How to help others (or yourself) build resilience after adversity

Written by Dr. Jo Maddocks, Chief Psychologist
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.

Between April and July this year, I wrote four blog posts on the four stages of resilience in relation to the psychological impact of Covid-19. In these articles, I outlined how most people will move through each of these stages and can eventually look forward to recovering and even thriving following adversity. 

The recent good news on vaccination may have enhanced the mood of many, in that there is now a light at the end of the tunnel, and we will eventually bounce back from this. However, there are those who may be left with emotional scars from the cumulative effects of stress, and who could benefit from additional support to build their resilience and bounce back. Let’s review the stages of resilience that I outlined in my blog posts earlier this year.

The Thrive Stage of Resilience:

  1. Survive: how we initially respond to adversity 
  2. Adapt: how we adjust to change and adversity 
  3. Recover: how we bounce back from setback and adversity 
  4. Thrive: how we grow and become more resilient following adversity 

Most of us are past the Survive stage and have learned to cope and adapt to our new Covid-19 world. It may be too soon to assume that people have recovered to the same levels of well-being and happiness they had prior to the restrictions, let alone to suggest that they are thriving. The continued long-term effects of adverse circumstances may mean that many people could be feeling stuck at the Adapt stage. This is not a good place to remain for long periods of time, as discovered by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology.

In his research, he discovered that there are broadly three types of responses to long-term adversity. About a third of people will recover to the level they were at prior to the setback, a third of people will actually thrive and grow stronger following prolonged negative events, but another third of people will not recover easily. They may become resigned to their circumstances, feel helpless, and give up trying to recover. For these individuals, there may be longer-term concerns for their well-being and mental health. 

As I mentioned in my earlier blog posts, people are often surprisingly resilient in dealing with significant negative life events, but what we find more difficult to cope with are repeated setbacks and unrelenting small, but cumulative, negative experiences. This has been a feature of the Covid-19 crisis with restrictions being lifted and then re-imposed as the unpredictable “R” number dictates. Many of these minor stress factors are not only the observable negative events but also the absence of positive events; being deprived of the usual activities that help us to cope with our daily challenges and that make life enjoyable (socialisation, group events, family contact, holidays, job security, etc.). 

One of the main reasons that minor stress factors are so debilitating and stop our recovery is because they are cumulative. It takes several hours to deplete the effects of the stress hormone cortisol from our body each time we have a stress event. If we experience stress factors regularly during a typical day, they mount up. This can lead to a continued state of heightened disturbance that eventually leads to exhaustion and burnout. This is our body’s normal and adaptive coping response to prolonged adversity; to conserve energy, stop fighting, and “freeze”. 

There are, of course, ways out of this state, many of which were suggested in my previous blog posts. Most people will move through the four stages of resilience in a positive and healthy manner, but for those who are struggling to move forward, it is important that we recognise this and give them appropriate support. If you have concern for the well-being of others, talk to them. Ask them how they are feeling, what the last six months have been like for them, and how the restrictions have affected them. Having someone listen and empathise is a vital step in helping others. Below are some questions you could ask in relation to the four stages of resilience.  

Explore whether the individual has particular difficulty with one of these four stages. If so, refer to the previous blogs to identify ways to support them. Discuss which of these four stages is a relative strength for them. Use this to give them encouragement, focus on what they can do, and how they may have overcome adversity in the past. Remember that we are all different with different strengths and needs. One of the greatest resources we have for overcoming adversity is each other. 

Changing success criteria

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