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Week 5, Session 1: The art of resilience

Hello everyone! We're back with Week 5 Session 1. 

This means we are over halfway through the course! Wow, give yourself some congratulations for coming this far. 

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

The goals for this session are:

  • Introduce the idea of resilience
  • Identify psychological factors important to building resilience
  • Understand resilience and its importance in trauma

As always, we begin with a grounding exercise! If you can, please join in. 

Today’s first grounding exercise will be… 

Think about a tree you like. Imagine it standing tall and big on a summer’s day, in the middle of a garden or park. Now, as you calmly stare at it, start to notice how the leaves are going browner and orange. It is Autumn now in our part of the world, and this tree is also starting to lose its crown. Leaf by leaf, they all fall and we see its body; the trunk stands strongly in the middle holding it up through the winds and cold. Now focus on the naked branches, little green roots are growing because Spring is coming. Watch your tree bloom. When you are ready, open your eyes if they are closed and slowly come back to your senses. 

Fun question: If you could become immediately fluent in a language you don’t know already, what would it be?

We have been thinking about ways we can restore and renew our sense of safety - and we will continue to look at ways we can cope in the weeks to come - but first, without further ado, and FINALLY, we want to introduce you to our course title, the reason we’ve all signed in, tuned in… RESILIENCE! 

For some of you, learning about the concept of resilience might be a re-introduction. For others, a completely new concept. Actually, let’s see where you’re at: please step away from this course note for a moment and write down or think to yourself what you think Resilience means. Ready? Go!
Now, time to give you the psychological definition of resilience: resilience is the process of overcoming adversity - the ability we have to cope with difficult situations and hardship in life and keep going. It’s not just about surviving, bouncing back, but also about the profound personal growth that comes with it. 

Of course, the adversities we go through such as the traumatic experiences we have been discussing can be incredibly unfair, painful and difficult. But, they don’t have to determine the outcome of our lives. This means we can control, modify, and grow with them. That’s when resilience comes in. Resilience can help us not only overcome difficult situations but also empower us to grow exponentially and teach us ways of confronting difficult situations in the future. If we improve our resilience, we are able to improve our lives and the way we feel about what has happened to us. 

Before we continue, it might be helpful to clarify what we mean when we say ‘overcoming’ adversity, which is part of the definition of resilience. We do not only mean surviving - if you are here, you have been doing that already. So as we have been saying all along, in many ways you have already been resilient! ‘Overcoming adversity’ also does not just mean getting through the day with a certain level of functionality - for example, being productive at work, which likely many of you are doing already. To be sure, being productive at work and maintaining the ability to ‘function’ in our daily lives can be meaningful and important, but it is not the only aspect of resilience. 

When we talk about ‘overcoming adversity’ as the product of resilience, we are largely talking about wellbeing: the ability to live meaningful lives. Feeling fulfilled, having the capacity to experience ‘happiness’, gaining nourishment from creating and sustaining meaningful relationships with others - these are the aspects of wellbeing that we are focussing on when we talk about resilience. You have already survived - we want to create the space for you to thrive. 

You might be thinking at this point that while this goal is well-meaning, it is a little bit vague. You’re right: resilience and well-being are abstract concepts. So, to start our work in thinking about resilience, we wanted to introduce a bit of the psychological research that has been conducted on resilience. 

A lot of research on resilience has been conducted within the field of Positive Psychology. Have you heard of Positive Psychology? It’s an area of Psychology that studies the positive aspects of the human experience. Instead of focusing on the “psychopathology”, which are the mental health difficulties and disorders people experience, positive psychology concentrates on the healthy and positive side of our mental health - those aspects of positive wellbeing that we were just talking about. 

