Resilience And Stress – Misunderstood?

Resilience is a buzzword around the world and it is often and unfortunately misused and misunderstood. People tend to hear the word ‘resilience’ and interpret or use it to mean ‘tenacity’ and ‘endurance’. Most people are unaware of the difference and this can often have undesirable consequences. For example, someone could think that resilience means they should keep going when they should actually be taking a break, time to rest and recover. Others think resilience means they need to be braver and more committed to goals. It is often useful and enlightening when people realize the true meaning of words. This is also true in the conversations we have with people about resilience, stress and coping. This short piece briefly outlines the difference to help you and others you engage with to be more clear about the meaning of resilience.

If you had to place the words within the context of running a race, tenacity would be the decision you make to run the race and finish the race. You’d make this decision every time you feel like giving up on your training and when you don’t feel like getting up early to train for the race. Endurance would be the ability to continue running and especially when you run longer distances in different settings, for example, up hills and down hills, off road running, steeplechase, etc. You could call it stamina if you prefer. Resilience would be the ability to recover quickly after a race. The ability to return to a normal state of breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. Resilience is like fitness. The fitter you are, the shorter your recovery period. Resilience is similar – it is your ability to bounce back after a challenge.

The Collins Compact Dictionary & Thesaurus describes the terms as below and suggests other related words for tenacity, endurance and resilience:

Tenacity: Holding fast. Perseverance, determination, doggedness, resolve, steadfastness.

Endurance: Bear (hardship) patiently. Last for a long time. Staying power, fortitude, durability, stamina, patience, longevity.

Resilience: Recovering quickly from a shock. Able to return to a normal shape after stretching. Flexible, elastic, pliable, rubbery, supple.

Keeping this in mind, resilient people are people who can recover quickly after challenges. Resilient people also know when to stop and take a break, when to rest and how to do it effectively. Using sport as an example again, the most resilient (fittest) athletes are the ones who recover the fastest after running a race. Endurance athletes have developed the ability to pace themselves throughout a long race. It is important to be tenacious, but also to pace yourself and to build periods of rest and recovery into your plans so that you can last the distance.  Even if life is sometimes a series of short sprints, you still need to take time to rest and recover between the sprints and if you are experiencing a marathon, take time to stop for water, take a breath, pace yourself and focus on the end goal. Whether you are sprinting or running a marathon, learn the techniques for completing the race successfully. Learn from others who have mastered the techniques.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a negative link between stress and health outcomes supported by countless pieces of research across diverse samples and in multiple settings, including laboratory and everyday settings such as workplaces.

From a stress perspective we know that the psychological and physical impact of stress leads to adverse consequences for individual health and wellbeing. However, it largely depends on how stress is defined and what is involved in analyzing its effects. This latter point has been debated by a number of experts and researchers in research-related publications, but the mass media often portrays stress as something that happens to people despite research findings showing strong evidence for individual variability. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a negative link between stress and health outcomes supported by countless pieces of research across diverse samples and in multiple settings, including laboratory and everyday settings such as workplaces. The Health and Safety Executive in the United Kingdom and Centres for Disease Control in the United States of America also clearly note stress as an occupational hazard which should be managed appropriately by organizations. In many instances, however, this is usually done through training and development and sometimes through work and environment reorganization or employee assistance programmes.

Despite all of this work, the actual process underpinning the stress response is not widely and universally understood by organizations and the debates about the universal definition of stress has been addressed in peer-reviewed research, often not accessible to the public and organizations. Research on coping is proportionally limited compared to the vast amount of stress-related material, yet there is also no doubt anymore that the impact of stress on psychological and physical health is moderated by coping strategies, and this means that the cause-and-effect relationship of stressor and stress is not linear, but depends on individual variability.

This brief summary should provide a clearer understanding of stress to help us to position resilience better. From an organizational perspective, both are terms most people are familiar with when looking at the impact of organizational dynamics on individuals and the subsequent impact on organizations in return. The trouble with much of the research reports exploring the link between stress and health outcomes is that the definition of stress is not always clear or the same. Literature and research projects often report on stress as a stimulus; some as a response and some as a combination of the two whilst acknowledging individual differences. Interestingly much of the research on which our thinking in business is based to a large extent do not account for the moderating role of coping strategies in the stressor-health relationship. This particular issue has been receiving some attention in more recent years as research methods improved and lead to interesting new discoveries.

