Thriving through adversity, part 2: learning to adapt

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

This is the second blog in a series of four in which I discus the four stages of change and resilience (from the PSI Thrive cycle) in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. In the first blog, I discussed our initial survival response to adversity. In this blog, I will discuss the second stage in the process – how we adapt to change and adversity.

The Adapt stage is often associated with more positive feelings than the Survive stage, such as acceptance, tolerance, and compassion (both for ourselves and for others). These feelings can bring out the best in our behaviours such as altruism toward others, creative problem solving, and resilience in dealing with challenges. However, adapting to adversity is not the same as recovering from adversity. It provides us with a temporary window for coping and adjusting to our change in circumstances. The danger is that we could become stuck in a state of resigned helplessness during the Adapt stage. In order to move on to the next stage, Recovery, we need to learn to manage the stress and challenges of our new circumstances.


COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on many people’s lives and the global economy. Yet, surprisingly, people are often very good at coping well with big disasters. Maybe this is because these incidents are unambiguous, the problem is clear, and we have no choice in the matter, so our brains accept the situation. What we are far less able to cope with are the relentless small setbacks that happen incrementally over time – the drip, drip, drip effect of accumulated setbacks, challenges, and hardships. For example, being stuck at home is certainly not a disaster in itself, but how does it feel if every day for weeks and months we do not have physical contact with our family, friends, and colleagues? Or the opposite may be true. Being under the feet of other family members may be OK for a week or two but becomes intolerable after several months with no clear end in sight.

This unrelenting pressure can lead to stress and exacerbate underlying mental health issues. Stress is cumulative; it is estimated to take a couple of hours for the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol, to leave the body. So, what happens if our stress button is being pressed continually during the day? We know that too much stress can impair our ability to think clearly and problem-solve. This tends to lead to exaggerated behaviour, greater worrying, poor sleep, and poor decision making, further compounding our levels of stress and anxiety. The key, therefore, to adjusting and coping with such adversity is to manage our levels of stress. Some key elements for stress management of particular relevance to our current circumstances are discussed below.

  • Relaxation: One of the most well-researched and recommended methods of relaxation is calm, steady breathing. Nearly all relaxation techniques, such as meditation and mindfulness, begin with attention to our breathing. A technique recommend by The Human Given Institute is called “7-11”, where you breathe in for a count of seven and out for a count of 11. This encourages slow, deep breaths, and the longer outbreath will activate our parasympathetic nervous system which triggers a relaxation response.
  • Quiet the brain: There are many other benefits to practicing breathing techniques. Concentrating on our breathing will distract us from the busy thoughts and “noise” in our head. This often helps our unconscious brain notice the quieter intuitive signals in our head that provide us with deeper insights, creativity, and solutions to problems.
  • Notice feelings: Calming down the thoughts in our head will also allow us to notice our feelings more easily. Feelings are the feedback from our body. Imagine if the leaders in an organisation (the brain) ignored the feedback from their employees (the body); What would happen? They would eventually become angry, demotivated, leave, or go on strike. The same happens in your body! If you do not pay attention to your feelings, they will grow stronger until eventually we become unwell, underperform, and experience burnout.
  • Create new habits: Looking after your body also includes regular physical activity, sleep, and nutrition. We all know that these things are important, yet we still find them difficult to put into practice. This may be the case during times of change and uncertainty. One reason may be that we fail to turn them into habits. In the current environment, many of our usual routines have been disrupted, which can be very unsettling. Creating new routines and habits is essential. The emotional part of our brain likes predictability. Our emotional brain is there to keep us safe and anticipate danger. If it is unable to anticipate what will happen next, it will send chemicals into the body, such as adrenaline, to keep us vigilant and alert. This is, of course, tiring and unsustainable for the brain and body. Sooner or later we become exhausted, irritable, and irrational. The good news is that this can be remedied by creating routines, structures, and habits throughout the day and week that give our emotional brain time to rest and recover.

In my next blog I will discuss the third stage in the Thrive cycle in relation to the pandemic: How we can recover following change and adversity.

Building resilient organisations

As a result of both the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the recent pandemic, change is now constant and relentless.

Despite the vast opportunities that change enables, issues like increased stress, burnout, and lower well-being are on the rise – highlighting the undeniable importance of organisational resilience.

To survive and thrive now, it is essential for leaders to build their resilience to be able to respond to change well and recover from setbacks. As they learn this, they then directly impact the resilience of their teams since the most critical ingredient for a resilient organisation is its resilient people.

It has been shown that highly resilient employees are 43% more productive, 47% more engaged at work, and twice as likely to stay in their current organisation.

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