You Have Got What it Takes

Man on train tracks - resilience - who's got what it takes, Petros UK

You may be forgiven for thinking the term ‘resilience’ has psychological roots, but, in fact, it originates from engineering and is centuries old. So, for humans, what do we mean by resilience and it’s good to know that we’ve all got what it takes.

Engineers describe resilience as the ability of a material that has been deformed or altered by pressure, to spring back into shape. This was illustrated beautifully in the heatwave of 2019, when railway lines that had buckled in the extreme heat regained their original shape once the temperature dropped. Saving us the huge expense of re-laying thousands of miles of track. It was a testament to the resilience of the steel from which the tracks were made.

Psychologists stole the term because it encapsulates how people respond “adaptively” to pressure and adversity: the ability to thrive no matter whatever life throws at us.  The problem is, psychologists can’t quite agree on a definition of resilience as it applies to humans.

Is resilience innate or learned? Fixed or variable? How it should be measured? Can it can be trained? Why do some people seem to have more of it that others? There is one thing, however, that most agree on: resilient people “bounce back” in response to adversity and it would be very handy to know how and why.

It is estimated that at least a third of us are born naturally resilient.  Genetics and neurobiology will naturally predispose these lucky individuals, but genetic predisposition isn’t a guarantee.  I may be genetically predisposed to live a long and healthy life, but if I eat badly, don’t exercise, smoke and drink too much, I might easily squander my inheritance.  So, there must be more to it than genes and biology.

If we think of our capacity for resilience as a cocktail made up of a whole range of ingredients from genetics and epigenetics, to culture and society, including any personal adversity, we find that some ingredients are simply not within our control. However, there are some over which we can exercise significant influence, and those are our executive function skills.

Broadly speaking executive function skills include, emotional regulation, problem-solving, perspective taking, consequential thinking, insight, foresight, hindsight, oversight and empathy. Many of us develop these skills naturally and they are fully formed by the time we reach our mid-twenties. However, for some of us, for all sorts of reasons, these skills don’t develop fully or at all, and this can have enormous consequences on how we manage our lives in general and in adversity in particular.

Let’s explore one scenario:

You’re driving to an important meeting. All the senior partners will be present and your success at this meeting means career validation and probably a big promotion.  You’ve been planning this meeting for weeks.  The pressure is on.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a car pulls out in front of you and you hit it full on.  No-one is hurt but neither car is going anywhere anytime soon.  How do your executive function skills support you with a resilient response?

  • Emotional regulation allows you to manage a very natural upsurge in the fight, flight or freeze response.  You quickly and effectively assess that no-one is hurt and that responding very emotionally will do little to help and only prolong due process for everyone involved.
  • Problem solving helps you think through immediate next steps: who needs to be notified, how can the cars be cleared from the road, how to eventually get to your meeting.
  • Perspective taking allows you to understand that the other person involved is also likely to be shaken, may well also be under considerable pressure and that collaborating to resolve the situation will be much easier than being angry or defensive.
  • Empathy allows you to understand another person’s emotional reactions, as well as see their point of view – it’s the emotional element of perspective taking.
  • Consequential thinking helps you work out quickly the consequences of each action you take and, therefore, choose the most effective way to proceed.
  • The four sights (Insight, foresight, hindsight and oversight) help with learning: could I have foreseen that happening; was I focussed enough on my driving or too much on the meeting, what can I do in future to prevent that happening again; what have I learned overall?

Now, imagine the same scenario without these skills – how quickly could you bounce back? Would you have made the meeting or even recovered from such a challenging event within weeks or months?

The good news is that we now know these executive function skills, if they are underdeveloped or indeed missing, can be taught.

Whatever our genetic inheritance, previous life experience, social situation, or organisational context. No matter how long the psychologists debate the definition, with the right training and practice we can all thrive. Taught the right skills, we have all got what it takes to be resilient and lead happier, more content and productive lives.

Find out more about author Professor Jo Clarke