Resilience in the face of adversity, uncertainty

David Stirling, a founding member of the Special Air Service (SAS)

David Stirling, a founding member of the Special Air Service (SAS)

Resilience in the face of adversity and uncertainty

This article is part of what the author is calling the Coronavirus (covid-19) Home Survival Pack and is just one of several articles relevant to "surviving" or coping with the changes a lockdown situation can create to daily-life. Resilience is something that becomes increasingly important in times of uncertainty, both in the early days and more so as time progresses. A crisis by its very nature brings about uncertainty, change and frequently fear of the unknown. Some people seem to cope better with change and uncertainty and seem to thrive on it. The covid-19 situation has and continues to impact everybody in varying degrees, with some people noticing relatively minor changes and others experiencing life-changing events. Why do some people seem to cope better with crises than others, and what makes them more resilient. The author wrote this article to help others and draws on a combination of his experience operating in elite British forces, his educational background and his research.


Resilience in the face of adversity - Training

Training is an excellent example of a pre-exposure intervention and used in many professions, notably the military and emergency services. Training scenarios attempt to be as realistic as possible and aimed at preparing the individual for real-life stressful events/situations relating to the type of work these individuals are going to be exposed too. Exposure to specifically designed scenarios can also have a positive impact on how one perceives any given "stressor". Our actual perception of a stressful situation can have a significant effect on how we react when confronted with such an event. Hence, training prepares the individual for when they have to face a real-life stressful situation. The idea is that realistic training will mean that when a situation arises, it is not likely entirely new and physically and or psychological overwhelming to the person confronted by it. Such training can make the difference between life and death and how people react in any given situation.


One can view resilience as a collection of behaviours, characteristics or even coping strategies observed in people deemed as resilient. Characteristics of resilient people cover all aspects of the stress response: pre, during and post (see the stress-related article part 1). There may still be much debate on whether a level of resilience is genetic (nature) or developed through experiences (nurture). Selection courses for the Elite military and Special Forces units will undoubtedly be looking to test the physical and mental resilience of potential candidates to the limits through series of controlled and often gruelling test scenarios. Equally, such courses will also be looking for candidates with demonstrable qualities covering: adaptability, trainability, teamwork, resolve, judgement, self-discipline and physical and mental toughness. The following list is not exhaustive, but each one of the characteristics can help one deal with "stress", build resilience and provide drive and purpose. Many of these attributes or characteristics relate to one's perception of events and how one views the world around us, and some are interrelated.


Resilience in the face of adversity - Exercise

Exercise and physical fitness are critical aspects of Elite military forces and the training they undergo. Furthermore, there are links between people deemed as resilient and routine levels of physical activity. Exercise is also a great way to deal with "stress" and in many respects, is a very logical way to deal with stress. After all, the initiation of the "stress response" primes the human body for some form of physical activity, typically "fight or flight" or "freeze". Hence, it is logical to then provide the human body with some kind of constructive physical activity to utilise all the resources unleashed during the "stress response". Research has shown that physical activity has countless health benefits including, immunological, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal. Physical activity also helps to flush the system of hormones released during the stress response. Exercise also results in the release of endorphins, a neurotransmitter which has many beneficial properties. Endorphins are the body's natural painkillers, but they can also help one sleep and have a significant and positive impact on one's mood. Hence, the release of endorphins after the initiation of the "stress response" may be viewed as desirable, as the endorphins help to calm the body. Even in a lockdown situation, it is essential to maintain levels of fitness for both physical and mental wellbeing. The current Coronavirus (covid-19) situation has created vast amounts of change in virtually everybody's daily life, adding uncertainty, stress and changes to routine. Besides the already mentioned benefits of maintaining some type of fitness regime, planning physical activity adds structure, routine and helps break-up daily life. It is surprisingly easy to maintain a high level of fitness without any specific equipment, very little room and virtually anywhere. In the current lockdown situation everyday items within a bedroom, living room or kitchen can help keep one fit and active and sometimes it is just a case of being a bit creative.

