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Resilience: You’re Tougher Than You Think

Jan 14

In previous articles on this blog I have referred to the concept of resilience. It created a great deal of interest and generated mixed feedback from those groups focused on and interested in PTSD. In this article, I would like to expand the concept somewhat. You may be aware that the phenomenon of resilience has been defined in a variety of ways; but all seem to agree it involves the ability to “bounce back” from adversity, and includes the ability to “bend but not break” under extreme stress. It is our innate tendency to face challenges and persevere in the face of relentless demand. Resilient individuals have the ability to forge positive outcomes even when they have been thrown off (mental) balance. They have a set of coping skills that serve them well in the face of oppressive events.

You may also be aware that the literature in this area tells us that following a traumatic exposure most people (80-90%) will recover quickly and without ongoing professional assistance. Moreover, as one noted researcher has said, resilience is the rule rather than the exception. It is not a sign of exceptional strength of character in a unique individual, but a fundamental aspect of normal coping – it is “ordinary magic”.

An interesting question then is, what specifically makes up resilience? Much of the data used to answer this question comes from the study of those who have been exposed to combat, and those who were held as prisoners of war. These studies in their efforts to lay resilience bare have ranged from the examination of our biology to the influence of the social context. The latter has received a great deal of attention as it was recognized early on that resilience is fueled largely by relationships; their number and their quality, no matter whether real or just perceived. The richness of social support and social resources available to victims of traumatic exposures play a central role in the effectiveness of resilience. The above noted authors assert that the concept of resilience is best regarded as including resilient families, resilient communities, and resilient organizations.

As there is much interest in the individual characteristics of resilience, and before I conclude with a comment on resilient organizations, here are only a few individual characteristics gleaned from the literature:

  1. The ability to regulate emotion. This is the ability to stay calm under pressure; the ability to defuse emotion and clear one’s head enough to prevent being overwhelmed. This is thought to be the most important of resilience skills. When we are in charge of our own emotions we interact with others more effectively, make better decisions, use better judgement, and are better problem solvers. A rational “thinking style” leads to emotional control.
  2. The ability to analyze problems. This is the ability to examine a problem and accurately determine it’s cause. Research shows that what we think about stressful events will affect how we feel about them, and what we do about them.
  3. The ability to be cognitively flexible. This is the ability to reframe a stressful experience and to find some benefit in it. This is the skill of adjusting one’s perspective and being able to use an alternative view to adapt to changing demands and transitional stressors.
  4. The ability to make meaning out of one’s traumatic experience; to develop a “survivor’s mission”. This is the ability to use one’s faith, spirituality, or values as a map to guide one through the healing process. One author refers to this as the ability to make a “gift” out of one’s experience for others; to share one’s story.
  5. The ability to maintain realistic optimism. This is the ability to believe that “this too shall pass”. This type of optimism is not mindless. It is not about disregarding challenges and forcing a positive outlook. It is about seeing things as they are and believing that all problems can be met and mastered.

There are characteristics of resilience that involve such things as exercise, diet, and making connections. I have emphasized, above, some of the cognitive characteristics of resilience. Because the deployment of resilience is so contextually influenced, I would like to close by emphasizing the importance of resilience-engendering organizations. It has been noted by some that PTSD is on the rise in the RCMP. It is my belief that this may be related to the RCMP’s failure to nurture it’s members’ natural resilience. In order for the RCMP to provide a fertile context for resilience it would need to address organizational issues such as the oppositional nature of RCMP Occupational Health and Safety, harassment, sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying, high stress levels, poor leadership, lack of unit cohesion, poor morale, tasks out of check with resources, the corporate culture (of fear) etc. Recently an American military mental health team suggested that high unit cohesion and competent leadership resulting in confidence, good morale and mission acceptance contributed to resilience. Those soldiers who suffered mental injuries were more often sent to battle with strangers; whereas those who exhibited resilience were more often in the company of unit members they had trained with, knew well, trusted, had pride in and depended upon. The team of researchers emphasized that what allows soldiers to cope well with the demands of war, including the spectre of death and injury, is more than anything else, their loyalty to their comrades. It is again apparent that the core of resilience is camaraderie.

If the RCMP wished to become a resilience-engendering organization it would need to transform from the top down. Tinkering incrementally with a policy here or a process there, or even offering courses with cosmetic appeal, without transforming the structures of the organization will meet with limited success. Post traumatic responses will be decreased, and resilience increased, when the RCMP is separated from the federal government, responsible to a board of directors, and competent, autonomous, transformative leaders are put in place. You would be surprised what real leaders could do for the health of the RCMP; leaders who have a deep emotional bond with their members, leaders who understand the concept that they don’t eat until the members have eaten and they don’t sleep until the members have slept. With an attitude like this at the top, it wouldn’t be long before camaraderie and unit cohesion would begin to trickle down through the ranks and resilience would begin to rise.

Dr. Mike Webster, Registered Psychologist


From → PTSD

One Comment
  1. DJ Motorcop permalink

    Resilience 36 years service the last six in counseling the last two on medication and ODS. better now that I retired a year ago at age 55 (joined at age 19). My last day at work in February 2010 i went to a Cpl. because I was falling apart, he told me to get back out there and count to 10 before each incident. Rather than take his advice I decided to lock my self in the Traffic office and proceeded to prepare my sidearm. i called around to book off sick and say goodbye. I called my wife, she ordered me to come home, in her words “fuck them all, turn in your gun and come home”. the resilience and brilliance of my spouse sparked what was left of mine. I am here I am now I am healed. ……..that Cpl. with the lame advice? he is now a Staff Sgt in charge of a watch in a large Detachment and has been transferred from watch to watch due to the watches threatening mutiny if he continues as their commander.

    Peace out


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