You can’t be resilient on your own

Healthcare staff knew in no time hospitals into corona centers to receive all extra patients.

Bermix Studio via Unsplash

The metaphor is nicely found. Put pressure on a coil spring and it springs in. Release the pressure and it will spring back to its original shape with force. We therefore call people, but also families, communities or natural areas that have the ability to bounce back after adversity, ‘resilient’.

During the corona crisis, we saw healthcare staff as an example of human resilience: they responded to all the extra patients and measures in no time. Or think of catering entrepreneurs who came up with creative solutions to keep their business running. All kinds of tips did the rounds to train your own resilience, because not everyone turned out to be equally resilient to pressure and stress. For many, the crisis was primarily a time of anxiety or gloom.

What exactly is resilience and how do you develop it? That is immediately the wrong question, according to Joachim Duyndam, professor of humanism and philosophy at the University of Humanistics in Utrecht. The ‘what is’ question always focuses on things with properties. Even when it comes to people. We tend to see resilience as an individual characteristic that someone has to a greater or lesser extent, just like perseverance, decisiveness, flexibility or modesty. Wrong thinking.

Strong group culture

Since the beginning of this century, psychologists have been researching resilience, resilience in English, after they noticed something in youth care. Some children who go through miserable things, such as abuse, poverty or violence, come out very well, while other children never really get over similar traumas. The difference is then called ‘resilience’.

“Nice to know it’s there, but how do you explain it?” Duyndam responds. “I find that question much more interesting.” He has been researching resilience for years and knows one thing for sure: it is ‘something’ that occurs in social networks. A child is not just an individual, but has a social network; a supportive teacher, an aunt who visits often, friends.

“In my view, resilience is a social phenomenon. As a researcher, you only find it if you take a step back and look at groups of people.” He cites the fire service as an example, which is being researched by a PhD student from his group. “Sometimes someone dies, for example when the fire service has not been able to get a victim out of a burning house. Firefighters can suffer from this, some more than others. Due to the strong group culture in which they receive and support each other, they overcome such events as a team.”

Such a small group in which people depend on each other and support each other is called a ‘social ecology’. That could be a school class where someone is being bullied. If the class solves the problem without scapegoating, cohesion will be restored. The class can come out stronger after bullying. Sometimes it fails. Then a class is just a social connection without cohesion, unable to show resilience. Duyndam: “You could say that people have individual resilience, but they always derive that from their social ecology.”

Happy about resilience

Scientists become extra interested in resilience when bad things happen. Take 9/11, the economic crisis of 2008 and now corona. Logical, resilience only becomes visible in the event of setbacks.

Training your own resilience was already a popular idea before the virus outbreak. We lead stressful lives full of performance pressure at work and beyond. The word is regularly used in training courses and workshops for professionals who want to work on themselves. Duyndam: “Resilience is terrible in fashion. It is a container concept in which everyone puts something fun.”

Let’s all get resilient! Usually people are very happy about it, according to organizational psychologist Richta IJntema of Utrecht University. “But it is an illusion to think that we are resilient to everything.”

With every job you have recurring stress that is part of your profession, you can indeed get training for that, she agrees. Take top athletes. They receive training to withstand nasty comments in the media or from competitors. A top athlete can handle this specific stressful situation well. Another environment, such as a hospital, an open-plan office or a war zone, has very different stressful events. A top athlete with his mental resilience training is not prepared for that. “You have to look at each event,” says IJntema. “Every time a new stressful situation comes your way, your resilience is tested again. It is never finished.”

IJntema: “Corona has thrown our psychological balance into disarray. Who would have thought that a virus outbreak would strike here?”

IJntema obtained her doctorate last year for research into psychological resilience. She also thinks that we look at it too individualized. In her view, resilience is a process that is always in flux. Things come your way, often from the outside, without you having any control over it, such as the corona measures. What does such a curfew do to you mentally? Are you out of balance?

“Everyone develops an image of the world, people and themselves on the basis of their life experience. Covid has upset our psychological balance. Who would have ever thought such a virus outbreak would strike here? If you are someone with many fundamental assumptions, such as ‘I will never be fired, because I have a permanent job’, you are likely to be very upset if it does happen. That is where your resilience lies, in how you adapt your world and self-image to change.”

What you can do yourself

Being able to give meaning to events is a source of resilience, says philosopher Duyndam. But something like ‘giving a place’ to the corona crisis is not yet easy. “All those talk shows in corona time… Endless chatter where everyone from the same bubble talks after each other. We are guided by what others say, think and think, and we find it difficult to resist.”

The cure? Find a role model you respect. Not to imitate or imitate them exactly, but as inspiration for your own behaviour. Duyndam: “In this way you take back control to explain what is happening in society and your own role in it.” Those who judge independently instead of thoughtlessly imitating others are resilient.

IJntema thinks in terms of ‘resources’. In addition to help from others, you can also find those resources within yourself. It’s about things like belief in one’s own abilities, self-confidence, feeling competent. Although it can take years to develop those characteristics. For example, young people who are just starting a job do not feel competent yet.

A gratitude journal can help you be more optimistic in life.

Your self-image is somewhat trainable, according to the psychologist. Right now, the gratitude journal, as you see it in bookstores, can help you become more optimistic. You write down daily what you are grateful for, even if the world around you is a mess. The first crocuses to appear, a coffee date with a colleague, cups from your cat. With a gratitude diary you pay attention to positive feelings and that is good for your mental well-being, shows research from the University of Twente. It makes you more resilient.

Will we all come out of the crisis stronger in the end? IJntema can be brief about it: no. “A characteristic of a crisis is that it comes with wounds and damage.” Thinking that after corona everything is cake and egg again is not realistic. “Look at the world,” she advises. “Changes follow each other quickly. We now know that a virus pandemic can happen to us. Maybe next time it’s a cyber attack that paralyzes the world. Adjust your world view accordingly. We cannot mentally prepare for everything. The realization that we are vulnerable is also resilience.”

Sources:

  • Joachim Duyndam, Resilience, a contribution to theory development, Geron. Online op 21 oktober 2016. “doi.org/10.1007/s40718-016-0076-0:”https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40718-016-0076-0#article-info
  • Richta IJntema e.a., Psychological resilience mechanisms at work: The psychological immunity-psychological elasticity (PI-PE) model of psychological resilience, Current Psychology. Online on May 9, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-021-01813-5
  • Ernst T. Bohlmeijer e.a., Promoting Gratitude as a Resource for Sustainable Mental Health: Results of a 3-Armed Randomized Controlled Trial up to 6 Months Follow-up, Journal of Happiness Studies. Online May 7, 2020. doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00261-5

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