Individual Attitude

Resilience in the face of adversity - Individual Attitude

Our attitude has a significant impact on how we process information and are likely predisposed to react to any given situation or event. Attitudes can be formed and changed based on perceived experiences, and these directly impact our feelings, beliefs and behaviours. One's attitude or perception of what happens in everyday life can either be hugely positive or hugely negative to one's levels of stress, physical wellbeing and mental health. Attitudes can shape how we perceive other peoples, ideas, belief structures, appearance and even our feelings towards objects. All of us have encountered events in life, which can be extreme on a scale of pleasantness to unpleasantness. Many things happen in life which can take people out of their natural comfort zone and can either be viewed positively as challenges or negatively and hugely stressful. Elite and special forces selection processes continuously look to "push the boundaries" and take potential candidates out of their comfort zone to see how they react. In some respects, having to go outside of one's standard comfort zone is a means of training and self-development and a way to push the boundaries. If one were to view all events negatively, then one usually tends to give up or avoid trying new things. However, resilient people rarely quit and metaphorically dust themselves off after failures or adverse events and forge on with the next challenge and take learning from the process. Our attitude can be shaped either positively or negatively by how we perceive events and experiences and the learning we take or don't take from these situations. Attitude affects why some choose to climb mountains, jump out of planes or attempt the supposedly impossible. For example, many people are unable to work in their current professions at present due to the Coronavirus (covid-19) situation. One can either sit there and wait for the situation to change, which it will at some point, or be proactive and look at other types of paid or voluntary work.

Control of destiny or locus of control

Resilience in the face of adversity - Control of destiny

Our perception of life, in general, also has a massive impact on how we feel and process events or experiences, and we often have to choose a path(s) in life. Resilient people also demonstrate a "locus of control" or view that they have a high degree of "control over their destiny". Many of our decisions in life have a significant impact on subsequent opportunities or events. One can either take the view that "nothing good ever happens for me, I'm so unlucky", or one can make an effort to change things. Hence, if one takes no-learning from life's experiences, then one cannot expect anything to change, as the same inputs will result in the same output. It is essential to understand that we may not be able to control all things in life, such as the current Coronavirus (covid-19) situation, but there are still things we can control. There is little point wasting physical and mental time and energy worrying about being locked down due to Coronavirus (covid-19). Instead, one should utilise those resources for something we can control. Examples of things that one can control include; adapting to home-working, developing a routine, separating home-working from home, looking at other careers if you cannot currently work or volunteering. If one looks at Elite military personnel, then nobody would join these units if they believed that they had no control over their destiny. In essence, such soldiers would be partaking in the highest risk activities and assuming that they had no control over the outcome, and so most tasks would be pure suicide. However, if such soldiers were so easily expendable, then why would anybody join and why would governments spend large sums of money on training these people? Such personnel and organisations are continually pushing the boundaries and learning from experiences, which provides a further locus of control for those serving members. Part of the founding ethos for the British Special Air Service (SAS), was and still is to this very day "the unrelenting pursuit of excellence".


Resilience in the face of adversity - Optimism

Like attitude and locus of control, optimism plays a considerable part in the lives of resilient people. After all, if one had just had a negative experience and were not optimistic about learning from that experience and moving forward, then nothing would change. There are certain events in life that we have very little control over like being born, ageing or even death. However, there are far more events and life experiences that we can profoundly or positively effect. One can either chose to focus one's efforts on those things that we have little control over "a pessimistic view" or focus on the things we can change "an optimistic view". If one lacked optimism, then one is never likely to try new things or do anything differently. Again, without optimism, nobody would even consider attempting an elite or special forces training course and view it as impossible even though it is clear that other people have completed such courses. Even with the Coronavirus (covid-19) situation, this will pass, and things will improve. The speed of how fast things improve will be largely down to individuals following government advice relating to slowing the spread of the virus through measures such as social distancing. Such policies buy time to develop a vaccine and reduce the impact of infections on society and health services.

Self-Awareness (Physical and Emotional Awareness)

Resilience in the face of adversity - Self-Awareness

Physical and psychological self-awareness is particularly essential within the elite military and special forces environments, as teams tend to be small, and a problem can impact the effectiveness and safety of the entire team. One could say similar to the covid-19 situation, as each individual's actions can be a threat to self and others, we are all in it together, just like members of elite forces on operations. Self-awareness can make the difference between life and death. For example, being able to spot the signs and symptoms associated with hyperthermia and hypothermia early on can save ones life or those around one. Many elite-level athletes are also extremely tuned into their bodies and minds, as are most resilient people. Lacking self-awareness can lead to both physical, emotional and mental health-related problems. Self-awareness helps one understand when things are not quite right or "normal". If one just blindly ploughs through life with no form of self-awareness, then one can easily miss the early signs of something being wrong, be that physical, emotional or psychological. Even if one subconsciously notices telltale signs of a problem and ignores them, then one is usually heading for some form of severe and sometimes catastrophic failure. Such a failure could prove to be a life-changing event in some cases. Hence, it is essential to self-reflect and assess how everything is feeling (physically, emotionally and psychologically) from time-to-time and to study why things are feeling the way they are. If things do not seem to be "normal", then one can then explore why via an external intervention or seeking professional help. There are various techniques for helping to develop self-awareness, such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga. The author is continuously surprised by the fact that relatively few consumers have much self-awareness concerning how their bodies are feeling on a day-to-day basis and what is "normal" and not "normal". Equally, many people appear to be unaware that their body is exhibiting signs of stress, and they don't feel that they are stressed. Many people seem to have more awareness about the need for maintaining a car, house, bike or anything else than their body, health and wellbeing. Hence, education plays a crucial part in the author's daily clinical work.

