A common myth about resilience is that it is something that we do or do not have. What we now know is that people’s resilience goes up and down, depending on their current circumstances, the number and size of challenges they face, and their actions in response to those challenges.

Resilience is about our responses to difficult circumstances in our lives. These challenges include the everyday experiences of difficult emotions – sadness, hurt, stress, frustration, guilt, and embarrassment, to name a few. These challenges also include the larger and longer standing difficulties we face, such as unsatisfying relationships, a stressful job, the loss of loved ones, and traumatic events. Given how much these stressors we face vary, so too does our resilience in the face of them.

Knowing that resilience is much less static than many have thought, it’s useful to start thinking about resilience as a continuum that we can work to move up as we develop greater resilience skills.

The resilience continuum

Bounce back –In trying to define resilience, many people think of the ability to bounce back from challenges or adversity. This is a wonderful ability to have. When we unpack the idea a bit, we can see that “bouncing back” requires that we were initially pushed off balance by the adversity. That’s OK, especially when the challenge is big or has gone on for a while. As we move up the resilience continuum, we want to limit how pushed off balance we are by the stressors and challenges we face.

Resist the stress –Step two then is the ability to resist or withstand the stressful scenario while holding our ground. In practice, this might look like maintaining our sense of humour and usual activities around our health and wellbeing, such as exercise and socialising, despite a period of greater stress and demand.

Adapt in the face of challenge –The next step in the continuum involves not just holding our ground in the face of challenges, but adjusting and adapting flexibly as each challenge is experienced. Think of Neo in The Matrixslowing time and dodging the bullets shot at him.

Grow in lasting ways – The very top of the resilience continuum is the ability to grow positively from the challenges we face, in ways that last with us into the future. These changes can include improved connections with support networks, a greater sense of meaning or purpose, increased self-awareness and acceptance, and a stronger sense of our own ability to cope.

It’s important to know that we all move up and down this continuum at different points in our lives, based on a number of factors – the number and intensity of challenges we are facing, the availability of support, and how much we are investing in our own resilience and wellbeing. It’s also important to know that just because we don’t start at the top doesn’t mean we can’t get there; a big challenge might come along that pushes you around and off course, before ultimately becoming something from which you grow substantially.

We find this continuum a helpful way to think about how we are doing at any point in time, and to let us know what coping strategies are likely to be the best fit at that time. We will be more able to choose the most effective coping strategies if we are relatively honest with ourselves in our evaluation of where we are on the continuum.

Think about where you would place yourself currently on your continuum, and what you are doing already that supports that level of resilience. In our next article, you’ll find more ideas and prompts to help you target your thinking and your actions to your current level of resilience. These prompts will also help you to encourage others to think about their resilience, such as those in your team.