Of particular interest and value is the work done over the last 30+ years by Dr Derek Roger and his research team[i],[ii],[iii]. Dr Roger, a world leader in resilience, used the principles of neuroscience to explore the stress-health relationship more reliably and the results were contradictory to the main thinking at the time. Nevertheless the results of his work held many promising outcomes for the future of resilience and how it is understood and developed. Dr Roger’s research focussed on the moderating role of coping strategies and emotional responses to mitigate the effect of pressure on people. For example, they found that rumination repeatedly predicted prolonged psychological and physiological recovery periods after experiencing external pressure. Dr Roger also clearly defined stress as continuing to ruminate about emotional upsets. In other words, the same pressure (previously defined by stress as a stimulus) does not necessarily lead to a stress response (stress previously defined as a response), but that emotional responses such as rumination, and coping strategies such as detached coping and avoidance coping, play an important role in moderating the relationship between the pressure experienced and the subsequent psychological and physiological outcomes for individuals, especially in the longer term.

The acute stress response is not necessarily a bad thing for us, but an unnecessarily prolonged response is because it keeps our blood pressure, heart rates and cortisol levels at high levels for prolonged periods with the latter also impacting on our immune function by suppressing it.

Rumination is continuing to play negative emotional upsets over and over in our minds. It prolongs cardiovascular recovery as well as other physiological responses which will under normal circumstances return to a normal state again rather quickly. Thus, the acute stress response is not necessarily a bad thing for us, but an unnecessarily prolonged response is because it keeps our blood pressure, heart rates and cortisol levels at high levels for prolonged periods with the latter also impacting on our immune function by suppressing it. That is why people who experience prolonged stress get sick quite often. Now that we know that a prolonged stress response (beyond what we need to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and mostly non-life threatening) is fuelled by rumination, we can also review the meaning of resilience. This means that resilient people are those who stop ruminating sooner. In other words, the sooner we stop attaching negative emotions to what happens in life, the sooner we can stop ruminating, return to a normal state and get on with life. More recent research also suggested that between ruminating about the past and ruminating about the future, the latter is the better predictor of both psychological and physical health outcomes[iv]. In other words, the more we ruminate about the future, the more likely we will experience negative psychological and physical health outcomes. Erma Bombeck’s quote comes to mind: “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it never gets you anywhere.”

[i] Roger, D., Guarino de Secrimin, L., Borrill, J., & Forbes, A. (2011).  Rumination, Inhibition and Stress: The construction of a new scale for assessing emotional style.  Current Psychology, 30, 234-244.

[ii] Roger, D., & Jamieson, J. (1988). Individual differences in delayed heart-rate recovery following stress: The role of extraversion, neuroticism and emotional control. Personality and Individual Differences, 9, 721-726.

[iii] Roger, D., & Najarian, B. (1998).  The relationship between emotional rumination and cortisol secretion under stress.  Personality & Individual Differences, 24, 531-538.

[iv] Stemmet, L., Roger, D., Kuntz, J., & Borrill, J. (2018). Ruminating about the past or ruminating about the future—which has the bigger impact on health? An exploratory study. Current Psychology.

Dr. Lehan Stemmet
Dr. Lehan Stemmet
Dr. Lehan Stemmet is a personal and organizational development expert. Over 20 years ago Lehan developed an interest in how people deal with challenges through what started as a personal project he called 'Deal With It'. He often presents the 'Deal With It' principles to diverse audiences and has also been a mentor and coach for many people over the years. In essence it is based on many years of interesting and challenging personal experiences as well as conversations with thousands of people from across the world and from various walks of life. He links his observations over the years with some of the latest published research on stress and resilience, including his own findings, and presents it in an easy-to-understand and practically applied way. Lehan has held various senior leadership and management roles in diverse industries and has also taught a range of undergraduate and postgraduate management courses, including organizational behavior, research methods and organizational change and development. He is passionate about seeing people reach their full potential and has an affinity for multidisciplinary applied research, broadly categorised in the cognitive and behavioral neuroscience space, but with particular focus on stress and resilience and its moderators. He is qualified in biochemistry and microbiology, as well as in organizational and experimental psychology and holds several qualifications from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and South Africa. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with his wife, Fredericka, and their three children.




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