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Resilience - Can you train your mind like you train your muscles?

We hear the term all the time.  Becoming more resilient is offered as the solution to coping with stress, helping with mental health issues and continuing to perform well in times of change and uncertainty.  

But what does it mean - and are we really using the right term for the personal qualities and skills that we need to do these things?  

If we look at a scientific definition of resilience, we find something like this:

Resilience is the ability of a material to withstand elastic deformation without deforming plastically. In other words, resilience involves the stretching of atomic bonds prior to the breaking of the bonds. The maximum amount of volume that a material will elastically deform before becoming permanently deformed is known as the modulus of resilience. If a material is elastically deformed then its atomic bonds are stretched, but no bonds are broken. The material will return to its original state so long as the bonds are not broken and only elastic deformation has occurred.”

The key point in this type of definition is that resilience means that a resilient object, which does not break under stress, will return to its original state. Is that what we, as educators interested in learning and development, really want? If we support people in ‘bouncing back’ or returning to how they were, do we not devalue the whole premise of experiential learning?  

Surely we need more than the ability to return to the status quo. Surely we need to be working to take people to a new place, where they are stronger, more capable and different to how they were previously.

Rather than thinking of resilience in scientific terms, in which we have images of a ‘return to normal’, we might consider a different metaphor: the human muscle. In order to build muscle strength, it is necessary to damage the muscle fibres. The process of damaging the muscle - the physical exertion involved, is not what strengthens the muscle. It is the process of healing and building new fibres that increases muscle strength and size. The new muscle is not the same as the pre-trained one: the process of damaging and repairing has strengthened it.

So, if we extend this metaphor, it could be argued that our primary aim as trainers and facilitators is to acknowledge that life can be tough and stressful and that people need help, not in ‘bouncing back’ but in moving forward with enhanced strength and flexibility. Despite our best efforts, we cannot prevent adversity and daily stress but we can learn to be more resilient by changing how we think it.

So how do we do this? Again, let’s think of the metaphor of muscle-building.

Step 1: Subject the muscle to a degree of controlled stress: for example, lifting increasing amounts of weight. The stress must be enough to break the small muscle fibres and cause discomfort but not enough to cause major damage.  (Progressive overload)

In learning terms, we might think of this as stretching out of the comfort zone, into an area of perceived risk, where learners will feel challenged, perhaps anxious, maybe uncertain or confused but not overwhelmed. Challenging team and leadership tasks, simulations, role-plays and structured feedback all offer this potential. The safety of the learning environment, just like the safety guidelines in a well-managed gym, allows the learner to push beyond pre-conceived limitations and to experience some discomfort in order to build long term capability.

Step 2: Once the muscle has been stressed, it is vital to:

a) Stop exercising and allow recovery and relaxation time

b) Provide the body with the nutrition it needs to make the repairs

In learning terms, think of (a) as the process of reflection and conceptualisation that follows a challenging experience. We know that taking time to notice, reflect and make sense of experience leads to the development of understanding and capability to face future situations with a higher degree of confidence and competence. The ‘nutrition’ (b) needed to learn from experience comes from a number of sources that feed resilience. 

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