The Resilience System: Why you aren't as resilient as you could be

Do you keep hearing the words “resilient” or “resilience”? Are you told all the time that you need to learn to be resilient, or build up strong resilience? We throw around resilience as though it is something everyone has heaps of, and while to a degree this is true, some people are able to be more resilient than others.

What is resilience anyway? Some people refer to resilience as person’s ability to “bounce back” after a difficult experience or setback.

It’s the ability to adapt in the face of adversity, trauma, threats, or significant sources of stress, such as relationships, family issues, financial issues, school or career stress, illness, or other significant life event. Resilience is what helps you manage the “road bumps” that life can present at you. Resilience is not the same as being tolerant of all the things that happen to your life – we’ll discuss more about that later. But the bottom line is that we think that the “force field” of resilience must be far beyond this and way more advanced. Think of it as a filter with an attack system.

The Importance of Resilience

Resilience is particularly important for people to understand because it is what helps us cope, stay on track, and not allow ourselves to run off the rails when faced with adversity. Resilience allows us to recognize where problems exist, move into problem solving mode, and where a problem is not solvable, we use resilience to adapt and change our own behaviours to move past any setbacks.

Resilience is a highly valued trait in the professional world. While managers will be available to their employees for a degree of coaching, and they are there to support employees through difficult issues, they appreciate an employee’s ability to move past setbacks on his or her own without the constant help of their leader. When you build resilience, you build your own ability to problem solve. Managers appreciate staff who are able to come to them with solutions rather than problems. Building resilience, and the ability to move past adversity, will show that you are a solutions-driven leader who has the ability to bounce back by setback in order to move forward productively.

Resilience can sometimes be characterised as “mental toughness”, or the ability to automatically defer to problem solving mode rather than take too much time dwelling in the circumstances that led to the adversity. In a Forbes article, they refer to this as “armadillo-like hide”, and suggest that this a leader’s secret weapon. This ability to have a “stiff upper lip” and move past adversity and into problem solving mode will be guaranteed to serve you not only in your professional life, but as your life undoubtedly throws challenges your way.

You know that adage “If at first you don’t succeed, pick yourself up and try again”? Resilience is just this. Resilience isn’t about avoiding failure, but it’s the ability to move past failure in order to try again. Resilience is that strong life-force that keeps you going strong, even when your mental and physical reserves seem to be depleted.

Resilience is NOT Tolerance

I mentioned that resilience is not the same as tolerance. It’s important to recognize that being resilient doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate, accept, or perpetuate any kinds of conditions that present adversity. For instance, you do not have to be resilient towards bullying behaviour in your office – you have the right to work in an office free of those threats, and thus, should be taking steps to address that behaviour. Similarly, you do not have to put up with poor treatment from a romantic partner – your strength is not in being able to “bounce back” from abuse, but rather find your way out of it. It’s extremely important to address the fact that being resilient doesn’t always mean you have to be tolerant, place yourself in unsafe situations, or go against your own moral code.

Resilience is something all human beings have inside us. It is instinctual – how else do you think our ancestors survived life when they had a lot less “convenience” than we do in the modern world? Resilience is not always strong in all people, but the good news is that it can be built. Resilient people take care of themselves first, and see life as one big learning opportunity. They know how to laugh through the chaos, and hold onto those they love through the sadness. They put positivity and an open heart high on their personal priority list.




The Resilience System

I like to think of resilience as an extension of the immune system. The basic function of the immune system is to fight off pathogens that can potentially harm us. There are two basic “layers” of this defense system.

Innate System

Toxins or microorganisms that enter an organism first find themselves fighting against the innate immune system. The way this system recognises potential pathogens is by “Pattern Recognition Receptors”. Essentially they find components of a microbe which are known to be harmful to the body. This system is non-specific. It will attack this pathogen in a random way through inflammation, or by blocking the entry of them into the body all together. This system does not confer long-lasting immunity against a pathogen. The innate immune system is the dominant system of host defense in most organisms

Adaptive System

A more sophisticated response to a foreign pathogen. It is the host defense system that alloss long term immunity. It has a high level of memory and the recognition of certain antigens is extremely accurate. There are multiple levels of response in this system which can either save your life if working properly, or can put your life in extreme danger if it is malfunctioning.

Our Resilience System also has an innate and adaptive equivalent. It is important to recognize that our individual experiences shape how effective this system is. This system however, is located in our brain.

There are three structural levels in your brain. Brainstem, Midbrain and Neo-Cortex.

Let’s take a real life example. John receives notification that he did not successfully get a job he was going for. Generally, this is a negative experience. Let’s start with the basic emotional reaction.

Why our bodies have an emotional reaction. What is it’s use?

By nature, we are not logical creatures. As much as we try and be as rational as possible, our biochemical reactions will always precede logical thought. Our actions will be to some extent influenced by emotion, and while there are those who are very good at masking their emotions and maintaining composure, everyone has a threshold where eventually an emotional reaction will overcome all systematic thinking processes.

These basic emotions derive from the brainstem, the most primitive area of the brain. This area is the master of reflex and reaction. It also works as an amazing filter if our basic needs are not met. Basic decision making ability in this area is also primitive. For example, if you are hungry, sleep deprived or sick, this area of the brain will dominate when you are dealing with any task. So in John’s case, if he was sleep deprived or hungry he would likely react based on reflex which may manifest as anger. John’s decisions during this time would likely be wise decisions.

The midbrain is the ‘next level’ structure when it comes to cognitive structure. This area has more regulatory ability when it comes to controlling emotions. The thalamus and the hypothalamus are two major components in the midbrain which in a social situation will only be accessed fully if the basic human needs are met, where reactions and interpretations will bypass the brainstem level of operations.

The level which deals with high level functioning and problem solving is the neocortex. This is the area which we want to be working with at all times in order to make good decisions and react appropriately to different situations. The midbrain and the neocortex are the areas which determine which of the following reactions John will have;

  1. Accept that this opportunity for some reason did not show a positive outcome and try again next time

  2. Interpret this event as an attack his personal abilities and character and subsequently feels negative emotions.

  3. See this as an opportunity to improve

  4. Completely block this event out of his mind and avoid the reality of the situation.

From the above, we know now that the area that we want to be working in most is the neocortex level where high function exists. In order to bypass the brainstem level of function we must consistently make decisions in our day to day life that deals with basic human requirements.

  1. Hydration and Nutrition

  2. Sleep

The other important aspects that will allow you to bypass the brainstem deal with danger, and uniqueness of our environment

  1. Danger present? Activate flight or fight response.

  2. New environment or situation? Quickly absorb as much information as possible and move along.

These two areas of your life will, if satisfied, will allow you to go to the midbrain level of functioning.

The midbrain acts as the bridge between neocortex and brainstem. It deals with consistency of a problem arising. It is constantly sending problems back and forth as problems become more complex or basic. The bottom line is, if our basic human needs are met, then we are focusing on the organisation of information and the ‘how’ to the respond, rather than have a reflex reaction derived from the brain stem.

Our Resilience System is the area where we want to be. Only then can we strengthen it through various strategies and tools. It is the where motivation and achievement is found. If you are not in this area, the chances are you are not getting the results you want, no matter how hard you try.