Resilience is the ability to return back to our prior state after a stress or pressure. If we are pushed past our yield point, we can be permanently changed, which may be good or bad. Understanding resilience and what affects it allows us to build some better recovery tools, better stress management tools and help us navigate change better.

Understanding What Resilience Is

We borrow the idea of resilience in mental health from the physical properties of objects.

  • A resilient object will spring back to its former shape after it is deformed
  • An object will be deformed because of some external pressure
  • Too much pressure will break the object
  • To deform and bounce back to its former shape, it must have some flexibility, some spring back elasticity, and the pressure cannot be more than its resilience amount

Most of these properties are the same for human mental resilience, just with a few name changes.

Mental Health Resilience is the ability to take on stress and where needed, flex with it, and then spring back to our former state once the pressure stops.

An object can lose resilience if it is too cold or too hot, is under too much pressure, is under reasonable pressure for a long period, or it movement fatigues due to too many deformations. Again, this is nicely analogous to humans. When we are under too much stress, whether that is a momentary peak of stress or an extended period of stress, we may not spring back. If the stress is repetitive, we may stress fatigue and stop springing back to our former chipper selves. Stress fatigue because that is different to exhausted fatigue.

Peak vs  Repeated vs Persistent Stressor
Peak vs Repeated vs Persistent Stressor

The analogue of object temperature (hot and cold) in humans is our environment. A poorly supporting environment is cold, while managing many other stressors is hot. Another analogy of how cold can lead to low flexibility is when we are tired or exhausted. Generally, we become far more rigid in how we do things, and we break (meltdown) more than we flex.

Rubber, iron and wood are all different objects with different resilience. In a similar way, humans are all different objects. My response to a particular stressor is likely to be different to yours. We are likely to have different points of resisting a stressor before yielding, a different amount that we can flex around it, and a difference to how many times we can flex. We will also have a different speed of recovery from that stress before we can resume as we were before.

So far, the analogy to objects has been useful, but this is a reasonable point to call a limit to it.

Human Mental Health Resilience is different to physical object resilience. An object can only respond to pressure in the same way as it always does, while humans have memory, knowledge, skill and community. Humans need to recover resources, heal damage and then review and learn from their experiences. Recovering resources can be affected by poverty, physical health, neurology, knowledge, social pressures, hunger and many more factors.

Improving Resilience by Improving Knowledge

We can learn from our prior experience and speculate on improvements to how we managed that stressor. This relies on our ability to store memories, review them, have insight into our ability to affect change, our cognition to understand what happened, and our judgement to create a better solution. The next time we face that same stressor, if this process is successful, we will be less deformed by the stressor, and thus have a faster recovery from it.

Another key difference to objects is that while pressure is relative and has a few types, the object doesn’t really get to choose any of that. Mental stress is evaluated on our history of similar events, the way that we classify the event and how prepared we are to be able to meet the adversary that causes the stress. For example, if I have no experience fighting lions, and I’ve lost family members to lions, then meeting a lion in the wild is going to be terrifying. On the other hand, if I have led lion hunts and have good knowledge of how to fight lions, it is merely concerning. The lion didn’t change, only my knowledge of lions and confidence in facing them has.

With some knowledge of what to do and confidence in doing so, less of my cognitive resources (spoons) is going into creatively finding a solution with inadequate knowledge and is put into doing something about the problem using the solutions that I already have. That shift in resources leads to better outcomes against the stressor and uses up far few internal resources. Few resources expended means a faster recovery. Less impact upon me because of better solution outcomes means less healing. All of this leads to a faster recovery.

The version of me that has more knowledge of the stressor and or better solutions to the problem would be considered more resilient than the version of me that doesn’t.

A way that we can be more resilient is to have a better working knowledge of the problem and have better solution options to those problems. When possible, this is excellent.

Powerlessness, Opportunities and Balancing with Serenity

Unfortunately, this can be impossible. If I am stuck on the train tracks and can see the oncoming train, my knowledge of which buttons to push in the engine room is useless to my ability to stop the train. That is, if I know which buttons to push. We can be powerless to affect the stressor, whether we have knowledge about it or not. That pushes us to just endure the stress until, hopefully, it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t.

We need to develop different strategies for managing stressors that we cannot affect. This is more about building endurance than necessarily resilience. How do we decrease the impact of that stressor on us? If it is a direct physical affect, such as being hit, can we roll with it, deflect it or try to block it with something? If it is a financial affect, such as poverty, can we decrease our daily costs to try to live within our means (this can be impossible). If it is a mental affect, can we reframe the thing so that it has a lower impact on our mind?

