Resilience is one of the most popular topics of discussion at the moment. If this is a fairly new concept to you, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.
As a coaching psychologist, resilience is probably one of the most important areas that I can support my coaching clients to develop. When resilience is low, this can negatively affect performance and increase problems such as stress, anxiety and depression. If we are not able to adjust to change, we will only get stuck in wishing for our previous way of life, instead of being able to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and look forward to new opportunities.
In this article, I would like to share some of my knowledge of the cognitive-behavioural coaching perspective on resilience. If you would like to find out more, please visit the reference list at the end of this article for further reading.
What is resilience?
Resilience isn’t something that we are born with and we can all learn how to respond in a more resilient way to challenging circumstances. There are many definitions of resilience. However, I find the following one particularly useful.
“Resilience involves responding adaptively and resolutely to tough times and emerging from them stronger, wiser and more capable” [i].
I’d like to draw your attention to the word ‘emerging’ in this definition. You may have come across descriptions of resilience which refer to the ability to ‘bounce back’, implying a quick and effortless recovery. Instead of ‘bouncing back’, a cognitive-behavioural perspective on resilience prefers the description ‘coming back from adversity’.ii In reality, developing resilience involves experiences of suffering and struggling.
Life doesn’t always return to exactly the way it was before we were faced with hard times. ‘Post-traumatic growth’ is a term used to refer to the benefits that can be gained from going through particularly difficult times. Research looking into how people cope with tragedy and trauma, has identified three main ways in which people may benefit from traumatic experiences:ii
1. Changes to self-image – after going through tough times, you may discover strengths and abilities that you weren’t previously aware of. This in turn will change your perception of your ability to deal with future challenges.
2. The nature of relationships is clarified and enriched – going through particularly challenging times can help us to discover who our ‘real’ friends are, and it can strengthen family bonds.
3. Life priorities are altered – you may gain a new perspective following a trauma and reassess what is important to you and what you want to focus your precious time on.
The importance of attitude
The ways in which we choose to interpret a challenging issue or situation (our attitudes), are the most important factor affecting the development of resilience.
Attitudes are made up of three components which all influence each other[ii]:
1. Thoughts, i.e. what you think
2. Emotions, i.e. what you feel
3. Behaviour, i.e. how you act (or how you don’t act!)
In the cognitive-behavioural approach to resilience, the emphasis is placed on thinking, because what we think, determines how we feel and behave.ii In our everyday lives, unhelpful thought patterns and blocks can lead to feelings of being ‘stuck’. When adverse events happen, if our resilience is low, our psychological blocks and the way we respond to stress can easily lead us into a negative downward spiral.
Understanding what lowers your resilience
Subjective experiences of the same event will be different, i.e. a situation I find particularly challenging, may be something that you take in your stride, and vice versa. Taking the time to understand what your psychological vulnerabilities and personal stress triggers are, will put you in a better position to understand what you need to do to address them. The amount of time, and the strategies required to adapt to change, are again going to vary depending on the individual.
All of us are unique and view the world around us in different ways, so it is important to become aware of the attitudes that are lowering your resilience. Being flexible and not getting stuck in negative thought patterns is key to being able to emerge from difficult situations and find ways to create a better life for yourself.
To develop a more resilient outlook, you need to:
1. be open
2. discuss new ideas
3. try out some different behaviours.ii
In cognitive-behavioural coaching, the first step is usually to raise self-awareness and identify your blocks and stressors, i.e. those thought patterns that lead you to feeling and acting in ways that aren’t helpful to you.
Here are a few common examples of resilience undermining attitudesii – do any of the following statements sound familiar to you?
“It’s not my fault, I’ve been made a victim”
“I can’t stand it!”
“I’ll never get over it”
“I’m a failure”
“I’m a pessimist by nature”
“I don’t feel confident”
In cognitive behavioural coaching, we use a number of evidence-based models and techniques to help identify an individual’s psychological blocks. Once these have been identified, we can then focus on working with our clients to identify what can be done to remove them.