Well, the positive psychology researchers have an interesting approach to Resilience. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania studied what happened when 2 people, with a similar background and experience, had to be fired from their jobs. They both became very said, anxious and indecisive after this. After 2 weeks, person N1 thought “this is not my fault, it’s a bad economy. I am good at what I do, I will find another job”. N1 then started sending CVs and had a full round of rejections. Tried a second time and sent lots of cvs until a job offer appeared. Person N2, went from sadness to despair to depression and could not find a way to bounce back. Feelings of hopelessness took over “I got fired because I cannot perform well under pressure” “The economy will never recover” “I am not cut out for this work” despite really liking it. After doing lots of studies of the kind the researchers landed on a conclusion: “Optimism is the key”. 

How did they get there? They did a bunch of more research which basically involved testing a response called “learned helplessness”. This is what happens when we feel we cannot change a situation and we give up without even trying. They saw this was a common response in some animals but also in humans. For example: if an alarm goes off in our building and we try to fix it and are not able to and it keeps ringing for hours, chances are that when it happens again we will not even attempt to try and turn it off. We would be basing this on your previous experience of learned helplessness and our brain would tell us to not even try. That seems to happen to most of us but not all of us. About ⅓ of people that hear inescapable shock and noise never become helpless. 15 years of studies showed researchers that the answer is optimism. People that tend to look at a difficult situation as temporary and changabale were able to overcome them more easily. Luckily this is something we CAN learn to do! The ‘Positive Psychology’ researchers showed us that if we slowly start practicing to think like optimists then we can become more resilient. 

Now, at this point, it’s important to say: if you identify with this feeling of ‘learned helplessness’, know that you are not alone, and this is completely natural. During a traumatic situation or event, we have our control taken away from us. The feeling that we are not in control of our circumstances may therefore continue after the trauma. So feeling disillusioned after trauma, and still feeling a lack of control and a kind of ‘learned helplessness’ after trauma, is very understandable. And it is definitely not something we should blame ourselves for. As Paula the trauma therapist who wrote this course says, ‘trauma reactions are normal responses to abnormal situations’. So our education about resilience is about: learning how we can create the conditions for recovery in which we have the power to change, and believing that doing so will increase our sense of wellbeing. We are no longer helpless. We can do this.

Another characteristic that has been demonstrated within psychological research to be associated with increased resilience is locus of control. This characteristic refers to how we attribute power and control over events in our lives, so there are two types: internal and external. People with greater internal locus of control believe that they have greater control over events in their own life, and hence believe that their actions have greater power in changing the likelihood of particular outcomes. On the other hand, people with greater external locus of control believe that forces external to them have a greater impact on the outcomes of their lives, and so believe their actions will be less effective in changing or creating those outcomes. 

In terms of resilience, it has been shown that children and adults with higher internal locus of control generally show increased resilience to traumatic experiences. They show higher beliefs that their efforts and investments in positive personal change will help them grow and thrive beyond trauma, and as such create those conditions. The good news is: locus of control is something that we can change, and grow. Martin Seligman, one of the researchers who pioneered the Positive Psychology movement, has shown how training people to change how they attribute locus of control, amongst other aspects of causality, is effective, and increases psychological wellbeing over time.  So, we can unlearn our ‘learned helplessness’ and re-learn a sense of agency that recovery is possible, provided we invest in our own recovery. 

Of course, nobody is suggesting that just believing that personal change is possible will make it happen. ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ is an idea that many people weaponise against those who have experienced trauma, as a way of blaming them for any difficulties they may experience during recovery: this kind of ‘toxic positivity’ is not our intention, and not the purpose of the course. And very crucially, we must recognise that resilience does not mean that we don’t feel the pain. Situations of adversity are inherently difficult and stressful and the process of resilience does not mean that we don't feel the distress. There is room within our model of resilience for acknowledging and feeling that pain and those difficult emotions. 

But all our tools for resilience, in particular those we talked about last session, are about creating conditions for personal change that also allow us the positive emotions: by surrounding ourselves with supportive people, who build up our self-esteem, by taking care of our bodies such that they are able to rest and heal, perhaps by engaging in one of the therapies we talked about...all of our tools for resilience that help us manage the pain, and feel well. We will spend the next couple of weeks, including the next session, building on these tools as ways of building our sense of agency and hope for the future.

