Stress and the protective impact of learned resilience

Resilience is a habit not a personality trait - this has almost become my mantra over the past few years. Mainly because the perception of resilience seems to have been stolen by marketers and made all about visible strength. Or some superhuman ability not to feel.


There are so many toxic narratives around resilience today that shame can stop us from admitting when we don’t feel very resilient. Maybe it even whispers that we’re “just not a resilient person.”

However, the truth is that being resilient is something that is available to everyone. It can be learned at any stage in life with self-awareness, the right tools and a willingness to do things differently. And in times of stress learned resilience skills are especially vital because they have a protective impact.

Resilience takes self-knowing, not just discipline

There is no single view of resilience but it is often defined as the ability to adapt (bounce back) and transform (bounce forward). In reality, what this means is being able to use positive mental skills to remain psychologically steady and focused when faced with challenges or adversity - and to use those same skills to create positive change and growth. What a lot of people seem to miss about resilience is that this only work's long-term when you’ve got positive mental skills coming from a place of self-acceptance, knowing and self-compassion, as opposed to grafted on top of a lack of connection to self. 

74% of UK adults feel unable to cope

Stress is a killer. It’s a drain on the economy, it makes day-to-day experiences hard and it can lead people down difficult paths. One UK-wide stress survey found 74% of UK adults felt overwhelmed or not able to cope in the past year. Stress-related health issues cost the NHS £11 billion a year. A Deloitte report found stress costing employers in the UK £45 billion a year. So it’s a problem with a very broad impact. Learned resilience skills give us choices when it comes to stress. They allow us to take what we learn and use it to craft a different set of perspectives and reactions that will change how we feel and respond.

How does stress impact the individual?

I think we all have a tendency to ignore just how big the impact of stress can be on our own bodies and minds. We have a kind of blindness when it comes to stress which means we will frequently refuse to acknowledge what it’s actually doing to us. Perhaps because we feel like we can’t escape the source of the stress. Even if that’s the case, with the right learned resilience skills we can change how we respond to stress (and consequently change our experience of it). But let’s start with how it manifests in humans:

  • feeling overwhelmed, agitated, uneasy, unable to switch off
  • low self-esteem and negative self-image
  • isolating yourself from other people
  • appetite changes and relying on substances like alcohol or sugar more
  • problems with the gut and the immune system, leading to frequent illness
  • being unable to sleep
  • a racing heart, grinding your teeth or experiencing headaches or a ringing in your ears
  • being unable to focus, having low energy, or becoming disorganised

Our bodies are designed for short periods of stress but can’t effectively handle this on an ongoing basis without negative consequences. It’s important to remember that what stress means will be different to everyone - like trauma, the stress comes from the reaction you have to an event rather than the event itself. The same situation could have a devastatingly stressful impact on one person and none at all on someone else. 

How are learned resilience skills protective?

Learned resilience skills will fill in the gaps where existing coping mechanisms don’t work. Or where we have absorbed harmful responses in childhood. Or where we just don’t have the resources to cope with the way stress is making us feel. Investing in learned resilience skills creates more options for individuals - and those around them - because it is protective in a number of ways.

General wellbeing. More resilience can lower the impact that stress has on the nervous system. The process of resilience coaching is often one of discovering what we need to have a ‘safe’ base inside ourselves. That’s not safety in terms of avoiding challenges or being overprotective. Instead, it’s about building trust and connection with ourselves so that we feel safe in our bodies, with the mindset and narratives we have, knowing that we have our own back and can have a range of reactions to challenges.

In this way, it’s possible to move away from a dysregulated nervous system, punishing internal narratives and feeling like our experience of life is entirely dependent on what others say and do. So that, even in hard times, we have the ability to remain constant for ourselves - and able to respond.

Stress at work. Resilience has been found to have a moderating effect on challenging situations in the workplace, including the negative relationship between job strain and job satisfaction. For example, one study found that people who learn resilience skills through resilience training and coaching experience fewer negative impacts in demanding work settings, whether that’s burnout, stress or sleeping problems. 

Depression and anxiety. Resilience can reduce the impact of psychological distress, in particular anxiety and depression. One study that focused on mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak found that people with more mental resilience and active coping styles had lower levels of depression and anxiety during the pandemic. 

Supporting better mental health. Resilience can also help offset any history someone might have that could be contributing to mental health problems, for example being bullied as a child or attachment issues. Being more resilient will give us more coping skills and improve our ability to handle any situation, including the impact of an existing mental health condition. 

A tool for growth and thriving. As well as being a proactive influence that allows us to continue to operate in times of stress - and see past obstacles - resilience is also connected to how able we are to thrive. That is, to create a life that feels satisfying, connected and purposeful, allowing us to flourish. And also to use all of our own unique skills and talents. Everything, from setting goals and being able to reach them to having a growth mindset and identifying and taking risks and opportunities that lead to success can be linked back to how resilient we are.

We spend a third of our lives at work so career success can be a key indicator of contentedness. 99.9% of people surveyed in one study said resilience was important to their career success, and 56% said it was essential (rising to 76% at the Board level). Most of the people interviewed were on the Boards of UK organisations, and most put resilience in the top three factors that led to their career success.

Learned resilience skills give us options to improve what we experience every day. From protecting the body against the physical and emotional impact of stress to fuelling positive change it’s learned resilience skills that make the difference. These are the skills you can develop through a practice like coaching - just 6 sessions can be transformative in terms of how you cope and how able you are to live the life you really want.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Winchester, Hampshire, SO23
Written by Alex Pett
Winchester, Hampshire, SO23

Alex is an ICF trained and NLP certified coach focused on helping people to deepen their resources to adapt and bounce back - and go on to thrive. She helps clients build confidence and self-belief, recover from burnout, develop self-assurance, intuitive connection and move beyond limiting beliefs. Clients achieve tangible change in 6-9 sessions.

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