling.

If your workplace needs assistance then don’t contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health by avoiding the matter; Open your minds to new ways of working and adopt a stress management program.

Remember, we can’t control what happens to us; but we can control how we experience and adapt to it.

This blog was a combined effort between Kim Elkovich, Carroll Doyle and Nerissa Bentley

References:

  1. American Psychological Association, The road to resilience, accessed 20 April 2016, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx