How we strengthen our resilience: looking ahead

In times of a crisis the formula for success is resilience

Resilience has become something of a buzzword since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clinical, health and neuropsychologist Dr Melanie Robertson, and Thomas Blasbichler (MA), clinical and health psychologist at Park Igls, thoroughly researched this topic before joining forces with the health retreat’s doctors to develop a programme designed to strengthen mental resilience. Beneficial during a pandemic, resilience can help us through all kinds of personal crises.

The interest of strengthening resilience predates the coronavirus. Back in 2017, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and American psychologist Adam M Grant famously published option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. In this best-selling book, they combined Sheryl’s personal insights following the death of her husband with Adam’s groundbreaking research on strength in adversity.

Dr Robertson agrees with the authors that we are not born with resilience, but, like a muscle, we can train it. Blasbichler concurs. In his view, resilience arises from the interaction of many factors. The foundations are laid during childhood and are influenced through experiences and learning processes in later life. Resilience is, therefore, a combination of abilities, attitudes and behaviours that are both inherited and acquired through experience. ‘Even though the genetic point of departure is different for each person, we can definitely learn to be resilient.’

Gesundheitszentrum Park Igls in Tirol

HOW RESILIENT ARE HUMAN BEINGS?

Scientists have defined seven factors of resilience: acceptance, optimism, problem-solving skills, healthy ability to manage feelings, self–efficacy, autonomy and network–orientation. But so far, we only have hypotheses as to why some people are more resilient than others. According to Blasbichler, some of it is a question of how we evaluate situations. This can be subject to change because it is about how much one believes a problematic situation can be mastered. However, how is a person’s psychological resilience graded? Can resilience even be measured? Although the desire for a way to measure it is understandable, resilience cannot be assessed scientifically: It is a complex interplay of very different components relating to individual development and personality. Dr Robertson believes that a person’s resources, the pillars of stability in each individual’s life, are of huge importance. These tend to be friendship, family, work and leisure pursuits. In her view, resilient people often unconsciously invest in these resources. They do not shy away from change and can rapidly build support systems when necessary.

LOOKING AHEAD

It never ceases to amaze Dr Robertson that there are people – and we all know someone like this – who suffer calamity after calamity yet still face life with courage, determination and joy. Like the rest of us, these people have good days and bad, but what sets them apart is the ability to keep looking forward while never forgetting what they have endured. These are the people who, despite all, can re-establish a good quality of life and wellbeing. They are no less vulnerable than others, but they deal with crisis and suffering differently. ‘Resilience is like a Weeble toy: it wobbles but doesn’t fall down. We also think of it as the soul’s immune system,’ adds Blasbichler.

Gesundheitszentrum Park Igls in Tirol

THE RIGHT TIME FOR THERAPY

Personality is part fixed and part flexible, so we can make adjustments here and there. In challenging times, leaving – or being forced to leave – our comfort zones creates a sense of insecurity and undermines self-confidence. There comes a point when we start to feel stuck, unable to move forward, and we increasingly desire change, progress and development. Dr Robertson believes it’s the right time to find support in conversation therapy with the aim of restoring stability and confidence or to make lasting life changes.

‘When people come to Park Igls for conversational therapy during or after a life crisis, the first thing we psychologists do is create a stress-free space for them so that we can talk in confidence and trust. These conversations alone are often highly effective in relieving anxiety. Our focus is on the here and now. Targeted mindfulness and deep relaxation exercises help our clients identify new resources or recognise and nurture existing ones. Quite often, unknown perspectives open up to them, and they discover other aspects of themselves. In turn this can broadens horizons, fosters curiosity, and draws attention to the positives.’

For Blasbichler, conversation therapy is about being present, listening, and working with the client to identify options. Effective measures include finding coping strategies, acquiring stress management skills, learning relaxation exercises, encouraging self-efficacy and increased social contact.

RUN OF THE MILL

Blasbichler believes that receiving help from psychologists is far more socially acceptable now than it was even just a few years ago. ‘Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that more preventative support would be hugely valuable. People shouldn’t wait until they are in a crisis situation before seeking psychological help. However, this does require a level of sensitivity to the body’s warnings – psychosomatic responses such as sleep disorders, migraines, neck pain, gastrointestinal complaints etc. – and that professional help is sought in good time.’

‘In the United States, regular therapy sessions are considered a status symbol – which is probably taking things a bit too far,’ says Dr Robertson. However, psychological interventions in professional and private spheres are also becoming more socially acceptable in Austria. Seeing a therapist to find out more about our own personality, and perhaps uncover the mystery of resilience, no longer elicits disapproval.