It’s even possible to build greater resilience and wellbeing after trauma. Research has shown that people that go to war usually will experience traumatic experiences out in the field. But usually, the responses people have are divided into 3 groups: people that develop severe PTSD, depression and/or suicidal ideation, people that develop trauma and anxiety reactions within the first month but then manage to restore their balance and go back to their usual selves and; people that have had severe PTSD and/or depression but after a year they are even better than before the trauma: they have experienced post-traumatic growth. This means that the element of resilience can be there from before in our lives and can come in naturally for us to help us deal with adverse situations, or that it can appear after we’ve had a life changing experience that allowed us to rethink and reframe our lives. Either way, resilience can be learned and enhanced! 

This last point, that resilience is something we can build, is very important. The world is not divided into people who are resilient and people who are not. Resilience is not a personality trait or something we are born with. It is a malleable, dynamic thing, and it is not static, meaning it can change and it is something we can learn. And part of this realisation is knowing that trauma does not change us from a ‘whole’ person to a ‘broken’ person. We are fundamentally whole people, before and after trauma, who are capable of change and creating the conditions for recovery. We can definitely improve and increase our resilience, for working through past traumas and protecting ourselves against the impact of potential future traumas. It can take us time and intentionality, but we can do it.

And building our resilience together and checking in with each other as we do so, as we’re doing on this course, can have an additional value and boost our resilience on its own. So we really encourage you to check in with a loved one if you feel comfortable, about what we’re doing on this course and what you’re learning about resilience. They can support your learning and understanding. 

We’ve thrown a lot of psychological concepts at you today! Resilience, learned helplessness, locus of control...there’s just one more today, and it’s probably something you’ve encountered before: hope. 

Surprising as it may sound, there is research measuring hope as a psychological construct, and how it relates to resilience and wellbeing outcomes after traumatic experiences. Less surprisingly perhaps, hope has a positive association with resilience and wellbeing after trauma and adverse life events. Hope also relates to the psychological variables that we’ve just been talking about: hope is related to increased resilience after trauma, and decreased learned helplessness. 

Which makes sense: if we believe ourselves capable of achieving something, in this case resilience, this motivation can help us grow after trauma, and know that we are no longer in a helpless situation. A recent study from the University of Oklahoma found that hope was also related to greater internal locus of control amongst survivors of intimate partner violence. Which is to say, hope and agency really are tools for resilience. 

So with this session on resilience, we want to leave you with a message of hope: hope as the knowledge that resilience is something we can build, and as such that recovery after trauma and resilience to future traumas is achievable. Hope that putting ourselves in supportive environments and investing in our own wellbeing will create conditions for recovery. You have the capacity to renew your hope, rebuild a sense of agency, foster your resilience, and ultimately experience well-being.

Don’t just trust us, trust science. 

The homework for this week is… Write a letter or a poem to yourself or for yourself, from the perspective of a chosen loved one. You can also write to yourself as someone imaginary — who’d see you as you are when you are loved, wondered, and truly seen. Maybe the person writing this is you from the future - reflecting back on your incredible journey of healing and resilience.

Because when we think of who we are and how we measure ourselves, as we recover from trauma, we must create a space for a beloved version of ourselves in our language: someone who has already been resilient, and can only continue to shine. Put your own resilience into words: how has your resilience been sensed, been felt, been amazing? Maybe it isn’t something that others have seen you do, but have sensed anyway.

It can help to start by writing this letter or poem from the perspective of a loved one, so if this helps try starting with a second-person “you” in your writing. If you are finding this too difficult, write a poem or letter for someone you love instead. Loving others is just as important, and finding time to give that value. The ability to love after trauma is something resilient and remarkable, as well.

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