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Personal Resilience Training

March 4, 2015

Whilst discussing the end of my PhD and the recent move I’ve made to start a new job in Plymouth, I spoke a lot about the many worries a young scientist may have while trying to build a career. I should have noted then that these worries are not limited to those of us beginning a career, and a whole set of new worries may face my more senior colleagues. Stress, I’m sure most people will agree, is an ever present part of work, and managing this can be difficult when faced with what seem like never ending and ever increasing pressures. In science this can include long hours, pressure to gain funding, publish papers, etc, in addition to the stresses of any work environment and balancing life in general. Luckily for me, my new workplace is supportive and proactive and recently offered us the opportunity to undertake personal resilience training to help cope with this sort of stress.

You can find lots about personal resilience training online, and we completed a questionnaire to help assess our current approaches to resilience which is available here. Some of the other stuff I looked at online sounds a little “fluffy” (though I’m particularly sceptical in general I will admit), and there are certainly some criticisms of resilience as an alternative/distraction from addressing systemic problems. But the more I’ve read, and since attending the course, I’ve realised that there are definitely aspects of resilience that I’ve already found useful in my life (particularly for coping with my somewhat infamous fear of flying) and can develop further to support my progress in my scientific career.

Since a common stress is not having enough time for things, the course we attended was kept short – just a few hours. We started off discussing what we felt resilience entailed, and came up with a variety of sometimes conflicting answers, showing there are many individual approaches to being resilient. We then spoke about some common components of resilience from various theories – including confidence (feeling competent etc), social support (being emotionally aware and having a supportive network), adaptability (being flexible and viewing change as ok) and purposefulness (having personal values, drive and direction). We also chatted about negative self talk, which seems to me to have a lot in common with the frequently discussed “impostor syndrome” that seems to effect many scientists, myself included. The biggest aspect I took from all this was the need for self awareness and analysis – understanding how you feel, why, and stepping back to check whether you are being unduly negative and can try to think about things in a different/more positive/constructive way.

We were given some useful tools to help focus our thinking on resilience, which I have already started using. I particularly liked the idea of the circle of concern and circle of influence suggested by Covery, Simon and Schuster, 1992. The idea is simple but good for inspiring reflection on personal circumstance. The model is basically two circles, a larger one, encompassing everything you are concerned about, and an inner circle which encompasses the things you are concerned about, but that you have influence over. The model allows you to think about how you can expand that inner circle. I quickly found that there was actually very little within my circle of concern that I didn’t have some influence over, or couldn’t think of ways I could increase my influence over. A second tool was the idea of a resilience prescription from Charney 2007 – including a number of general guidelines to increase resilience:

– Find a positive role model/mentor and develop an active support network.
– Develop resilient thinking – thinking about what is positive and what you have influence over.
– Develop cognitive flexibility – reframing negative situations to look at the positives.
– Identify and focus on what provides you with a sense of purpose and nurture this.
– Recognise and develop the things you are good at but also train in multiple areas to increase confidence.
– Look after yourself physically – maintain a healthy diet and exercise.

A few tasks finished of the workshop. We were asked to think of three positive things someone had said about us recently. I think it is all too rare that we offer praise and encouragement directly to colleagues, friends etc and this is something I’m trying to do more. I had the most wonderful outpouring of support and encouragement (both personal and professional) when we left Cape Town recently and have kept all the emails from friends and colleagues to re-read on days when I’m feeling a bit lonely or having a bad science day. This forms part of my own personal “resilience prescription” – the last task we completed for the workshop. To my prescription I added that I must find a mentor and build a new group of collaborators. I had a great supervisor and wonderful group of colleagues in Cape Town, and I certainly feel their absence at the moment. I also decided to breathe new life in to my existing hobbies – writing this blog, taking part in science communication etc and to take on some new challenges, which has included learning to rock climb this week. It’s a highly personal thing, but if you are struggling with the constant ups and downs of work life, maybe take a look online at some of the information available on resilience, or see if your workplace can offer a training course.

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