Protective factors and strengths that underpin resilience
Your personal qualities, the way you cognitively appraise a situation and how you interact with other people, can be viewed as ‘protective factors’ that can give you resilience during hard times.[iii]
Strengths which psychologists’ believe underpin resilience, include the following:i,ii
High frustration tolerancei – being able to get through challenging situations without continually complaining about how difficult things are or falling into a negative spiral of self-pity every time something doesn’t go your way.
Self-acceptance – the ability to acknowledge that you are an imperfect human being and being able to keep this view constant, despite the challenges you are faced with.
Self-belief – gaining confidence in your abilities by setting yourself and – with self-control – achieving ‘a series of desired and realistic objectives’ii.
In addition, the following strengths are also viewed as important for resilienceii
- Keeping things in perspective
- Flexible thinking
- Emotional regulation
- Support from others
- Problem-solving skills
- Absorbing interests
- Finding meaning
How can you make yourself more resilient?ii
Here are a couple of things that you can do to make yourself more resilient.
1. Persevere – keep on going!
Change is not easy, and it takes effort. If you want to achieve new goals, it is important that you persevere with the change process and don’t give up at the first hurdle. Be open to trying out different strategies and experiment with these until you find something that works for you.
2. Identify your strengths
Think about how you have used your strengths to overcome problems in the past. This will help you to identify times in your life when you have shown resilience when faced with difficult circumstances. It will remind you that you can draw on your strengths during challenging times to get through it again.
3. Look for examples of resilience in everyday life
Don’t undermine how much resilience is required to just get through each day and juggle your different roles and responsibilities.
4. Think back to difficult times in your life
What lessons did you learn from those experiences? Can you apply those lessons now to help you to cope better?
5. Deal with adversity as it happens
Don’t suppress your feelings. Connect with sympathetic others and let them know how you feel. Consider what is in and out of your control and choose to focus your attention on the things that are within your control.
6. Move out of your comfort zone
Actively make yourself feel discomfort by tackling the things you have been avoiding. Consciously putting yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable – even a bit distressed and frustrated – will help you to build your tolerance over time (see my earlier note regarding ‘high frustration tolerance’). Feeling discomfort and getting through it will help you to be more psychologically prepared to deal with difficult situations as they arise in the future.
How can coaching help you to build resilience?
Research studies have found that, compared to controls, coaching using a cognitive-behavioural solution-focused approach, “enhanced goal attainment, increased resilience and workplace wellbeing and reduced depression and stress.”[iv] A coach who is trained in cognitive-behavioural and solution-focused approaches, will be able to tap into a toolkit of evidence-based cognitive, behavioural, imagery and mindfulness techniques to encourage you in a compassionate way, to be open, discuss new ideas and try out different behaviours. A coach will hold you to account and support you along the way to help you to manage stress levels, build your confidence and motivation, and develop an action plan to help you to achieve your goals.
If you are interested in finding out more about how coaching can help you to build up your resilience and make positive changes in your life, please email me to arrange a no-obligations telephone consultation: [email protected].
Mandy Murdoch (MBPsS, MAC, MISCP)
Accredited Coach, Coaching Psychologist and Consultant
Tel: +44(0)7792 483 436
Email: [email protected]
i) Neenan, M. & Dryden, W. (2012). Understanding and developing resilience. In Neenan, M. and Palmer, S. (Eds.), Cognitive Behavioural Coaching in Practice: An Evidence Based Approach (pp. 133-152). London and New York: Routledge.
ii) Neenan, M. (2018). Developing Resilience: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach, 2nd Edition. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
iii) Williams, H., Palmer, S. & Gyllensten, K. (2019). Stress, resilience, health and wellbeing coaching. In Palmer, S. and Whybrow, A. (Eds.), Handbook of Coaching Psychology: a guide for practitioners (2nd ed.). Oxon and New York: Routledge.
iv) Grant, A.M., Curtayne, L. & Burton, G. (2009). Executive coaching enhances goal attainment, resilience and workplace wellbeing: a randomized controlled study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4:5, 396-407.