The summary of this bit is the serenity prayer/mantra. Give me the courage to act when I can change things, the patience to wait when I can’t, and the wisdom to tell the difference. We want those actions to be efficient and effective; we want that patience to include some harm minimisation where possible; and the wisdom is sometimes recognising when our mistaken courage is not having any effect and we pivot to harm minimising patience.

Understanding the Limits of Being Human – Internal Resources

The worst time to teach someone how to swim is when they are drowning. It is much better to teach them to swim when they have a safe environment, a good teacher, and no imminent death before them. Similarly, the best way to build resilience is to learn how to manage adversity when you aren’t drowning in it. When we feel like we are drowning, we need to prioritise survival over optimisation. Someone might be able to help us, so calling for help is important. Until that help comes, though, assume you are on your own and survive.

Let us say that you’ve managed to drag yourself out of the water. You expended all of your energy into staying alive and getting to shore. This is not the time to start learning how to swim, you need some time to recover your energy, decrease your stress and start thinking again. If you are thrown back into deep water before you recover, you won’t learn a better way to survive. If you don’t think that you will ever go into water again, learning to swim seems like a waste of time.

What this shows us is that we need a stable environment, an opportunity to learn, the resources to learn, some time to recover those resources, and a need to improve how you survived.

What this doesn’t directly say, but does highlight, is that if you are constantly running on empty because you are just trying to survive life, then you can’t improve your survival technique. That means you can’t get more efficient at how you are managing, which means that you can’t improve your resilience. You will expend all of your effort in staying alive, not knowing which movements and kicks are at worst sabotaging your swimming efforts, or wasting your strength, compared to the movements that actually saved your life. With no spare energy, it is hard to improve.

Put another way, if you want to improve your life, you need a bit of scope (coin) to do so.

Improving Efficiency Increases Endurance

Everything we do costs internal energy to do, whether that is blood sugar, neurotransmitter, or some other key ingredient. We can simplify that to a marker like spoons, spell slots, coins, or mana. You can’t do anything for zero coins, but perhaps you don’t have to spend as many coins on that task as you have been. We can use simplified methods, or easier components, or outsourcing tasks, or skipping things that don’t matter to save those coins. The result of this is that we get more coins at the end of the day.

With those spare coins, we can now invest in three main things. Recovery, where we relax and heal. Further optimisation, where we save more coins on an ongoing daily basis. Solving, where we can actually address the root cause of our stress.

In the early days of trying not to drown, to push this metaphor a bit further, we can’t recover yet, and we can’t not be drowning, so we invest in further optimisations. Maybe we can find a thing to hang on to that floats, or we can try to calm our mind and focus on what movements are raising us versus pulling us down. Perhaps we can shed some unneeded clothes or items that are dragging us down. The goal is to have more coin to invest in swimming more optimally and get to shore, where we can recover. Later we can learn how to swim well.

Generalisation & Reframing Toolkit

Another way to improve efficiency is to reduce over specialisation. When we get good at a specific something, we run the risk of having too narrow a scope. We can become too rigid in our definition of what a screwdriver is used for – driving screws. It can also be a leaver, a hammer, a chisel, a door wedge and so on. While a hammer is a better hammer, the energy to go and get a hammer may be more than the extra cost of misappropriating the screwdriver to be a hammer in this instance.

What I’m getting at is that we can learn a better generalisable heuristic, a set of rules that leads to good results most of the time, and methods to learn when those start to fail so we can switch to specific use case optimised tools. This means we don’t need a specialised tool to do everything. We instead have a small number of broad use tools for most things, and only need a few tools for a few specific exceptions to the general rule. This frees us lots of coin space for other things, and lends to much better flexibility.

Sometimes we are trying to find solutions to the same kind of problem, we just haven’t yet seen that it is the same kind of problem. If the problem isn’t a crisis, we have time to consider the problem from different angles and see if it is similar to problems that we have experience with. We can then transfer solutions and knowledge to this new thing, so long as we keep in mind it is similar, not the same. These answers are more efficient, leaving more coins for other things. If the problem is too different, or we don’t see a good angle to make it transferrable, then it is worth the investment of coin to create a new solution system. Even then, if we can find parts that are similar, we can transfer a skill rather than acquire a new one for that part.

Improving Crisis Management Tools

Are we in crisis because it is a crisis, or are we in crisis because we think it is a crisis?

Sometimes we are in crisis because we have overestimated the immediacy of the consequences of the stress. If neither you nor someone else are not currently being hurt by the problem, then you should take a moment to get your head out of crisis mode.

