01 December 2010

Resilience: So much more than a word.

Having spent last week in Christchurch where a major earthquake shook the region in September, I am reminded of a word that came in to renewed focus for me a few years back, resilience.

I've known the word for many years, of course, but words are just symbols. They stand for realities or concepts that are much more than the number of or shape of assembled letters.

"Resilience" in psychology is the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity.

This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected (much like an inoculation gives one the capacity to cope well with future exposure to disease). Resilience is most commonly understood as a process, and not a trait of an individual. Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary Magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49(3): 28-32.

Since the earthquake, Christchurch and its citizens have experienced 2,500 aftershocks, with one just this weekend registering 4.5. So what do you do to mend the “soul” of a city?

According to The Christchurch Press, one secret weapon has been Mozart. The introduction of speakers and music in city malls has led to a steep fall in petty crime and anti social behaviour.

Being careful not to assign "effect" to any one "cause", music has been known to calm worried and weary minds. Much research has been done as to its affects in schools, prisons and hospitals. Music is used to soothe babies, both before & after birth, animals and crowds.

The cause and effect idea may have carried over to the Band Together event where the city came together in the park and had a great concert that relieved the stress and enhanced the community spirit that has become obvious in and around Christchurch. Unfortunately, Christmas in The Park did not have the same results as alcohol fueled teens made headlines and both police and teens ended up in hospital.

Tragedies impact on different people in different ways. Some people are made stronger. In other people, weaknesses become more obvious and cracks widen. There have been reports of disproportionate reactions to annoyances. Stress builds up until a little incident opens a valve that was already under pressure.
The last straw . . .
Tips the balance . . .

David Johnston of Massey University's Director of the Joint Centre for Disaster Research said at the time that,
"People may come across instances where family, friends and work colleagues are worried, anxious, frightened, or just uncertain about their experiences and futures.

Some will have experienced damage to their property, which means that they cannot live where they normally live. Others may have experienced injury – whether to themselves, or their loved ones. And this injury could be physical or non-physical, visible or non-visible, he says.

“What we know from the research is that most people will be okay, especially if they have their usual resources to draw upon – especially their social networks and experience with coping with adversity successfully before in their lives. Others will need more support.”
One lady I spoke to mentioned her daughter's anxieties. Small business owners drive past fences that prohibit people from entering their building. Bills accumulate. Dreams are shattered and reality settles in.

No, there was no loss of life at the time of the earthquake, as we've seen in Greymouth with 29 miners trapped and presumed dead in a coal mine. But the residual effects of anxiety and depression can, at the least, affect quality of life.

If you know of someone suffering from a tragedy, consider the information and advice at the following link as you provide support for them. Psychosocial support can provide what someone needs to develop and maintain resilience in stressful times.


Suppression, just getting on with it, avoidance, denial and a stiff upper lip accomplish some things, but they do not necessarily develop the emotional tool box that people need to be able to thrive in the midst of adversity. Ask people how they are, and listen so as to hear them.

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