Resilience – what it means, why you need it, and how to develop it. Nicky provides a brief introduction to resilience, and the theory and empirical research that underpin the Personal Strength Resilience Workshops.
Further information and links
- Online and in person resilience courses
- DNA-V model (DNA-v (c) L. Hayes & J. Ciarrochi, www.thrivingadolescent.com
- Dr Louise Hayes
- Acceptance and Committment Therapy (ACT) model
- Resilience Research and Training Systems, Macquarie University
- Resilience Podcast – Parramatta City Council
Hello! Welcome to Episode 2! Today is a quick primer on resilience. I have done a lot of work in positive psychology and resilience. Apart from the tutoring work I have done at university, I also spent two years researching family resilience during parental cancer, and have taught resilience workshops for a range of corporate, government, and community groups with Resilience Research and Training Systems at Macquarie University. I’ll include a link to their website in the show notes.
Through my work with Personal Strength, I have developed an online course in resilience. Today I’d like to explain the psychological models and empirical evidence behind the course.
Resilience – definition and clarification
Firstly, I feel it is important to define resilience. Something I feel most definitions don’t do well is to distinguish between a resilient outcome, and resilient capacities. A resilient outcome is when we maintain a relatively stable and healthy level of psychological and physical functioning after a potentially traumatic event. Depending on the type and severity of the event, we would often expect a small decrease in healthy functioning, but then people bounce back. That sailing through, or bouncing back, is a resilient outcome which can only be observed by looking at functioning before, during, and after stressful events.
In contrast, resilient capacities are beliefs, skills, and assets that may help us to achieve resilient outcomes. Resilient outcomes and resilient capacities are often bundled up together, but there isn’t a one to one correlation. Someone with great resilient capacities could still be faced with an event that is too much for their resources, and not achieve a resilient outcome in that instance. On the flip side, someone could have few resilient capacities, but what they have could be perfectly suited to the challenge they face, and therefore help them achieve a resilient outcome.
We may not always achieve a resilient outcome, but we all have resilient capacities. Let’s talk more about the capacities. There has been a lot of research into how people go after major potentially traumatic events like natural disaster, terrorism, job loss, divorce, bereavement, and serious injury. A review of this research revealed a number of factors that contribute to resilience. Some of these we can’t change very easily, for example characteristics like demographics and personality, circumstances like exposure, and past and current stress, and resources like money and cognitive resources.
But there is also a set of processes, skills and approaches that we can learn, practice, and develop. I suspect these have a three-fold effect. Firstly they directly improve our chance of a resilient outcome. Secondly, they can help us to recognise and use the resources we have. And thirdly, they can help us to process our circumstances, such that they do not hinder or might even improve our chances of a resilient outcome in the future.
The three main processes are flexibility, coping and appraisal, and positive emotions. I’ll briefly describe each of these and then focus in on flexibility, which is the set of skills that my resilience course focuses on. Psychological flexibility is defined as “the ability to stay in contact with the present moment regardless of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, while choosing one's behaviours based on the situation and personal values”. I liken this to the analogy I gave last week – It’s effectively being the captain of the ship of life. Psychological flexibility encompasses coping flexibility, and expressive flexibility. Coping flexibility is our ability to select coping behaviours most likely to help in the given situation, and to change behaviours if they are ineffective or unhelpful. Expressive flexibility is our ability to enhance or suppress emotional expression in accord with situational demands. So for example, it’s the ability to hold your emotions in check at work, but to express your emotions to close friend or family who you feel safe with.
I have focused my course on psychological flexibility because it is an extremely valuable skill, that can also inform how to achieve the other two processes I mentioned: positive emotions, and coping and appraisal. Positive emotions are helpful for resilient outcomes, but feeling that we have to feel good all the time is not helpful, in fact it can lead to secondary emotions like shame and guilt, which is unhelpful. We can’t force ourselves to feel something we don’t. Psychological flexibility helps us to accept all emotions, while choosing how we act on and express them. Somewhat ironically, the more we accept our negative emotions, the more we open ourselves up to positive emotions too.
Coping and appraisal refer to how people interpret stressful events. When people think of stressful events as a challenge that could result in growth, gain, or mastery, they are more likely to achieve resilient outcomes. Whereas when the stressful event is seen as a threat, with potential for causing harm, it makes it harder to bounce back. Psychological flexibility includes techniques to hold our initial thoughts and reactions lightly, such that it is easier to switch to a challenge appraisal.
I mentioned that past and current stress can predict resilient outcomes. That is very vague because whether past stressors help to prepare us for future stressors, or whether they wear us down such that we are more vulnerable to future stressors really depends. One model suggests that it depends on how we reflect on past stressors. For more detail on this theory, the systematic self-reflection model of resilience strengthening, I’ll include links to another podcast episode and the publication in the show notes.
