What is Resilience?

The American Psychological Association in 2014 defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant source of stress. You can think about resilience as an individual-based trait, something you might have more or less of. You can think about it as a process that you cultivate to be more resilient in the face of stress.

Or you could think about it as an outcome, like how are you more resilient at a particular hard time at work. Resilience varies across contexts. It can change over time. We always have to be working at cultivating out resilience.

George Bonnano at Teacher’s College in Columbia University, the world’s leading scholar on resilience studied traumas of different kinds, when you lose a spouse in the middle of life, you have problematic health outcome, even sexual abuse, and he found that 30% to 60% people are resilient through the course of the trauma. We have an inborn tendency to respond with resilience. Some people show traumatic effect enduring over time. Other people fluctuate. But we have this strong capacity to handle stress with the strength of resilience.

Parasympathetic autonomic nervous system is the antithesis of sympathetic nervous system and stress. So when your body is calming and the vagus nerve is active, and your breathing deeply, you are in a resilient physiological state. You can think about resilience in the form of patterns of thought that you’re directing to yourself. Do you have kind of an approach orientation or an efficacious orientation in the mind as a pattern of resilience? You could think about it in terms of are you really problem focused. And there’s a lot of nice work showing in the face of stress or trauma resilient people tend to think about solving the problems, thinking about paths of action that get them to solutions beyond their stress. You could think about it in terms of are you willing to extend out to others to signal the need for social support to connect to others. Time and time again in the literature on resilience, one of the great sources and manifestations of resilience is just being connected to people who will empower you.

So if you have elevated vagal tone, a higher pattern of activation of the vagus nerve, it’s easier to handle stress studies show. We know that your deep past, if you were fortunate enough to be raised in a trusting, secure family environment, you are more resilient. We know that education matters. Getting a lot of education teaches you certain cognitive tools to be resilient. We know that life experience matters. And there’s a lot of really important work now looking at early traumas in kids. And if you’re subject to violence or mental illness in parents or incarceration, that’s going to diminish your capacity for resilience. Economic resources matter. Poverty impoverishes people’s capacity for resilience.

What are the daily thoughts, the emotional patterns, the social behaviours on a daily basis that you can cultivate that’ll enable you to handle stress better and fit this profile of resilience. Are you engaging in self-awareness? Are you thinking about authentic communication with others? Are you tracking the emotions of other people? Are you thinking about more complex cognitive strategies where you might reinterpret or reappraise traumas or stresses in your environment– the coercive boss, the bully at work, and so on? Are you finding ways to connect to others that give you that really strong sense of social support?

Resilience at work is just kind of robustly, gracefully, powerfully handling the adversities that are part of work and recovering from setbacks or tough feedback or rejections or conflicts that are just inherent to work. It’s handling the stresses of work with grace and equanimity even and ease. Resilience is not accepting or acquiescing to unreasonable demands. It is not enduring harassment or bullying at work. It is not being exploited by a coercive boss. It is not chronically accepting not being paid fair wages. It is not about handling people who are chronically adversarial in your teams or your workplaces. Those are different kinds of conditions that require different solutions than resilience, which is really about gracefully handling the fluctuating stresses and difficulties and conflicts at work.

If the body is in this more high vagal-toned state and that is absolutely the opposite of a stressed state or trauma state, we can do things that cultivate the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve activation, things like breathing, social connection, taking time outside, and so forth. If we know that the opposite of stress and complexity and conflict is strong social relationships at work, we should be able to cultivate strong ties at work to cultivate resilience.

This really sets the stage for thinking about mindfulness, which is that, if we know that certain patterns of thinking lead to stress, self-criticism, shaming, thinking in a pessimistic way about your future, thinking that things are hopeless, not envisioning paths of action–those are all patterns of thought that lead to stress.

Let’s cultivate other patterns of thought, mental habits, patterns of emotion, patterns of gratitude– that will really cultivate resilience. Mindfulness is kind of the way in which you calm your body and you calm your mind and you no longer judge the contents of your mind and really start to cultivate patterns of thought and reacting in social connecting that really cultivate resilience at work.