POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: How you can help build lifelong resilience when challenges arise
WHO would have predicted that, as we entered the 2020s almost 28 months ago, it would already be such an eventful decade?
First, we have had a global pandemic that has certainly challenged us all in many different ways. Then, just when the world felt we had overcome the pandemic, war broke out in Europe when Russia invaded Ukraine. All of Europe is currently feeling a strong ripple effect from this devastating war being waged against the Ukrainian people.
About five million people, mostly children and their mothers, had to flee their country and their families. Ireland has already welcomed over 20,000 refugees from Ukraine since February 2022. Additionally, in the first few months of this year communities across Ireland have experienced other devastating tragedies, often (but not always) random and deadly attacks on people going about their daily lives. .
In our clinical practices over the past few months (and beyond), we have certainly witnessed clients’ shock, pain, and sense of helplessness as these events unfolded. However, alongside this pain there is often something else, resilience.
Facing, adjusting, readjusting and living with Covid-19, over the past two years, has certainly tested our stores of resilience. How were five million people in the 21st century able to uproot themselves, their families and make their way across Europe to safety under appallingly stressful conditions?
All of these “bigger” events are of course in addition to all of our individual and personal stressors and the challenges and demands we face in our daily lives.
We wondered what was in people that kept them going in the face of challenges and adversity. We wondered how some people naturally seem more resilient than others and if this is something that can be taught. Dr. Chris Johnstone, physician, author and resilience trainer, has written a very helpful book called “Seven Ways to Build Resilience” (book cover pictured below).
In this article, we’ll look at some of Johnstone’s ideas and how they fit into the larger field of positive psychology.
Johnstone defines resilience as the ability to cope with and recover from difficult situations. He says this includes our ability to make the most of things, manage stress and rise to the occasion. Encouragingly – since he is an expert in this field – he says we can learn to be more resilient. Each of the seven ways to build resilience is described in each of the seven chapters and Johnstone outlines a range of tools that can help us in the building work.
As with all psychological tools, some people will find that certain tools really help them while others will prefer different tools. As we tell clients, familiarize yourself with psychological tools and techniques, practice them, and see what works best for you. This applies to a range of psychological conditions and life stressors, not just building resilience.
Johnstone begins by illustrating a basic concept in clinical formulation, the interplay between factors such as protective and risk factors. For all of us, we face challenges with our own unique strengths and skills and life circumstances and experiences. Protective factors literally shield us from adversity; they can include a healthy childhood, healthy and supportive adult relationships, being psychologically flexible in how we think, having a job we love, etc. Risk factors make management more difficult; examples could be a problem with alcohol, chronic insomnia, a fixed and inflexible style of thinking, highly developed self-criticism.
Johnstone uses a visual analogy of a boat and water level to illustrate his point.
When we have good protective factors in our lives, it supports the boat (us) and keeps it from hitting the rocks. Risk factors, on the other hand, cause the water level to drop and the boat to be more likely to hit the rocks. Johnstone urges us to check our water level and address and adjust risk and protective factors accordingly. So, for example, if poor sleep/staying up late at night is a risk factor, we may need to improve our sleep hygiene. Self-compassion (a topic we discuss regularly in this column) is an example of a personal protective factor that promotes resilience.
Additionally, Johnstone tells us that this “boat and water level mapping tool” can be applied to anything we’d like to change by analyzing the helping and hindering factors.
Johnstone talks about “emotional first aid” using the very clever acronym SSRI.
In psychiatry and psychology, SSRIs are usually the shorthand description for commonly prescribed antidepressants. Johnstone’s SSRIs are of the non-pharmaceutical type: S represents individual coping strategies; S stands for individual strengths/qualities; R represents the resources at our disposal that offer help and support; I stands for Insights into problems (maybe what has helped us in the past…). When we examine ourselves and challenges using this framework, we can truly improve our resilience.
Johnstone examines how problem solving can be enhanced by our beliefs. It normalizes our tendency to disbelieve that we can do something and views disbelief rather than an end point, but as part of the process by which we accept our disbelief and move from there to believing. It examines how we can develop flexible thinking when we’re stuck in our thoughts and ideas but don’t want to let them go – that kind of “my way or the highway” mentality that we’re all sometimes guilty of. Johnstone urges us to seek a more helpful way of thinking about problems, reflecting one of the core concepts of Steven Hayes’ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
One chapter that particularly touched us was Johnstone’s advice on “overload management”. We’ve all been there. I felt overloaded and overwhelmed. Johnstone gives very practical advice that we often forget when our stress levels spiral out of control. For example, we need to look at the requests made to us and really try to see what is necessary/unnecessary. He calls this “the culture of engagement”. He urges us to remember our rights and our assertiveness skills; we are allowed to say “no” to others when we have to say “no”.
There is a lot more good advice for building resilience in this book, but we will end here on the last chapter in which he urges us to strengthen our supports within ourselves, in our relationships with others, with our friends. and our families and in our wider communities and networks. At a time when our local, national and global communities are facing all kinds of challenges and adversity, this advice seems very appropriate.
Julie O’Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are licensed clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run positive psychology and mindfulness classes throughout the year. They will present ‘Mindful Compassion for Wellbeing’, a practical half-day course, on June 13th.
Topics will include –
- What is mindful self-compassion and how is it useful for emotional well-being?
- What happens to our body and mind when we are self-critical and compassionate?
- Paul Gilbert’s model of emotional regulation
- Manage difficult emotions and daily struggles such as anxiety and lack of self-confidence using mindful self-compassion
- Experiential exercises and meditations
Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty have recently started running positive psychology classes again with a half-day course in Tullamore which was well attended and deemed successful by participants.
The Mindful Compassion for Wellbeing course will take place on Monday June 13 from 10am-1pm at the Central Hotel, Main Street, Tullamore (opposite Lidl).
The course facilitators, Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty (who write the bi-monthly positive psychology column on this page) are both licensed clinical psychologists with extensive experience in the field of adult mental health.
The cost of the course is €90 (a preferential rate of €75 is available for those who pay before May 27). Fees include course materials, tea/coffee and hotel parking.
For more information or to reserve a place, contact Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie 087 2399328 or send a private message on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.