Acceptance Commitment Therapy
For building psychological flexibility, I use the DNA-V model (DNA-v (c) L. Hayes & J. Ciarrochi, www.thrivingadolecent.com), which is a developmental version of the ACT model. Please tune in to the next episode when I interview Dr Louise Hayes, one of the clinical psychologists who developed the DNA-V model. I’ll also give you a very brief introduction to ACT now. ACT stands for Acceptance Commitment Therapy. I learned about ACT back in 2015. I have attended workshops, read more, and practiced the principles myself and found them extremely helpful, particularly in emotional regulation, patience, and parenting. ACT includes a series of 6 skills, which lead to psychological flexibility, this is called the ACT hexiflex.
I’ll introduce you briefly to each skill. They aren’t in any particular order, though I do tend to start with values, because I see them as our direction. The captain of our ship is lost without values. Values is knowing what matters to you. Different people value different things, and generally, the more we live in line with our values the happier, and more fulfilled and energised we feel. I use my values to guide me when making decisions and prioritising.
Another skill is contact with the present moment. This is mindfulness, it is the ability to focus your mind on what you are experiencing in the present moment, rather than being stuck thinking about the past, or the future. That helped me to bring pleasure back into my life when I had a colicky baby, by focusing on the little pleasures, like singing, like the feel and smell of my baby, and also helped me to notice my frustration early before it overwhelmed me.
Next is committed action, this is being the captain of the ship that I mentioned in the last episode. It is the ability to take action towards your valued goals, even if that involves some pain or discomfort. For example, quitting smoking can be important if you value your health and the health of your family, but it is known to be intensely unpleasant.
Next is awareness of the observing self. This is the recognition that our thoughts and feelings are part of our experience, but they are not all we are. There is also a part of us that observes those thoughts and feelings. That part, the observing self, is constant. This realisation is helpful because it can give us distance from our emotions and thoughts, help us to see them from a different perspective, which is related to the next skill.
Defusion is about intentionally gaining distance from your thoughts. Holding them lightly rather than letting them command your emotions and actions. For example, I sometimes get intrusive images of self-harm. In my teenage years they would influence my emotions and behaviour. As an adult they’d make me extremely upset. Since learning the skill of defusion, I watch the images come and go, I notice them, but I don’t invest in them anymore.
Finally, there is acceptance. This is where we accept and make room for uncomfortable and painful emotions. My go to when I felt uncomfortable used to be distraction. That was unhelpful, because it didn’t resolve the discomfort, just removed it from awareness until it was too overwhelming to ignore or handle well. Improving my ability to accept and sit with uncomfortable emotions has really helped. On a side note, new research suggest that procrastination may often be that exact mechanism – when a project or task raises uncomfortable feelings – perhaps uncertainty, or stress, or performance anxiety, we distract ourselves with other tasks. So ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions may be important to stopping procrastination also.
As you can tell, I have found ACT to be extremely helpful, so why would I base my resilience course on DNA-V instead? I have a few reasons, firstly, DNA-V encompasses all of the ACT skills, but is easier to remember and explain than the hexiflex. Secondly, DNA-V is a developmental model of ACT, designed for Adolescents. While my online course is aimed at adults, I hope that by using the DNA-V model I can help parents in a way that they can explain and practice the skills with their children and adolescents also. We’ll also be running resilience workshops for kids and teens at Personal Strength using the DNA-V model.
So that is the theory and research that underpins the Personal Strength Resilience Course. Please tune in next time for my conversation with Dr Louise Hayes about the DNA-V model. I’ve only scratched the surface of ACT here. Dr Louise Hayes and her colleague Joseph Ciarrochi have researched ACT, and delved deep into the theoretical and empirical research to create the DNA-V model. Please tune in to the next episode to learn from Louise!
To learn more about the Personal Strength Resilience Courses, you can visit www.personalstrength.com.au/resilience. The online course provides short videos that guide you through the skills we’ve spoken about today, followed by practical ways that you can practice those skills in your daily life. I also include tips for how parents can introduce these skills to their children in an age-appropriate way. I hope that by following the course you can experience some of the transformations that I have, and that it will help you, and your family to sail through, or bounce back from challenges that arise.
All of the references and websites that I’ve mentioned will be in the show notes for this episode at www.personalstrength.com.au/P2. Which should also be displayed in your podcast player.
 Bonanno, G. A., & Diminich, E. D. (2013). Annual Research Review: Positive adjustment to adversity–trajectories of minimal–impact resilience and emergent resilience. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 54(4), 378-401.
 Hoffmann, D., Rask, C. U., & Frostholm, L. (2019). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Health Anxiety. In The Clinician's Guide to Treating Health Anxiety (pp. 123-142). Academic Press.