What does resilience mean to you?

What comes to mind when you read the word resilience on a page or hear it used by the latest political pundit? You might simply think fad, the buzzword of the moment that will be gone in a few years and replaced with something else. On the other hand, you might be thinking about the child, raised in poverty or with a highly dysfunctional home life who, despite such adversity, succeeds at school and goes on to live a fulfilling and successful life. Perhaps you're thinking about a person who has battled with mental illness, addiction or some debilitating health problem? You might not be thinking about any of these scenarios, because you're imagining that child who copes well with day-to-day difficulties, learns from her mistakes and failures and, because of these factors, is regarded as a highly successful student? How about the student who has honed his time management skills and, as a result, effortlessly copes with competing deadlines and hands all his work in on time?

These are diverse examples, but can all be used to describe a resilient individual. Psychologists who study the effects of stress might suggest that the first examples are related to adversity but the final two examples are related to what are described as daily hassles, those events that punctuate our day-to-day lives but don't necessarily lead to any long-term chronic stress on their own: it's the flat tyre that makes us late for work or spilling hot coffee down our recently ironed crisp white shirt. Because of the differences between the types of stressor, they require different research methodologies and result in different interventions; it's the difference between the day-to- day battle to stay afloat and long-term survival - spilling your coffee on your shirt won't kill you, but drug addiction and severe neglect just might.

This perhaps seems like an insignificant distinction to make, yet if we are to design successful interventions it's vital that we can identify exactly what the intervention needs to address. Is the purpose of the intervention, for example, to reduce the instances of mental health problems, or to help students cope better with exam stress and academic setbacks? Is the aim to increase wellbeing or to raise attainment? To understand how we can achieve our aim, we first need to be able to identify what it is we need to address. In some cases these might be the same (or at least very similar). If we take an example from pharmacology, it's possible to treat anxiety using antidepressant drugs, partly because antidepressants relax us, but also because anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with depression. A more effective drug might be alprazolam (or Xanax), which is a tranquilliser and has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of anxiety attacks. On top of this, sufferers should also be offered non-pharmaceutical interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to better help them cope with their anxiety. In a similar way, some resilience interventions designed to reduce psychological distress might well help students cope with the low-level day-to-day issues, but the latter would greatly benefit from a more targeted intervention - we can use a kitchen knife to loosen a screw, but a screwdriver will do a much better job because it was designed for the purpose.

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