Building resilience

Few will ever have experienced a time such as this. The world is facing a threat the like of which has not been seen in over 100 years. We’re all in this together. The need to act collectively is great if we are to manage and eventually overcome what will be for many, the greatest ever challenge to their day-to-day lives. The message of collective action is repeated daily by politicians and the media. Many countries have brought in temporary laws to enforce changes. Just as important, maybe more so, are rapidly developing social norms that nudge people to behave in new ways, probably the best example of which is social distancing.

So, we’re all in this together. Yes. And no. Whilst coronavirus may be bringing the world together in an unprecedented way, we don’t have to look too far to see divisions. Geographical divisions are great, as the spread of the virus across the world affects different countries at different times and at different rates. It lays bare differences in countries’ infrastructure, especially in terms of healthcare. Even within specific countries, the experience of the current situation will differ greatly from place to place. And it needs to go even more localised. We need to appreciate how it affects each and every individual.

So, maybe we’re not in this together in the same way. For over a century, psychologists have puzzled over why two people exposed to the same event can react very differently to it. Initially this was studied in relation to extreme events like war, natural disasters or accidents. Interest then turned to the more mundane, looking at the impact of everyday events on people’s psychological health. One outcome of this was the development of ‘life events checklists’ which assigned objective weights to specific events – divorce, illness, getting a parking ticket and even Christmas. However, simply recording what events a person had experienced turned out to have little bearing on their wellbeing. What was far more predictive was the meaning of the event to the individual and the resources they had available to them to deal with it.

A key message to take from this is that we will all deal with the current situation differently. Our behaviours and feelings will result from an interaction of our specific situation and our individual characteristics. People on the front-line’s psychological wellbeing, especially medics but also all emergency services and those who are required to interact with the public like shop workers, may be particularly at risk. Control is important here. People with greater personal control over situations tend to have better health outcomes; it gives the belief of being able to change things in a way we want, being able to act rather than simply acted upon. These people tend to be more resilient and resistant to stress.

Resistance to stress is a core aspect of personality. It is found in many assessments and can give valuable insights into how people typically deal with stress. At a fundamental level, people react differently to pressurised, stressful situations. Some naturally show strong reactions which may leave them vulnerable, especially when they may not be adequately supported. However, it is more subtle than simply being resistant to stress or not. Whereas some respond flexibly to changing situations, something that is more relevant now than ever, others do not. They find comfort and reassurance in routine and what is predictable, and so change may adversely affect their sense of control and so wellbeing. Further, some may be very good at keeping their emotions in check, so they appear healthy to others. Not outwardly showing signs of stress will not necessarily mean that someone is coping well.

For people working at the front-line, recognising that our reaction to a situation may be different to our colleague’s reaction is an essential first step in supporting them to build resilience. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but support that meets everyone’s individual needs and so allows them to remain effective. Personality assessments provide a powerful way of appreciating such differences. They are a short-cut to getting to know someone and to understanding how they are likely to be reacting to the current situation. By appreciating this uniqueness, we collectively build resilience. After all, we’re all in this together.