Lets talk about resilience

A weightlifter holds a heavy bar laden with weights above his head.
Image by flickr user Yasunobu HIRUOKA CC License

To some people resilience seems to be a dirty word. I get it, and I don’t get it.

What is resilience? To me – it’s like an immune system for the mind.

We all have an immune system that helps us fight off illness, disease, infection. When we get ill it is our immune system – sometimes in conjunction with medication, surgery, physiotherapy, other medical intervention – that will help us to recover. Some of us have superhuman immune systems and never seem to get sick. Some of are less fortunate for whatever reason and are prone to pick up colds, or stomach bugs. Some of us have weakened immune systems due to other conditions we live with, or have experienced in the past.

There are things we can do to strengthen, or help our immune system, and things that we sometimes might do that are not so helpful.

If we get a cold or flu, friends will often suggest remedies, or preventive measures.

“I like whisky and lemon with a paracetamol”
“You should gargle with aspirin and eat a slice of dry toast”
“I take [ecinacea / vitamin c / zinc / oil of oregano / etc…] and I hardly ever get colds”
“I find that first defence / Neti pot stops it in its tracks”

They aren’t trying to rub their relative healthiness in your face like a snotty tissue, they are trying to be helpful.  They’ve had colds, and they know they are rubbish, and that if we could, we would all like to avoid them. They’re offering both something which they think will make you feel better in the short term, reduce the length of your suffering, and their ideas for what might help avoid the situation in the future.

On the other hand, we know that no amount of vitamin C is likely to help if we come down with Pneumonia or Tuberculosis.

For me – the concept of resilience is really helpful. It tells me that I can have some power back. That I am not completely at the mercy of medications and waiting lists and availability of services all of the time. That sometimes, I might be successful in fending off a deterioration in my mental state by looking at what’s going on in my life, making changes if I can, or drawing on other resources.

I have had periods of my life which have been utterly blighted by mental ill health. Suicidal depressions. Life monopolising anxieties. Irrational and irresponsible highs that led to debt, ill health and destroyed relationships. I do not want to go back there if I can help it. I will take any help I can get – be it medication, therapy, or advice on what I can do myself to lessen the likelihood of that occurring. And because I have difficulty with medication (side effects), and because therapy is not always easy to come by – I think the latter is even more important.

It doesn’t always work. That word “Sometimes” is important to remember. Sometimes we spiral too quickly – there is no gradual decline that allows for spotting the warning signs and taking steps to try and prevent things getting worse. Sometimes we are running on empty and just haven’t got it in us.

When I am particularly unwell – with no energy, no motivation, no hope – everything feels so much more difficult. Weights are heavier, shadows darker, my skin is more sensitive, moving is exhausting. Even dragging myself out of bed to stare at the television is too much effort sometimes. So in those moments – thinking to myself that going for a walk, getting a shower and some make up on, eating some fruit, even meditating for 5 minutes, feels as pointless and intimidating as thinking I might climb mount Everest, run a marathon or win Strictly Come Dancing.

So I guess I understand why some people bristle – if resilience and self help is waved in their face at the wrong moment – too soon – in their recovery. It feels impossible and insensitive.

But on the other hand it is hope. It is saying – once you feel a little bit better, if we start doing a little bit of this, then hopefully it will help you to feel a little bit better still, and then even better, etc etc.

And if I can catch on to that hope, then I might think – “Ok. I can’t go for a walk, but I can look out of the window. I can stand on the doorstep for a moment and get some fresh air. I can’t face getting properly dressed, but I will wash my face. Or brush my hair. I will have a glass of water or juice. I will close my eyes and focus on my breathing for a minute.” Any one of these things. And maybe tomorrow I will do two of them.

And the better I am – the more I will try to build this into my life, in the hope – that when life throws some difficult stuff at me again – it doesn’t knock me completely over. Or if it does, that I am able to get back up more quickly, and get back to living my life the way I want to live it rather than being in the grip of my illness.

I get that some people think that a focus on resilience is like blaming us for our illness. If there are people out there who think like that – (and I don’t doubt it, the Human capability for cruelty and heartlessness is matched only by our capacity for good and compassion.) then they are stupid and in need of some education. Just as with physical illness – the reasons that some of us develop mental health difficulties are manifold. The factors that influence our likelihood to become unwell complex and intertwining.

  • What is going on in our lives at the present moment?
  • What is going on in the world around us – environment – society?
  • What has happened to us in the past?
  • What has happened to our parents?
  • What have we been taught to believe about these things?
  • Biology / Psychology / Personality

Even this is a simplification of the varying factors which may increase our risk, or protect us from developing issues.  There may be things we can learn to help offset, or deal with some of these things – but there is nothing that is guaranteed to work in every circumstance, and it is always a work in progress which can be sabotaged by events, physical illness, or other people’s thoughtlessness.

Similarly sometimes people say that emphasis on resilience takes the onus off health services, or employers, to fulfil their part of the bargain. If resilience training is all that is offered, then that is shoddy. That is not to say that it is not worth doing in those cases. After all, if your employer is taking such a minimal approach to wellbeing then you may need all the help you can get. However – resilience based approaches, mindfulness, stress management etc. should be offered as part of a wider, organisation based approach. Mental Health Promotion, Mental Health Awareness, Mental Health First Aid training, Mental Health Champions. Stress Audits and Risk Assessments with proper strategies on reducing stress across the organisation. Business planning which considers and does not place undue stress on employees either through workload, lack of resources, business practices or workplace culture.

Ditto – we need decent and comprehensive mental health services across the country. Sufficient beds and therapists and specialist services. They need to be adequately resourced, more people trained and recruited. They also need to be more flexible and person centred, and to listen to and engage the user base to ensure that they properly understand people and the barriers we face to recovery. We need those services to be there even more so when we think about resilience, because sometimes what we need to do to prevent our situation from worsening is to seek professional help. Recognising our boundaries, recognising when things have got too bad for us to continue trying to manage on our own – or with our friends’ and family support, no matter how well meaning. We need to know that actually – this is beyond our ability at this moment, and we need someone else to help us for a while.

The more we raise awareness and help people understand the signs and symptoms of mental ill health for what they are, the more there will be a draw on those services. So I think it is vital to also raise awareness that there are things that we can do which sometimes help us to stay well, or recover more quickly. Both to reduce that draw on services, but also to prevent people suffering any longer than they have to.

I’ve had a really painful arm for over a year. I pulled it carrying heavy bags or something. Finally I went to the GP who diagnosed tendonitis and referred me to physio. The physiotherapist explained the need to massage and stretch and exercise the damaged tissue. Things I had been avoiding because they hurt. I have had to go away and do those exercises myself. And it is getting better. If I had known what might help a year ago, I could have started recovering earlier – rather than avoiding activities which I thought would aggravate it, which instead compounded the problem. I am as much a part of my recovery as the physio, as the GP. I don’t mind that. If it were worse, I’d need a surgeon. And I’d need support until I was strong enough to start my physio. I wouldn’t want them to push me too hard too quickly – but I would also take heart from their belief that I have it in me to progress my recovery. It might mean they can see glimmers of something in me that I can’t yet see myself.

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