Resilience: genetic or learnt?

A lot has been said about resilience in the last few years, but my impression is that very few people really understand the concept. Not too long ago, I was talking to two friends, both of whom work in HR departments, and asked them about resilience and what they thought resilience was. The answers were resistance, endurance, adaptability, flexibility, etc. But do these adjectives really capture what resilience is?

I have done a bit of research on the topic, and this is what I found: resilience comes from the Latin ‘resilire’, which means ‘to recoil’. Thus, resilience, in relation to human behaviour, refers to the capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings and behaviour when faced by a disruption in life or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser and more able.

During my coaching practice, I have come across a large number of executives with high levels of resilience. At the same time, I have been very surprised by how easily some of these clients have managed to lose their resilience over time. Isn’t resilience a personality trait? Can it just disappear?

In her book Resilience: A Practical Guide for Coaches, Carol Pemberton links the loss of resilience to the loss of access to identity, which is key to a sense of self, rather than to a particular event. In my coaching, I have often observed that clients lose their resilience when their identity is in danger. For example, in maternity coaching, women returning to work after a period of maternity leave can feel that their identity is in danger. I see this particularly in many mothers who decide to work part-time or flexible hours. While part-time work is great in aiding the work–life balance, it also poses a lot of challenges for new mothers and to their identities. It can be hard to stay relevant when people frequently view you as the ‘mother part-timer’ rather than a hardworking, ambitious professional who also happens to be a mother. This is also the case with promotions: one day you wake up and you are no longer a Managing Director, but a Global Head or a Partner. How do you deal with this new identity? This can be extremely overwhelming and not a great place to be in. When I ask my clients how they feel in this situation, many of them describe it as “surviving” or “coping”. But is coping being resilient? Do you actually increase your resilience while you are coping? The answer is no. Coping is about not breaking down, but it is definitely not resilience.

So, how can we work on our resilience when our identity is at risk? After doing some research on the topic, I learnt that resilience is actually something that everyone can learn. I was always under the impression that resilience depended on genetic factors. Genetics are indeed part of the story, but not all of it. Neuroscientists suggest that differences in the brain explain differences in how we respond to stress. One difference is how we produce serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of tranquillity, calm and wellbeing. Some individuals have a variant gene, the 5HTT, which produces more serotonin than in the case for the rest of us. These individuals are generally more optimistic, regardless of the situation they are in. In contrast, someone with a variant of the 2-adrenoreceptor gene, which is responsible for the production of the stress hormone adrenaline, will respond strongly to any stress in their environment; likewise, their stress levels will take longer to settle. Furthermore, there is the amygdala, the central part of the brain that is key to our emotional responses. It fuels our ‘flight or fight’ response to stressful situations. To add further complexity, neuroscience has now established that, by making new connections, we are neurally plastic and capable of learning throughout our lives. However, some of us have greater neuroplasticity than others. Some of our clients will easily make new connections, while others will need more practice before that becomes possible.

Hence, genetics partly explains our resilience, but there is more to it. New research in the field indicates that protection in early years, or reassurance from a parent or any other close adult (teacher, grandparent, priest, etc.), regardless of economic circumstances, plays a key role in resilience. In the world of adults, this protection will translate into someone trying to look for protection in a very pressurised and stressful work environment, i.e. someone who reaches out, communicates, uses their network efficiently, etc. The other key factor in the building up of resilience is purpose. It is problematic when individuals experience a lack of purpose. When they have purpose, individuals have the ability to direct their goals and keep them on track when they are faced with difficulty. This has a direct effect on determination and energy. When purpose goes, individuals are more vulnerable to the loss. A study by the Association of Psychological Science, published in 2014, found that having a purpose in life consistently predicted a lower mortality risk across an individual’s lifespan, whether for younger, middle-aged or older participants.

Finally, there is the learning part of the building up of resilience. Individuals who view difficulties as opportunities and learn from them can move forward, reinforced and re-energised by this learning experience.

The good news is that, seeing resilience as more than a genetic personality trait opens up a door to working on its development. Hence, by helping our clients to find a purpose, work on their identities, take action, learn and get reinforced by difficult experiences, we can increase significantly their resilience levels. 

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