Resilience

Wednesday February 9, 2022

Resilience in mental health can take many forms, we can think of it as fortitude that can be applied to a person’s mental health and wellbeing. Resilience can be thought of as a capacity to withstand events. A useful way to think of this is to compare people to balloons. If I take a balloon and keep blowing air into it, eventually the balloon will burst at the point where it is most vulnerable. People can be thought of as balloons too, if I take a person and instead of blowing air, i keep adding levels of stress and complexity into their life, eventually that person will burst at the point where they are most vulnerable.

This will look different for every individual, they may develop a physical illness or pain condition. Or, they may become depressed or even develop a mental illness. Resilience does not mean taking on everything that comes along, no single person can cope with limitless challenges.

Resilience also means how well a person can adapt to challenges they may face in their lives. We all face stress and adversity and how well we can face those challenges is hugely impacted by the person’s previous life experiences. If a person has experienced trauma then this can affect how they may react to those challenges in the moment. They may have reactions that seem ‘too much’ and this will come from a survival instinct.

It is also important to recognise that we have all been through challenging and complex times in our lives and we have endured, this is resilience. Accounting for this and celebrating our resilient achievements can help improve our capacity for resilience going forwards.

When we think about mental health and wellbeing, resilience can also refer to a person’s ability to know when they need to take care of themselves, or to notice when life may be inflating their balloon too much. We can develop an awareness to pay attention, notice and then choose to actively care for ourselves at such times. Some useful concepts to help with this are;

Listening to our bodies – Culturally we are taught to ignore our bodies. What do we do if we get a headache? Reach for paracetamol? Rarely do we question ‘Why do I have this headache? What is my body trying to tell me right now?’ Developing unpleasant or unusual physical symptoms maybe our bodies attempting to indicate that our capacity for resilience is being stretched.

Mindful awareness – We can think of mindfulness as a muscle that can be strengthened. Mindfulness can be active practice, this is where a person will sit and pay attention to the world as it is in that moment. They will try and focus on the present and if their mind wanders, bring it back to that moment. Mindfulness can also be practiced by doing everyday activities with a focus on the here and now sensory experience, such as driving or eating.

Self-care plan – We can take time to think about how to take care of ourselves before it is needed. Identifying how much stress and resilience we may have at different times, or how much air is in our balloons, means we may need different levels of self-care at any one time. When a person is mildly stressed it may be helpful for them to take a walk, however, this may not work if their balloon is too full. During such a time they may need to reach out to someone in their support network.

We can also think about boundaries and how they factor into resilience. Knowing when and how to say no is both a form of resilience and will help to make sure that there is not too much air being blown into our balloon. Setting boundaries often involves saying no and recognising our own needs, this can be very difficult if we have a tendency to ‘people please’ and can be a goal to work on in counselling and psychotherapy.

A useful way of ‘summing up’ the different components of resilience and how they may affect us is to picture a reservoir. This is your resilience reservoir, now think about the size of it, how wide is it? How deep? The water in the reservoir is your resilience, your ability to cope, to adapt, to set boundaries, and to care for yourself. Now, how much water is in the reservoir? If you find it difficult to answer this it may be useful to ask yourself ‘Where am I at right now? What is my body telling me at this moment?’

Think of situations you may face that will drain this reservoir, try and picture how much water those situations will need. What happens when your reservoir starts to run dry? It may be that you start to exhibit symptoms, these could include:

  • Changes in your sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches
  • Feeling more tired
  • Feeling low in mood or depressed
  • Feeling anxious
  • Not taking pleasure in things that would normally bring pleasure

When picturing our resilience in this way, it is important to know how we can fill up the water level. These may be things from your self-care plan. Also, it is important to not wait until the water is dry in your reservoir before taking action. Checking in regularly with where your water level is at means we are able to take action earlier to replenish the water and experience a healthier equilibrium overall.

This blog was written by Jamie Jeffreys – UK Counselling Network CIC

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