Real resilience is about adaptability and community, not individual strength

Dr Pete SeamanA guest post from Dr Pete Seaman of Glasgow Centre for Population Health

There is a growing recognition that resilience is an important component of health and wellbeing. Critics rightly point out that this trend coincides with a period of austerity, which affects the worst off most severely. Some ask whether resilience is really about transferring responsibility for the consequences of an unequal society onto those who fail to thrive.

The critics should not be ignored, but let’s recognise the appropriateness of the resilience perspective. Many health problems showing continued increase are ‘social’  rather than ‘physical’ disease conditions which require new responses. Mental health issues, addictions and inequalities are stubborn to standard ways of dealing with challenges. Every individual experiences these differently and they are harder to treat. Building resilience is part of this new approach.

With an ageing population, climate change and increasing technological interdependence, we become less able to predict the what, when and whom of our next crisis. Our existing models: understanding problems, predicting where and who will be affected and acting to reduce their impact, will not work as well as they did.

Resilience is about helping people deal with change before we even know what their next challenge will be.

Over the last 30 years, evidence from many studies suggests we should not see resilience as a quality possessed by individuals in isolation. The personal characteristics of resilient people are those that make them sociable, helpful and able to ask for help. Empathy, compassion and the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives are as important as being able to plan for the future and faith in your own abilities.

We learn these sociable qualities within strong, supportive social networks: from our parents, families, friends and key adults, like teachers or social workers. A resilient individual never learns to be resilient alone.  Qualities of resilience can never be possessed by a single individual. They are possessed by the community and can support individuals who know how to access help.

Key to resilience is a strong sense of self, a support network and an ability to pursue your core values and a sense of who you are when circumstances change. We need a story of who we are and what is important to us to act as a compass.

This is very different from the original understanding of resilience in physical objects, where, resiliency was the ability of a substance to return to its original state after being subjected to stress and pressure. In humans, resilience is more about adaptability than withstanding force. Clinging to old ways of being in circumstances where they are inappropriate actually makes us more vulnerable.

This is true for bereavement or relationship breakdown, unemployment or loss of capabilities as we age. All involve finding new roles in new circumstances. The old circumstances can never be recreated;  we have to find new ways of thriving in light of new opportunities.

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