Learning resilience

Positive psychologist Chris Johnstone reflects on the importance of mental resilience, a frame of mind that can be learned with flexible thinking practices

With worrying trends of climate change, economic decline and ecological unravelling, it is easy to feel pessimistic about the future. What can positive psychology offer here? Perhaps its most important contribution is in the area of resilience, looking at what helps us overcome and recover from adversity. And indeed, making the best of it.

Resilience is often thought of as a strength possessed by some and not by others. If we don’t see ourselves as hardy, is there anything we can do? The good news from positive psychology research is that resilience is learnable.

Back in the early 1990s, a resilience training course was offered to children known to be at higher risk of depression. There were immediate benefits from the course and the positive impacts were still evident two years later. The Penn Resiliency Program (named after the University of Pennsylvania where it was developed) is now recognised as of proven value in protecting against depression and anxiety.

A core part of the Penn Program is a form of mind training known as ‘flexible thinking’. This is quite different from positive thinking. Instead it involves being able to generate a range of alternative perspectives when facing an adversity and then choosing between these. Each perspective is assessed using the ABC model where A stands for the adversity, B is the belief we have about this and C is the consequence of thinking that way.

One typical perception involves viewing the problem as overblown. The belief that ‘there’s nothing to worry about’ has a short-term consequence of reducing anxiety, allowing us to continue with business as usual. But what about the longer-term consequences? Problems not acknowledged tend to get worse, particularly when the behaviours feeding them remain unchanged. Superficial optimism that encourages us to continue the way we’re going can be a recipe for disaster.

Taking a more pessimistic stance, a second perspective sees the problem as already too severe for us to do anything about. The belief ‘it’s too late’ tends to be followed by the consequence of people giving up on the future as a project to invest in. This can lead to a loss of meaning and direction in life, increasing depression and addictive behaviour.

A third perspective is based on the belief that crisis can be a turning point. There is a realistic optimism here that combines a commitment to honesty in assessing our situation with an openness to the possibility that we can rise to the occasion. What would the consequences be if we were alarmed enough to act and believed we could make a difference? What might that lead us to do?

When Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in Auschwitz, he held in his mind the idea that one day he would be giving lectures around the world about the psychology of concentration camps. He recognised that one area of choice always available to us is the meaning we give to events. Finding an empowering perspective gave him a source of strength.

When we face a situation we find difficult, we can exercise our creativity by inviting in different ways of thinking about it. For resilience we need perspectives that acknowledge reality while also supporting us to see adversities as challenges we can rise to. If we only think positively, we lose the ability to recognise danger. If we only think negatively, we miss recognising potential solutions. Flexible thinking considers a range of perspectives, testing them with an ABC approach that asks ‘what’s the effect of thinking that way?’