Resilience at University (and Elsewhere)

I was recently asked back to my old uni to speak to some undergraduate students about resilience. It was strange and lovely to go back to somewhere so important in my life, where the young people carry better technology yet still remind me so much of those I went through with.

Resilience has become a buzzword in education today, from early childhood settings onward – but surely it’s of importance in anyone’s life.

So I will write down a bit of what the students and I talked about, in the hope it’s useful to anyone interested in how we grow our ability to bounce back from adversity.

I’m aware the length of this piece may test the resilience of the online reader, so have broken it into five easy pieces…

1. Resilience at uni in the 1990s

As most of us were fresh out of school at 17 or 18, our university’s Orientation Week blew the lid off our worlds. It was the most intense experience, the steepest learning curve in memory. ‘O Week’ and the months after it were so exciting and so exhausting; we all had colds for most of the first semester.

This was the mid nineties, and upon arrival at uni we had been given firm advice to live a full life. Senior students told us marks didn’t matter too much early on – just pass solidly, they said. And get honours for living the uni life!

After the sustained efforts of high school work to get in to our courses, we were thrilled to hear this. We didn’t know then that it was such important advice for our longer-term wellbeing.

So we went for it. We racked up late nights, sampled the excesses of university parties and balls and threw ourselves into sport, pop culture, music and drama. But most of all we threw ourselves into new friendships and relationships.

Of course as exams approached I threw myself into study; I passed comfortably, although uncomfortably is probably more apt. We would then reunite to share in the sweet relief of academic challenges passing…so we could get back to the serious business of living.

This was where we did our learning about our limits, our values, what we valued in others…what kinds of living made most sense. Looking back it was much harder than any coursework could be, because there was more at stake.

Here we were at uni, still learning to read – situations, people, ourselves. We were upgrading our social and emotional instrument panels from child to adult grade.

I’ve asked some of my old uni friends what they now think they learned back then, and it’s consistent – no one tells me about their coursework, although we all had the task of passing exams and sorting out our career directions. Everyone talks about perspective, relationship, and the importance of learning from mistakes.

Which sounds a lot like resilience to me.

2. Resilience in my clinical work

As a therapist and fatherhood advocate I often talk about rough and tumble play (RTP), which is how the young of humans and many other mammals set their instrument panels up for adult life. Young rats prevented from getting their RTP go on to make hopeless adults!

In healthy RTP we learn from our mistakes – how much excitement is needed? When is it no longer a game, not funny anymore? What do we do then? How do we bounce back after something goes wrong?

That is my working definition of resilience, both at work and at home. I’m growing humans at both ends, myself included, and the zone humans grow in sits between comfort below and overwhelm above. Like good RTP, my daily interactions come back to getting the levels of excitement and soothing right.

Excitement involves play and experimentation that gets us out of our comfort zones but risks catapulting us up into overwhelm! Then we need a soothing slowing down, dropping back down into comfort to recharge.

Too long in comfort or overwhelm zones and we don’t grow, or worse, we become ill – consider the constant overwhelm of serious anxiety disorder, or the constant but toxic comfort of daily heavy alcohol use.

3. Resilience in early adulthood

Mental health awareness and services today may be much improved compared with my undergrad years, but I don’t know how much current students are given the chances my peers and I had to play.

Erik Erikson wrote about the psychosocial moratorium, the years around adolescence when it’s best that young people are permitted to experiment, without too many long-lasting negative consequences of mistakes.

With the advent of the online world there are indelible tracks we can now leave behind us from childhood onward. Add to that increasing costs of living and the risk-averse nature of society and the question arises: is there a safe space to play as a young adult in 2018?

Having listened over more than two decades to life stories of adults of all ages, I can pick up patterns around adolescence and early adulthood, and wonder how much access each person had to safe play space, buffered by enough excitement to push up out of comfort, and enough soothing to break the fall from peaks of overwhelm.

I have known people whose lives shattered under stress, because they hadn’t practised falling and bouncing back up on a smaller scale through play.

Fortunately most shattered lives mend with care given to repair after crisis by learning the lessons the crisis is there to teach. But we can prevent crisis by learning pro-actively, prioritising time in that growth zone, especially when the curve is as steep as between childhood and early adulthood.

4. Resilient relationships

What do you need most to stay on track when clinging to a learning curve? I think it’s not a what. It’s a who. We’re social creatures evolved to survive in tribes, where our place in the pack is a matter of life or death. No one can survive in the wild alone. It’s who you know.

Of course it’s also what you know, what skills you bring to the tribe. Freud summed up wellbeing as “to love and to work” – who you know, and what. But in a jam, I’d choose the who. As I say repeatedly in my work: nothing stuffs you up like shattered relationships, and nothing gets you better like relationships that are…resilient.

If you want to know how resilient you are, look firstly at your relationships. Will they help you bounce back after a setback? Can they hold your worries, store safely your darkest fears?

We uni students used to worry so much about passing exams! Were we in the right course? What if we were wasting our time?

I often looked to resilient relationships for help here: A sage senior who remains a friend to this day told me in the midst of the medical course, that she believed there was no such thing as a waste of her time. Whether she finished medicine or not, it had all contributed to her growth as a person.

5. Life – still the most important course at university

I’ve since looked around at my peers and watched our lives run their courses. And what course we chose at uni only counted for so much. Many people went on to do something quite different from their coursework; most people have rejected aspects of their training as part of the normal process of finding an authentic life course.

Without knowing exactly how much uni life has changed since the grunge era, I can hazard a guess that the learning curves still have their familiar plateaus and precipices.

The landscape may have changed but the view from above has an old familiarity.

So to finish, a view of uni life I will never forget: In the winter of my second year of uni I spent a night with friends perched high above the university grounds, watching the nightlife below flow and ebb, the last drunk soul meandering home.

Not long after that, the first birds started singing, and we were aware of the sodium glow of the sky giving way to the first light of dawn away to our east, where the traffic’s slow crescendo from the suburbs told us of the life waiting for us. A life of commitments we found frankly terrifying, but secretly longed to be some day ready to make.

In my memory it was like the sun set on us as full subscribers to student life and rose on partial adults, exhausted and pale but a bit more ready to come down and join the world of the grown-ups.

I’m forever grateful to have had the chance to live like that for a while, on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. It has helped me keep in touch with both.

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