Why do we need to be resilient?
My wife is going for her audition to remain in the Bach Choir. These auditions occur every three years, and even the most hardened and professional singers become extremely anxious at the prospect of singing solo in front of the musical director, the world renowned choirmaster and organist, David Hill. My wife has been a member for a couple of decades, almost, so she’s been through the ordeal several times. Why, she asked this morning as we were taking our normal prevention of ill health walk, am I so nervous?
This got me to reflect why we need to be ever more resilient, and started to make my wife’s walk even more anxious making. The erosion of confidence is unsurprising in the light of the activities of Barclay’s Bank, and, we are given to understand, a whole network of banks. This comes within a week of RBS making it impossible to use accounts, although it is of interest that NatWest does manage to access accounts to take their own fees but cannot access accounts to transfer and pay others. This all comes in the middle of the general economic crisis that is eroding confidence in the major institutions – our political system that seems incapable of dreaming up ideas for improving our confidence sufficient enough to provide the energy to take risks and grow, our policing service that has been exposed as being partial, our dwindling interest in a Faith that would normally provide comfort in uncertain times, our doctors who so misguidedly took industrial action – so all the principal institutions that we would normally depend on and trust have eroded our general level of confidence by creating levels of anxiety as soon as we get out of bed.
Resilience is an attitude of mind. We can often choose to be resilient or not depending on our assessment of the events for which resilience may be required. Sometimes, the choice between being resilient or not is a Hobson’s Choice, with the room for mental manoeuvre so limited that an enforced choice is the result. Our attitudes are formed from our thoughts and feelings towards an event; these, in turn, link back to our sense of control over our ability to survive the event. If we lose the sense of control we become anxious. Resilience development is to stretch our ability to control our anxiety, and this boosts our confidence, which boosts our attitude and makes us more resilient.
So, which bit of the Bach Choir audition causes the anxiety, for which my wife needs to strengthen her resilience? Everything it seems, even though her voice has been confirmed as ‘white’ – pure and her overall abilities are fine. It seems that the anxiety is the loss of control over the decision making process, which is not a pass/fail type of process but an opinion of an expert. What has been happening to our reaction to experts? We have lost confidence in them because of the general context we live in.
The real mix of causes of anxiety is the uncertainty that surrounds the opinion of experts; do we trust them any more to produce the results that we expect, knowing that we are doing everything we can to produce the right result? The wrong footing that takes place appears to be reaching epidemic proportions. At the simplest, trying to make an appointment on time when it involves travelling – you plan the travel, but hey ho, the bus drivers are on strike (last Friday getting to my own workshop in Central London); the garage that you normally fill up at is closed for maintenance; the train that you rely on is going slow because of a signal failure further up the line (yesterday!).
It seems that there is a distinct possibility that our general resilience is reaching the tipping point from being robust (an attitude that seeks to actively face up to and overcome challenges) to a sense of helplessness when there is nothing we can do to cope effectively with the situation. The more we experience the inability to influence events and our response to them the more we adopt the learned helplessness stance. And that has a direct impact on our energy, motivation and determination, resulting is less risk taking, less performance and greater anxiety. Our possible solutions are drinking and eating more to assuage the feelings of anxiety – but these are very temporary and leave us in a worse state after the effect has worn off.
What can applied psychologists do about this? We can bash away at trying to influence context to shift context towards being more supportive – creating the resilient community or society by focusing on raising awareness amongst our leaders that context is everything. And we can do practical things at a more micro level by helping families, groups, communities and organisations to focus on their own context or mini culture to enable those within these groups to strengthen their attitude away from helplessness to a robust attitude that says we will over come the challenges.