Reposted from Medium:

The word resilience is one which cuts across the vernacular of a number of topic domains. It is commonly promoted in business as part of the values that employees should exemplify. For example, the popular expression ‘don’t come with a problem, come with a solution’ is a great example of how organisations value problem solving under pressure.

A recent article in the American Psychological Association website looks specifically at building resilience to become more confident and better at managing change — stating that psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. The article also likens building resilience to “building a muscle,” stating that increasing resilience takes time and intentionality. By focusing on four core components — connection, wellness, healthy thinking and meaning as a means to withstand and learn from difficult and traumatic experiences.

Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges.

Being resilient does not eliminate stress or erase life’s difficulties. People who possess this resilience don’t see life through rose-colored lenses. They understand that setbacks happen and that sometimes life is hard and painful. According to many experts, this resilience is quite common, and people are very capable of learning the skills that it takes to become more resilient. Some of the other factors include social support from friends and family helps to build resilience.

There are some other factors often associated with resilient behaviour. Resilient people are:

  • Confident: Hold positive views of themselves and their abilities
  • Committed: have the capacity to make realistic plans and stick to them
  • Guided by the inner voice: Having an internal locus of control
  • Communicators: Being a good communicator
  • Positive thinkers: See themselves as survivors rather than victims
  • Emotionally intelligent: Able to manage emotions effectively

Arguably, these are the same set of traits that are seen as essential to work in many fields including the public sector, private industry and education. But, like with nature, there are limitations before a tipping point is reached. Overworked muscles lead to injury and pain. Resilience has limits and when you go beyond the tipping point, all the vulnerabilities are exposed.

The human condition mirrors that of the ecosystem in which we live. There are tipping points, thresholds from which there can not be a return to the state of normalcy. In the context of ecological science and environmental management the terms ‘tipping points’ and ‘boundaries’ are often used in relation to abrupt and irreversible changes. A tipping point can be regarded as an ecological threshold beyond which major change becomes inevitable. A boundary is a human-determined value that sets the distance from a tipping point that a society is prepared to maintain (Jackson 2016, Rockström et al. 2009). How we consider the anthropocene is by definition a lesson in how humans have made changes in a system without knowing the full implication of the impacts those rapid changes would have had. Just because technology has the tools for completing certain tasks, doesn’t mean we should use those tools. In terms of the anthropocene – where is the boundary? 

We can see this in the history of the human animal. Tribes, cities, and societies can rapidly crash or flourish. As ever, the tipping point could not have been foreseen.

As stated earlier, the literature on resilience in the fields of ecological science and climate resilience is vast, with varied understandings of the term within the scientific discipline. Resilience is the ability of the environment to withstand or recover from a shock or disturbance. Although the concept of resilience was developed and is mainly used in relation to ecosystems, it is a valuable concept across the environment and in environmental management (Jackson 2016). The reality is we cannot separate planetary health from human health, for example it has been shown that two of the biggest drivers of emerging infectious disease are deforestation and forest fragmentation (Summer 2020).

Regarding the ‘tipping point’ in human psychology, tipping-points research emphasises the top down effects in perceiving the self and social world. A few bad grades may be dismissed as a new student adjusts to the course, but the nth bad grade shifts one’s attribution from the situation to the person (“This must be a bad student after all”). That n is one’s tipping point (O.Brien 2019). 

Also, the role of how bias can change perceptions around change can impact the ability to manage change. This is one reason why nudge theory is so attractive to policy makers – if change can happen unseen by the user, then there is no need to bring attention to the issue / change required. 

Regarding more direct change-perception literature, one common approach views change perception as a function of attention. People can respond only to changes that they notice, but competing demands on attention make noticing difficult (e.g., the “boiling frog”; Simons & Ambinder, 2005). The recent bushfires tested Australians perceptions of a normal summer and forced them to consider that a critical tipping point had been surpassed. People in Australia are used to fires in summer, but the intensity of the fires, the levels of air pollution, the geographical spread and level of destruction forced people to not just pay attention but to act. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) has been sharing video and audio from people in the community and their experience of social distancing. One caller (a mature male voice) comments that his emotions are close to the surface and didn’t know why. 

Vulnerability emerges. Not as an antithesis to resilience, but as part of the transformation that needs to happen, a transformation that is happening whether we like it or not. While there is an emphasis on ‘getting back to normal’, perhaps normal is not healthy and we need to change to be more resilient not just for ourselves, but for the world around us. 

Candace Ossefort-Russell (2018) comments that: 

From the core of awful strength and beauty that resulted from the rebuilding of myself from the shattered-ground-up is where the concept of resilience touches into my past trauma. On the surface, building resilience to make it through tough times seems like a good idea. But there’s a shadow side to it.

Climate resilience and ecosystems resilience are tied to human health and wellbeing. Humans are part of this system – we are not separate. Indigneous people have known this for millennia. The recent protests around the world for #blacklivesmatter highlights that a threshold has been passed. People are not protesting about the death of one man, they are protesting about the systemic racism which exists and the inequality that divides us all. COVID-19 has further amplified the divisions between the haves and the have-nots as well as the psychological impacts of social isolation and anxiety, which have contributed towards this tipping point.

In conclusion, it is clear that resilience is a highly loaded term which can mean many things. What is also clear is that many people have been pushed beyond the tipping point through these unprecedented events. As with the natural world, greater awareness and sensitivity to the tipping points of resilience is critical to understanding why people are feeling more vulnerable. More acceptance of our human limits of resilience will support greater empathy and compassion, not just towards each other, but towards the living world.

This article was posted on 7 June 2020

On a personal note, things have not been so easy, hence my interest in writing about resilience and tipping points. Let’s face it – 2020 has been a pile of p00! First the fires and smoke and the summer from hell, then COVID-19 brought a loss of paid work for two members of our household including myself and last Thursday our beloved feline master Oskar absconded and hasn’t been seen since. Also – this article is in a more formal voice as part of my journey as a science communicator…


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