Sense of Humour

Resilience in the face of adversity - Sense of Humour

A sense of humour is another tenet from David Sterling, one of the founders of British Special Air Service (SAS). Many resilient people who work in jobs which can involve extremes of pleasant and unpleasant experiences tend to have a good sense of humour. Sometimes people can be referred to as having a slightly "warped" sense of humour. Having a sense of humour can be critical when a situation is terrible or appears to be hopeless and can provide a great way of adding perspective. For example, in the current covid-19 situation in may not be possible to get a haircut or buy a particular pair of shoes and what is the worst that can happen. On operations, soldiers may not be able to wash, shave or change their clothes for weeks, have access to food, water or shelter and be at constant risk of injury or death. Yet, forces personnel can laugh at such situations and all that they entail. In essence, if you cannot laugh how bad a situation is and what could make it even worse and even if that happens, you are pretty much done physically and psychologically. Staff within the NHS, Emergency Services and Military, will all need to have a sense of humour to deal with the sometimes extreme types of events and experiences they encounter regularly. Hence, rather than spending time concentrating on what you don't have, it is better to laugh about what you do have and how things might be worse.

Social Support Network

Resilience in the face of adversity - Social Support Network

Resilient individuals also have a good social support network, which typically is not hugely extensive. The social support network may consist of a relatively small core group of friends and family members. Such groups are suitable for sharing experiences, learning, self-development and discussing specific issues or problems. Tight-knit social support networks also tend to tie in with a good sense of humour and aspects of self-awareness. Elite and special forces teams tend to have a sense of humour in abundance and operate in relatively small, highly diverse and bonded teams. Such bonds are forged through a combination of selection processes, general training, training exercises, operational deployments and social activities. There are probably few social networks that know for a fact the others within the group would or have put their life on the line for other members of the group. Equally, good friends are totally dependable

It is fair to say that if you don't know who your "real friends" are then you will soon find out during a crisis. "Real friends" step-up to the plate in difficult times and are there for you. Many people talk a good game, but invariably when times get tough, the tough talkers getting going. All the talk is unreliable during the good times, and they are absent through the bad times. These are the exact type of people who tend to fail the selection courses for elite and special forces and always have a plethora of excuses as to why they failed, and it is never their fault. High-performance teams require implicit trust to operate effectively, and if one cannot accept or admit one's failings, then there can be no trust. Hence, one can invest time in self-interested people who can metaphorically "suck the life out of you" or invest time in like-minded dependable people. Equally, as humans, we tend to be risk-averse. A small core group of friends reduces risks physically and psychologically when things go wrong, as the group is dependable and everybody has everybody's back.


Resilience in the face of adversity - Spirituality

Spirituality does not have to mean having religious beliefs or faith, though this is one of many forms of spirituality. Resilient people also have a clear spiritual aspect in their day-to-day life. Spirituality could merely be: feeling at one with the world, understanding one's place in the world, or how one lives one's life. In essence, spirituality can provide focus and meaning to one's life and help drive one forward. One could also view spirituality simply as a sense of purpose or calling in life. A sense of purpose also tends to add structure, routine and focus to our daily life, which is vital for physical and mental wellbeing. In times of crisis, it is quite possible to lose a sense of purpose and thus, everything that entails. It is vitally important to have some form of perceived purpose, even if that changes.

So why might resilient people exhibit such Characteristics?

There has always been a considerable amount of debate relating to "nature" genetic related characteristics and "nurture" how experiences shape our behaviour. The author can relate to many of the characteristics attributed to resilient people and believes that "nurture" has played an enormous part in the development of these characteristics in himself. That said one can never rule out what impact nature has had either. Interestingly, if one analyses the characteristics attributed to resilient people, then there are common physiological processes at work involving hormones and more specifically, neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters and characteristics of resilient people?

