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Resilience in a nutshell

We discussed the changes and transitions that occur when family members encounter a stressor like mental illness. Previously, we noted that all human beings have similar reactions to adversity, and we identified reactions unique to families who have a loved one with a mental illness. Family members are more than just loved ones to a person with a mental illness. We share our humanity and beliefs that every human being has the capacity to succeed, live and develop positively despite the difficulties they have encountered. This ability is called resilience.

Resilience is a relatively new concept that recognizes the ability of human beings to succeed and develop in a positive, socially acceptable way despite stress or adversity that could have negative consequences. This adaptation phenomenon was observed in people liberated from concentration camps during World War II. A significant percentage of released prisoners were able to integrate their negative experiences and transform them in order to lead successful lives.

Resilience is innate in all humans, but there is a degree of variability based on certain factors. Resilience needs internal and external support to contribute to healthy development. Internal support comes from factors such as heredity, health and emotional climate, while external support comes from physical safety, access to knowledge and acceptance.

Resilience goes beyond passive adaptation; it teaches us how to live. It enables individuals and groups (families and communities) to overcome adversity or situational risks. It is a dynamic tool rather than just a simple shock absorber. The Saguenay Flood and the Ice Storm of 1998 are important reminders of how a community can overcome difficult events. This ability evolves over time and is enhanced by the knowledge, skills and beliefs of individuals and communities.

Author and child psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik has studied the notion of resilience and describes it as a braid created from developmental, emotional, and social threads. An individual develops their capacity for resilience in relation to their surroundings and community. It is not something that can be achieved alone in silence. It requires building relationships with others.

It is a process that begins during childhood. Three conditions are necessary to allow a child to build the solid foundations needed to face the challenges ahead:

  • Emotional ties. In order to develop properly, children must feel safe. Their sense of security is based on close emotional ties to someone important in their lives. This may be a parent or another individual, but the important thing is that the child remains connected to this person in order to gain a solid foothold in the world around them and avoid the isolation that comes from insecurity.
  • Imagination. Children need to use their imagination. They must be allowed to discover and face the world in order to measure their capacity to understand, adapt and make sense of events.
  • Freedom to express their emotions. Children must be able to express and validate their emotions in a safe environment, so they can learn to recognize and manage them. This skill will allow them to distance themselves from negative emotions and learn to manage them so that they will not be controlled by them.

For adults, the ability to adapt and build resilience also depends on certain skills and conditions, including :

  • Stress. A certain level of stress is necessary in life to avoid feelings of emptiness. Without stress, we cannot move forward. How can we grow if we have no encouragement to do so? Why would we want to continue learning if we think we already know everything? Stress allows us to better understand ourselves.
  • Imagination. Like children, we need to use our imagination to talk about and make sense of our hardships. When we use our imagination to tell our story, we put distance between ourselves and the painful event. This distance allows us to see the progress we have made and how far we have come, rather than just the difficulties ahead. Imagination allows us to visualize a better life.
  • Self-knowledge, a philosophy of life. To enable us to give meaning to events, we need to know ourselves, we need to understand why we react the way we do and which philosophy guides our lives. This discovery process is unique to each individual and lasts a lifetime. If we choose not to engage in this process, we will feel as if we are constantly reacting to the events in our lives rather than guiding them. Our philosophy of life allows us to accept the things that happen to us.
  • Memory. This capability allows us to see the continuity in our lives, our human nature and our ties to those around us. We all have a social history, a family, a community and a culture. Our memory allows us to situate ourselves in this life story and to understand and be inspired by the difficulties experienced and overcome by others. Memory allows us to feel less alone.
  • Dreams. Dreams allows us to find hope. Without dreams, our lives can weigh us down. They allow us to challenge ourselves, to see further and, sometimes, to console ourselves.

There can be no resilience without devastation. Families experiencing difficult times must go through a process of adjustment in order to realize their potential and strengths. The process will be different for each family. Those who choose to live in denial, whether it be the family, the person with the illness or those around them, will be greeted with hopelessness and inertia. It is so much better to take on the challenge and get to know ourselves. This is the only way to live life to the fullest.

Things to remember

“All sorrows are bearable if you tell a story about them.” -Boris Cyrulnik

There are a variety of tools we can use to build and maintain our resilience when faced with difficult events. Below are some ideas to get you started, depending on your interests, beliefs and learning style.

  • Relaxation methods : yoga, meditation, biofeedback
  • Problem solving methods : the cognitive approach
  • Access to a support network : self-help groups
  • Improving your self-image : self-affirmation

The ways of adapting are as varied as the individuals themselves. All are positive if they help us to find fulfilment and discover our strengths and potential.

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