The full title of our programme is the Challenge of Change Resilience Training. We chose the word resilience to distinguish it clearly from the muddle-headed approach to stress exemplified by ‘stress-management’ training, which implies that stress is an inevitable part of life that has somehow to be managed. By contrast, our view is that since stress is the acquired habit of ruminating over emotional upsets, and that habits can be changed with practice, it is perfectly possible to be free of stress.
Resilience is now widely used to describe programmes aimed at helping people develop ways of behaving that will enhance their health and well-being, and it suggests the capacity to quickly bounce back from adversity. This use of the word echoes its etymology – it was derived from the Latin resilire, meaning to rebound or jump back, so a resilient substance when bent will return to its original form when pressure is released. One of the problems for us with using resilience is that for someone to bounce back they must first have been knocked down. The Challenge of Change is aimed at equipping you to not get knocked over in the first place, so that there isn’t an upset to recover from. This is what we mean by becoming detached and letting go, being able to keep things in perspective and not be drawn into the emotional turmoil of rumination.
The principle is well illustrated in the film ‘Bridge of Spies’, which is based on the true story of the trial of a Russian spy in America, Rudolf Abel, played in the film by Mark Rylance. The charges were serious enough to warrant the death penalty, but instead the trial ended in a prisoner swap (Abel was exchanged for Gary Powers, the U2 spy-plane pilot shot down over Russia). The film ends with Abel going to an equally uncertain fate in Russia, and the lawyer defending him, played by Tom Hanks, asks him (and on other occasions in the film) why he doesn’t seem bothered or anxious about his fate; in other words, why isn’t he ruminating? Each time, Rylance replies, ‘would it help?’
Many people would say, ‘no it doesn’t help, but…’ But what? Bother doesn’t help, period. In fact, what we’ve shown is that bother – rumination – not only makes you miserable, it might shorten your life by compromising your health. The reason why the story in the film is so useful is that the consequences are much more extreme than we ordinarily face. When were you last sentenced to death for not delivering a project on time? It could only have happened once!
One way to help clarify the process is to invoke one of our earlier blogs (Blog 38, ‘Oaks and Reeds’). In it we used the well-known story of the proud oak that disdains the scrawny reed until there’s a storm wind. The rigid oak snaps, the reed bends in the wind and then returns upright afterwards. The story can be seen as endorsing the resilience of the reed, but we need to take it a bit further by adding robustness. The origin of the word is the Latin robur, strength, which is part of the Latin name for the common oak (Quercus robur) – ‘oak’ effectively means robust. In the fable the rigidity of the oak is contrasted with the flexibility of the reed, but developing resilience as we present it in the Challenge of Change reconciles the two. Everything changes all the time. We need to be able to adapt to change when needed, but to have the inner strength to not just go along with change if it doesn’t seem right.
You might say that even the strongest oak will be felled if the storm is violent enough, which in our terms would mean crossing the threshold, from day-to-day demands to intense trauma. In another blog (Blog 41, Carried Over the Threshold) we acknowledged that even resilient people exposed to overwhelming emotional trauma may end up succumbing to post-traumatic stress. One of the key messages in the CoC programme is that rumination makes you a victim of stress and, more importantly, that you have a choice whether or not you ruminate, but once that threshold is crossed there is no longer a choice. People with post-traumatic stress really are suffering, and what they need to help them recover is intensive one-on-one work, often in combination with drug treatments. The important point, though, is that post-traumatic stress disorder is rare – only a small proportion of people exposed to trauma are subsequently diagnosed with it. What’s needed to deal with everyday demands is the resilience that CoC offers, which incorporates both strength and adaptability.