Resilience – coping and adapting to stress and change

Resilience – coping and adapting to stress and change

10 years ago 0 4 9703

I notice that recently the theme of resilience emerging in a range of conversations and contexts.  This has been apparent in working with individuals, as they face personal challenge, teams, organisations and even communities.  Resilience seems to be something highly valued, but difficult for people to either define or express in times when they need it.

Resilience is a characteristic that is required when the context changes, and the individuals, groups or communities are looking for ways of dealing with the stress of the changed context.  They are looking for ways to relieve the stress and, if the change is permanent, to find ways to adapt.  Resilience is therefore the capacity to adapt your responses to stressful changes and context in productive ways.

Exposure to stressful events has been shown to have an ‘inverted U’ correlation to being resilient.  This means that at very low exposures or very high exposures to stressful events, people are less able to be resilient.  Exposure to medium amount of stressful events improves resilience.

In a way this makes sense.  If you have not been exposed to stressful events, you have not had the chance to develop or employ the skills that underline resilience.  The ability to quickly recognise the stressful change in context and appropriately adapt has not been developed.  On the other hand, people who are exposed to a high rate of stressful events can develop ‘learned helplessness’ – they can develop a belief that regardless of what they do, bad things will keep happening.

In the middle, some exposure to stressful events encourage people to learn adaptive and resilient skills, and be able to generalise them to different situations – meaning that they learn to apply their resilience across any stressful situation that comes their way.  I work with many executives who are seeking to be more adaptive and resilient – because they know that stress and change are both constants of their circumstance.

So what are the fundamental skills of resilience?

Resilience is an attribute that is comprised of very specific skills which can be taught and learned.  Being ‘resilient’ is not a personality trait, or based on a genetic predisposition, but rather the ability to demonstrate a key set of skills when stressful context change emerges, and coping or adaptation is required.

A few of the key skills that assist a person being resilient are:

Balanced locus of control – I have a clear understanding of what I am in control of, and what I am not.  Consider an executive who believes that everything happens because of ‘fate’, or the superstitious person who believes their football team lost because they didn’t wear their lucky red socks.  In both of these cases, the person is attributing responsibility and control for things in an inappropriate way.  To be able to determine what you control – and what you don’t – allows a person to choose valuable actions in response to stressful situations.

Balanced expectancy – I don’t overly expect negative or positive things will happen in the future, but make predictions based upon reasonable evidence and experience.  Consider the eternal optimist, who thinks ‘she’ll be right’ in the middle of a catastrophe, or the eternal pessimist who thinks only bad things can happen in the future (usually they are highly anxious trying to prepare for them).  In both of these cases, the inability to have a balanced view of the future will impact the actions that they choose in response to a circumstance.  To be able to plan with foresight and to have a realistic expectation  of potential risks allows quality planning and preparation to deal with changing situations and stress.

Mindfulness – How I am able to be aware of my thoughts, feelings, responses and processes.  People who are mindful are able to recognise when they are stressed, when they are responding to a circumstance in unhelpful ways and to consciously intervene and change their thoughts, feelings and actions to better cope and respond.  One of the biggest traps in crisis is to ignore the feelings or thoughts about what is going on and just try and ‘fight the good fight’.  The thoughts and feelings that prove that the situation is stressful allows to evaluate why and how it is stressful for us, and to consciously choose an appropriate response (or to stop ourselves responding when we shouldn’t!), rather than unconsciously responding from habit or fear.  It also allows us to better evaluate how we are responding, to test if they are working for us, and to be open to checking and altering these to produce better quality outcomes.

Critical thinking skills – If I can critically break down a problem, ask great questions to discriminate aspects of my experience, I am better able to choose a valuable response.  It is not possible to solve ‘global’ problems (think ‘always, never, everything, nothing’ type statements).  Critical thinking allows big, scary circumstances to be critically examined and decisions made about what in the circumstance needs to be responded to, and what does not (or cannot).

Problem solving skills – If I can solve problems as they emerge, come up with a range of possible solutions and choose between them I can take valuable actions to respond to the stress and the circumstance.  Often people will fall back on the ‘patterns’ of responding and try to do what they have always done, rather than engage in problem solving with a broader mindset.  This often means that their response – which may have been appropriate in one circumstance – may not be appropriate in another.  Looking for novel ways to approach solving a problem can lead to new and more valuable responses to stressful or changing circumstances.

People respond to situations in different ways.  For example, some people go through trauma and get post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whilst others are able to cope, learn and grow.  Everyone processes the meaning of experiences differently, and using these skills to develop perspective and response can be the difference between interpreting a situation and responding in an unhelpful way, or interpreting a situation and responding in a resilient way.

I see a lot of ‘inappropriate coping’ to stress and changed contexts in executives.  This can be reflected in anxiety, panic disorder, depression, addictions and other unhealthy coping behaviours, or poor quality responses and actions.  Coaching leaders to develop greater ‘resilience’ starts with the deeper skills, teaching and practicing them and their application.  Helping people learn to learn, learn to cope, develop and choose better quality responses through coaching can make a massive difference.

How resilient are you?  Which ‘skills’ do you routinely demonstrate in your responses to stress and change, and which do you think could be better developed?

Developing resilience in individuals is only part of the story.  Resilience is a concept which extends to groups, team, organisations, communities and systems.

In the next blog, I will take a look at resilience in these contexts.  One thing we will see is having ‘resilient leaders’ is critical to building resilience in all of these other circumstances.


  1. Paul

    5 years ago

    Biting my nails is a maladaptive coping skill for my symptoms anxiety and depression. It leads to sore and bloody fingertips. I am hurting myself, but I do it because it brings me a kind of relief. it’s strange, but that how maladaptive coping skills work.

    • Phil Owens

      5 years ago

      Maladaptive coping suggests that you understand that there are other ways. And whilst you are stuck being maladaptive, you are missing the opportunity to learn something and evolve your process to something different, behaving differently

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