Rethink resilience and flourish in difficult times


There is a popular concept used to describe resilience – bouncing back. There are lots of resources out there that will teach you how to cope after a setback and “bounce back”. This approach can certainly work for life’s minor ups and downs – like recently when I crashed my car. Fortunately, I was not injured but the car was a write off and I felt quite shaken up. I felt low for a few days but once my coping skills kicked in, I bounced back.

When it comes to life’s bigger challenges, however, I find the concept of bouncing back both uninspiring and unhelpful.  Whether it’s a broken relationship, a major health issue, a bereavement – or a world-wide pandemic – bouncing back simply might not be enough, no matter how good your coping skills are.

We need to take the concept of resilience much further in the face of the disruption, adversity and uncertainty that has become normal in today’s world. Rather than just coping when disaster hits, we need to be prepared – both literally and psychologically. Preparation helps us not only to adapt, but to flourish in difficult times.

In fact, when I think about the most difficult challenges I’ve faced in my life, I didn’t want to just bounce back to where I was before. I wanted to learn and grow from the experience, so that I could be a different me, a more resilient me, when my next big challenge came along. Adversity gives me a precious opportunity to grow. Imagine you have just been through a traumatic experience? Is it possible to simply bounce back? As if everything is ok, or the event never really happened? What about if your home is burnt to the ground in a bushfire, or you lose both your legs in a car crash? Now resilience doesn’t seem so easy. Being resilient is going to require you to adapt and change.

When I think about the most difficult challenges I’ve faced in my life, I didn’t want to just bounce back to where I was before. I wanted to learn and grow from the experience, so that I could be a different me, a more resilient me, when my next big challenge came along.

Dealing with the reality of climate change is a timely example. Do we just wait for the sea levels to rise or the flood waters to hit? Or is there some preparation we can do such as building sea defences, or improving road drainage to prevent flooding? This is adaptation. It helps, but only up to a point, because the extreme weather events are going to keep coming, in more and more dramatic and unexpected ways.

Adaptation only provides us with a medium-term fix. The changes don’t go deep enough or have a long-lasting impact to really make a difference. To address climate change we are going to need deep and lasting changes in the way we live on the planet.

Transforming Resilience

Ultimately, what is needed is a more radical form of resilience, that offers coping strategies before, during and after the event, adaptation to prepare for the future, as well as the deeper changes and longer-term impact that come from learning and growing in adversity.

This type of resilience is informed by lessons from Post-Traumatic Growth research which has found that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward (Tedeschi et al., 2018). Deep and lasting change is possible when your core beliefs are fundamentally changed, your life narratives and goals are re-written, and a new outlook on life is formed. But I am not suggesting a long and costly course of psychotherapy will be necessary to experience the benefits of transformational resilience.  Sometimes therapy may be needed, but maybe less often than people think. 

Bob Doppelt (2017) has written and excellent book on the transformational approach to resilience which I am describing. In doing so he aims to help people prepare psychologically for the impact of climate change. We’ve reached the point where transformational resilience is needed to face the impacts of climate change as we are seeing epidemic rates of climate distress – especially in young people.

My approach to resilience is based on Bob Doppelt’s work.  Transforming resilience involves greatly increasing our capacity for resilience by moving from coping, through adaption to flourishing. This is where our resilience has both a short and long-term impact, where we can adapt in preparation for future challenges, and we can experience deep growth that has a lasting impact on resilience to face our current and future life challenges.

Flourishing in a pandemic

Have you flourished in the COVID-19 pandemic? I’ve found it challenging as I’m in Melbourne which we now know has been the most locked down city in the world. There have been some positives for some people (I’ve loved working at home), but when I survey my friends, family and clients, there has been a real mix of experiences and capacity for resilience.

My introverted sister loved being a hermit in the first lock-down but she was not doing so well by the time our 6th lockdown came around.  Alcohol consumption, social isolation, and domestic violence are all up, a sign that many have not coped at all well with lockdown.  

While Australian home owners have enjoyed middle-class welfare in the form of grants for their home renovation projects, for many people in our community, and all around the world, COVID-19 has been completely devastating. If you were not able to work for most of the last 18 months, and fell outside the arbitrary rules of the welfare safety net, you may have had to queue at the food bank just to get enough to eat.

Many people have not even coped, let alone adapted or flourished, since the pandemic hit. In fact, researchers have found that our brains have rewired in response to the adversity of the pandemic (Vatansever, Wang, Sahakian, 2021).

Despite this, it was remarkable to see so many acts of kindness in our community. From children doing chalk art to remind us to stay positive, to the generosity of people delivering food parcels to locked-down residents in the public housing towers in Flemington, and nurses and doctors doing long shifts in COVID wards in full PPE, there has been no shortage of kindness and courage.

During this time our governments have sometimes disappointed us but sometimes they surprised us. In the first long lockdown in Melbourne in 2020, the problem of homeless people sleeping rough was solved overnight with rough sleepers being put in empty hotel rooms. Sadly, time ran out on that initiative and the rough sleepers are now back on the street.  Why? Because when a change is made as a reaction to a situation after the event, the change is very likely to be short-lived. If you’re a rough sleeper, you’ve actually “bounced back” to your previous situation – sleeping rough.

When a change is made as a reaction to a situation after the event, the change is very likely to be short-lived.

Learning what resilience really is – not simply bouncing back, but transformational resilience that involves deep and lasting change – will take you from barely coping (or not coping at all depending on the adversity of your situation) to adapting and even thriving with whatever challenges you face.

In my Transforming Resilience Program, I teach six strategies for transforming resilience and bringing about lasting change that will help you to thrive in a disrupted and uncertain world: self-care, mindfulness, gratitude, empathy, courage and purpose.

Watch for my Blog articles on these six strategies – coming to the Growing Edge Blog soon.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Transforming Resilience Program helps participants make deep and lasting change by learning what resilience really is and how to put it into practice.  To find out more, contact Maria.

References:

Doppelt, B. (2017). Transformational Resilience: How Building Human Resilience to Climate Disruption Can Safeguard Society and Increase Wellbeing. Taylor & Francis, New York.

Tedeschi, R., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K. & Calhoun, L. (2018). Posttraumatic growth: Theory, Research, and Applications.

Vatansever, D., Wang, S. & Sahakian, B.J. (2021). Covid-19 and promising solutions to combat symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Neuropsychopharmacol. 46217–218.

© Maria Brett, 2021