Crisis mode blinds us to creative solutions and efficient coin spending to survive. A few minutes calming down and reassessing the urgency can save a great deal of overspend. Once you have a better grasp on urgency (time), scope (harm), and complexity (the actual cause of the stress), you may decide to take more time to calm down and find a smarter rather than harder solution; or if it is not feasible to do that due to a lack of time, go ahead with the default solution, but this time with a clearer head.

If we are frequently coming across the same kinds of crisis, then we can get much better at the tools we use to manage those.

Step 1 is to look at the crises we face and see if there is a pattern. The theme of the crises will tell us which management and survival tools we need to improve. If possible, generalise that tool so it can be used for multiple situations, but know its limitations.

Step 2 is to look for common root causes. Prevention is better than cure, so when we can address why we are in constant crisis, we don’t have to manage that crisis.

Step 3 is to look for means to mitigate and minimise the impact of those crises and root cause. Sometimes that is distancing yourself from that problem, sometimes it is reframing that problem.

Seeking Help and Human Limits

Culturally, we have been told that we need to be self sufficient and that relying on others is a weakness. This is a false dichotomy and weakens us.

No one in a Western Country is self-sufficient. I wear clothes I didn’t make; I drive to work on a road I didn’t build; and the I didn’t grow the groceries I bought from the shop. Trying to be completely self-sufficient is not feasible.

On the other hand of the false dichotomy, expecting everyone else to run my life is bad too. Where is my choice, my contribution and my actual life in this? I am just a grown dress up doll in this scenario.

The real balance is in between these two false dichotomies. I use the infrastructure around me when it supports me, I purchase things when that is overall cheaper, and I make what I can’t easily get. It is nice to receive a charitable gift from someone, but if I expect to get it, then it isn’t charity and it isn’t a gift. I can become dependent on a service, which can be a problem, and if that is so, then I should do that with my eyes open to the risk. We are allowed to make calculated risks, and sometimes we are wrong.

Sometimes we come across problems that are bigger than what we can bring to bear on it. At these points we need help. This can be for a single problem, like raising a barn, or it can be an ongoing problem.

If I have a limitation that decreases how much coin I can spend per day to get things done, then I should choose wisely how I use supports. While I can do the dishes myself, my support person might be better utilised doing those dishes while I do a task that they can’t do. If I did do the dishes, I may not have the spare energy coin to do that task I can’t get help on.

Teaching our Young

Hello young person.

We are amazing creatures who can do many wonderful things. Even so, it is important for us to know that we need to rest as well as do things like play, build and learn. If we push ourselves too hard, we can hurt ourselves, perhaps physically, perhaps inside in our hearts and minds.

It is very good for us to learn how to tell when we are becoming tired and risking burning ourselves out. If this seems to be happening more for us than the others around us, we should start asking questions about why that is so. Maybe what they are doing is easier for them than it is for us. Maybe we can learn an easier way to do it, so we can keep up. Sometimes, we can’t, and that is okay. There are things that you probably find easier to do than them, and we should be patient with them about that, just like we want them to be patient with us when we are the ones who are struggling.

The more we learn about how something works, the more we get good at it. At some point though, learning more doesn’t give us much in the way of improvement. It can be worth learning more because we are having fun with it, just don’t mistake that as the same as getting better at doing things. Knowledge is its own reward.

Another good skill is to have some general problem solving heuristics. Heuristics is a fancy word that describes this idea. “A set of ways of understanding and solving things that work well most of the time”. When a problem or task fits into this heuristic, it is much easier to get good at it quickly and find it fairly easy to do.

It is also important to learn when the thing you want to do isn’t easy and you need to take time to learn a specific way to do it. At these times, be patient with yourself. Take the time to learn it. Get help to learn it if you can.

It is okay to ask for help.

Sometimes we need to walk away from a problem and come back to it later.

Remember how we talked about rest earlier? Resting is a solution to the problem of being tired, grumpy or sleepy. Resting is part of us being healthy in mind, heart and body. The other side of resting is doing. We need to practice doing things to get good at them, and that happens between resting.

The harder we have pushed ourselves, the longer it takes to rest and recover the energy to do things again. The other side of that is that the less we do, the harder it is to do anything. We need to find a good balance that works for us.

As you get older, you will learn better ways to do things. Your body and brain is also growing and will be able to do things later that you can’t understand now. Sometimes we just need to wait our bodies get big and strong enough, and our brains get smart and strong enough, to do those things.

Most importantly, you are loved, and you are worthy.

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