Resilience is not an optional extra


A colleague of mine sent me the following paper – “Embedding resilience within the tertiary curriculum: a feasibility study” by Helen Stallman (who is actually at UniSA now)

At first, my reaction was “be gone academic twaddle!!” but it turns out it is an interesting paper, with some neat takeaway messages.

Resilience is the ability to cope and bounce back from adversity and life’s challenges. ‘Mental toughness’, ‘mental fitness, ‘adaptability’ are related terms that are sometimes used to describe the same idea.

In contrast to the the idea that you either have, or don’t really have resilience, many psychologists (myself included) believe you can build resilience over time, through practice and engagement in specific skills and techniques. It is basically the same as physical fitness – if you do the work, you can reap the benefits.

Helen believes this also and the subject of her paper is university students’ experiences of her Staying On Track resilience seminar – a 90 minute presentation designed to increase resilience literacy, resilience and help-seeking, through the teaching of 6 building blocks of resilience: realistic expectations, balance, connectedness, positive self-talk, stress management and taking action.

What is the best way to expose students to the concept of resilience?

When Helen made the Staying On Track seminar optional for students to attend, there was poor uptake. Those who participated, reported it as beneficial, but not many people willingly chose to participate. Life can feel exhausting enough as it is, without the further stress of using our free time to engage in psychological strength building.

However, when Helen made the Staying On Track seminar a part of the curriculum of a 1st year undergraduate psychology topic, attendance was good (not surprisingly as it was compulsory), and satisfaction and perceived usefulness of the seminar was high. Students liked it and found it useful. They could see how the skills learned would make them better students.

These are important findings. They suggest that when you present resilience training as something which is good, but not necessary to do, lots of people will ignore it. If you present it though, as a critical part of the whole learning process, students are more engaged.

Resilience is not an optional extra

I think it is time to see resilience, not as something which it would be “nice to build”, but something which is “essential to build” if we are to have productive and satisfying lives.

Resilience is a not a curious hobby we can engage in when we feel like it. It is not some warm, fuzzy, ‘read it in a self-help’ book crap that only psychologists find interesting cause they can argue about definitions till they’re blue in the face.

The skills of resilience are the skills of modern life – how to navigate work, study, relationships, health, unpredictability and uncertainty.  If we are lucky, we learn these skills from parents, friends or teachers. If we don’t get the best set of resilience skills from them, then we need to learn some of them ourselves.

So I am all for embedding such resilience training within the educational system, like Helen did in her paper, and like they are increasingly doing in the school system. And not just from a mental health angle (i.e. reduce risk for mental illness), but from a “here are the skills you need to handle modern life” angle.

The truth is we’ll all be exposed to some some kind of loss, trauma or adversity. We’ll all struggle at some point to fulfil one or more of our fundamental human needs. At those times, we’ll wish that we had a good coping toolkit at our disposal.

How to build your resilience toolkit

When students did Helen’s program, many remarked that the skills taught were things they already knew, but which were helpful to be reminded of.

It was very much the case that they needed a reminder to use those skills, and when to use them, rather than be taught something completely novel.

In this regard, I don’t think that the development of resilience need necessarily be an onerous or time consuming process. Yes, there will be people whose resilience skills are poor, maybe because of significant early life trauma, or dysfunctional role models. They might have to work harder on developing their resilience skills.

But it also potentially the case that you can enhance your resilience with just regular reminders of what skills to use and when.

With this in mind, I suggest setting aside 19 minutes and 44 seconds to learn about the six building blocks of resilience that Helen covers in the Staying On Track program. I warn you that the video is a little ‘academic’ and feels a bit like a glorified Powerpoint presentation. But don’t let the looks fool you. The ideas contained within are simple and doable.

Let me know how you go:



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Psychological Tools Research and Reports

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