Dossier: Strong mind

Mindfulness: the seven pillars of resilience

The seven pillars of resilience help build your psyche’s defences and strengthen your resilience to overcome the challenges that life sometimes throws at you. You can train resilience.

Text: Anne-Sophie Keller; photos: iStock / Resilienz Zentrum Schweiz

Divorce, unemployment, illness or personal setbacks: some things can really throw you off track. How well we deal with challenges like these depends largely on our individual resilience – and it can be learned and strengthened.

Resilience: a definition

The term resilience comes from the Latin “resilire”, which means to jump back or bounce off. When it comes to psychology, it refers to the psyche’s defences: “We describe resilience as the ability to overcome life’s challenges using the personal and social resources at your disposal,” says Antoinette Wenk from Resilienz Zentrum Schweiz (Swiss resilience centre). So, stress resilience isn’t a personality trait - it’s a dynamic process and about making adjustments. Several factors play a role. 

What influences resilience?

Resilience isn’t genetic per se, but our personal resilience resources are connected to our disposition. “Some personality traits, such as being open to new things or emotional stability, are partly genetic and affect how resilient we are,” explains Antoinette Wenk. But the environment that we grow up in is also important. “Circumstances, such as our social upbringing, for example, dictate whether a genetic factor comes into play or not .” 

Having a high level of resilience is about much more than simply mental strength, however. As Wenk explains, the mind and body have to be in harmony. If our physical resilience is strengthened by sufficient sleep and exercise, we are also mentally stronger. Doing yoga or taking a walk, for example, can lower cortisol levels and calm the brain. This helps us think more clearly and develop better coping strategies.

Resilience research differentiates between internal and external protective factors. “An external factor can also be sociopolitical in nature. For example, it’s much harder for someone to cope if a relative dies in a refugee camp, because many protective environmental factors are missing there.” As the sociopolitical environment is so important, Antoinette Wenk describes resilience as a social mandate: “Individual leeway is limited. A supportive family or a positive working environment can bolster resilience, while a system designed purely for performance hinders social relationships and thus also reduces psychological resilience.” 

“If our physical resilience is strengthened by sufficient sleep and exercise, we are also mentally stronger.”
Antoinette Wenk, co-founder of Resilienz Zentrums Schweiz

Resilience and trauma

A lack of resilience may also be the result of a traumatic life event with persistent negative coping strategies. But trauma doesn’t necessarily have to weaken resilience. “It always depends on how you process the trauma,” says Wenk. Suitable professional and personal support is crucial.

Boris Cyrulnik, a neuropsychiatrist acknowledged as an expert in resilience research, is often quoted when it comes to resilience and trauma . As a child, he lost both parents in Auschwitz. “What we experience leaves marks on our body and soul. But we can find a way back to life,” said the 85-year-old neurologist in an interview

Seven pillars of resilience

When you explore resilience research, you quickly learn about the seven pillars of resilience. This model was developed by psychologist Ursula Nuber. “There are seven to eleven interactive resilience factors,” says Antoinette Wenk. “We also like to add creativity because we think it’s somewhat neglected. Imagination and humour can go a long way in resilience psychology.” 

1. Acceptance

There are situations that we can’t change. Accepting things we can’t influence is a first, important step towards resilience. It’s important to leave the past behind and start afresh.

2. Optimism

The most difficult situations and challenges often hold the greatest potential for growth. Adopting a realistic, positive attitude clears the way for a new start. Believing in the positive makes positive things happen.

3. Stop being a victim

Difficult situations trigger a lot of negative feelings. The best way to move on is to accept these feelings without falling into self-pity. Regain control by being compassionate without feeling sorry for yourself.

4. Solution-oriented approach

Clear goals help you to move forwards instead of living in the past. Resilient people focus on solutions instead of problems. It helps if you start small. For example, ask yourself: what can I do today to make myself feel a little better in the evening?

5. Take responsibility

What are my strengths? What can I change? Coaching or talking to loved ones is the best way to find out what changes you can make and what your options are. Taking responsibility helps you take action. 

6. Social networks

Having a social network to support you when things get tough is an important factor in mental health. Whether its neighbours, a partner, friends, colleagues or loved ones, regular social contact pays dividends.

7. Future planning

Although we can’t influence everything in our lives, it is possible to play an active role in shaping a better future. It helps to clearly analyse your wishes, values and skills.

Train and strengthen resilience

The seven pillars of resistance create an important foundation for a stronger psyche. Resilience training can also help boost a person’s resilience. Antoinette Wenk has been offering resilience training to individuals and companies for years, teaching participants how to strengthen their stress resilience. “The first thing we do is assess the person’s personal resources and explore how to activate them. For example, we consider which trusted person they can turn to for advice and support.” The second step is to reflect on their everyday behaviour and develop specific solutions: “How do I start the day? Do I meet up with people who do me good? Do I exercise regularly?”

A few basic steps include breathing consciously, drinking enough water, and focusing now and again on what does us good. Antoinette Wenk recommends keeping a gratitude diary: It’s helpful in the evening to write down three things that were good today, despite everything. It’s also possible to learn resilience at the workplace. A clear structure helps set priorities and improve concentration. 

Encourage resilience in children

Children need role models who support them and believe in them. “A secure attachment provides a sense of basic trust, which is an important foundation for personal resilience,” explains Wenk. However, it’s also important not to overprotect a child. They need to be allowed a certain automony to strengthen their independence. Helicopter parents don’t encourage resilience. As children mostly learn from their parents, you also need to be a role model in your own life. They easily take on negative values such as pessimism and self-doubt. And this damages their resilience. 

With both children and adults, resilience is like a muscle that you have to train. There’s little benefit in reading about resilience as a one-off,” warns Antoinette Wenk. “Reading about dancing doesn’t mean you can dance. And taking a few deep breaths doesn’t suddenly make you resilient to stress.” Resilience training has to be anchored in everyday life – and this adjustment takes time. 

About the expert

Antoinette Wenk (55) spent several years working as a health economist in the life sciences sector. After several years of training as a coach, supervisor and adult educator, she now accompanies people and teams through change processes and in challenging situations. Wenk co-founded Resilienz Zentrum Schweiz in 2015.

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