Hormones play a huge and vitally important role in the general day-to-day functioning of the human body. The Neurotransmitters, Dopamine, Endorphins, Oxytocin and Serotonin have a significant impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. In many, respects these very hormones provide a level of physical and psychological wellbeing protection in times uncertainty and stress. Curiously, those people deemed as resilient seem to have developed or adopted characteristics which result in the production of these protective neurotransmitters. It would be interesting to know whether such characteristics in resilient people developed subconsciously or in other ways. Many of these hormones can be addictive, and that could certainly reinforce behaviours. Regardless of the lockdown situation, people can gain some of the protective benefits these neurotransmitters provide for physical and mental wellbeing. Even if intimacy is not an option for everybody at present, positive social interactions should be and while following social distancing guidelines.

Neurotransmitters (Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, Endorphins)

  • Serotonin (exercise, diet, sunlight (bright light)
  • Dopamine (diet, exercise, sunlight (bright light)
  • Oxytocin (love hormone), intimacy and positive social interactions)
  • Endorphins (exercise, intimacy, laughter, diet)

The relevance of diet/resources

Resilience in the face of adversity - Relevance of Diet

The human body is extremely good at efficiently controlling the availability and amounts of various resources used as part of homeostasis, including hormone levels. However, sometimes there are relatively narrow tolerances within which our body can safely operate such as temperature, blood PH and blood sugar glucose levels. The use of limited resources within the body will vary based on what one is facing, and this is why diet can play such a massive part in our physical and mental wellbeing. One can view diet as providing the building blocks for processes the body needs to perform as part of homeostasis. Physical and psychological stress will both utilise more of the bodies resources (see the stress-related article part 2), and these will need replacing, regardless of perceived resilience levels. Nutrition is a vast topic and the although author has enough knowledge for his own needs, he cannot remotely do the topic justice. Hence, for nutritional advice, it is best to seek an adequately qualified nutritionist and preferably not somebody as just done a module on nutrition as part of another qualification. However, the key takeaway, (no pun intended) is that research has demonstrated that some food types can increase various levels of hormones, though too much of anything can be dangerous. Equally, a junk food diet does not help in dealing with stressful situations (see part three of the stress-related article and diet).

If you liked or found this article to be of interest or help, you may be interested in other articles on the TotalMSK blog. Please follow the link for the complete list of freely available articles and the most recent one.

The article was written by Terry Davis MChiro, BSc (Hons), Adv. Dip. Rem. Massag., Cert. WHS.

If you liked this article or found it of interest, there are lots more articles available via the TotalMSK main blog page, which has a brief description of all the articles to date. Alternatively, it is possible to stay up-to-date by subscribing to the RSS feed or following TotalMSK on social media.

Health, Wellness and Sports Injury Blog

About the Author

As of December 31st 2020, the author chose to leave the Chiropractic profession and pursue studies within the Physiotherapy field. He no longer works as a Chiropractor and works as a Myotherapist in Morningside, Brisbane. The author possesses an unusual background for somebody who trained as a Chiropractor (McTimoney). His education, training, and practical experience span over two decades and relate to both health's physical and mental aspects. He has also needed to push his own body and mind to the limits of physical and psychological endurance as part of his time serving in Britain's elite military forces. His education includes a bachelor of science degree in Business Management, with a specialisation in psychology and mental health in the workplace, an Integrated Masters in Chiropractic, MChiro and a multitude of soft-tissue therapy qualifications (see the about section for more details). His soft tissue qualifications range from certificate level right through to a BTEC Level 5 Advanced Diploma in Clinical Sports and Remedial Massage Therapy. Terry also has extensive experience in security, work, health and safety and holds relevant certifications. He has also taught as a senior course coach at Advanced Diploma level (Myotherapy / Musculoskeletal Therapy) in Australia, both theoretical and practical aspects including advanced Myofascial Release Techniques and has certification in training and assessment. Terry will have taught many of the first students to train as Myotherapists in Brisbane. Terry's combination of knowledge through education, training, elite military service, and personal injury history has paid dividends for the consumers he sees and has treated over the last 15 years. He has extensive experience treating chronic pain and work and sports-related musculoskeletal injuries. Terry is still very active and enjoys distance running, kayaking, mountain biking and endurance-type activities.