Promoting resilience and questioning resilience

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By Miles Thompson

Your 30-second summary. This blog is about resilience. A term that is now, seemingly, everywhere. Below I provide a quick overview of the term and of psychological research into the resilience of children. Then I contrast these research findings which note multiple contributing factors at multiple levels, with the focus of many resilience interventions: often the individual in isolation. I note how this reflects an old but important debate within psychology that sparked the emergence of community psychology from clinical psychology in the 1960s. I also explore how resilience researchers today are adopting the same guiding frameworks as community psychologists. This again might make us wonder about the appropriateness of individually focused resilience interventions when what make us all more or less resilient might stem from broader, more systemic levels.

Back in September I wrote my first post for the Psychological Sciences Research Group (PSRG) blog. It was about a session colleagues and I were delivering at the 4th community psychology festival in Hertford. It focused on student mental health and on the potential of community psychology to complement or even replace “resilience workshops.” In this post I’d like to focus on the topic of resilience itself, but notice that community psychology will get brought back in later.

The word resilience derives from the Latin for rebounding, leaping or springing back. A large amount of psychological research in this area has focused on children. This research goes back to at least the 1970’s, although in those early days terms like “invulnerable” and “stress-resistant” were also used.

Of course, in recent years the term resilience seems to have crossed over into the mainstream and is now a desirable characteristic in many contexts including working age adults, teams, organisations, cities, even countries. We will come back to this later, but for now, let’s focus on the psychological research into children and more recently wider child / parent units.

Professor Ann Masten
Professor Ann Masten

Very simply, after some form of adversity, some children seem to fare well – they bounce back – and others fare less well. The obvious question is why? Is there something “special” about those who bounce back? One of the leading contemporary figures in this research is Ann Masten. Her answer to this question has often been summed up by the phrase: Ordinary Magic. Here Masten is suggesting that resilience is both common and that it arises from ordinary rather than extraordinary protective factors. More specifically, research in this area consistently talks about the importance of: individual, relational and community attributes. Borrowing terms directly from a recent review, these include:

  • Individual: problems-solving skills, self-regulation skills, hope or faith, mastery motivation, and meaning in life.
  • Relational: secure attachment relationships early in life and later good relationships with extended family, friends, mentors, and romantic partners.
  • Community: connections to effective schools and community organisations.

It is interesting to note the broad scope of factors that potentially contribute to resilience (individual, relational and community). The evidence seems clear that this is not something that comes from within the individual alone. This sits somewhat in contrast to the target of many mainstream resilience interventions. In psychology, these interventions can sometimes seem very individually focused. Sometimes they closely resemble the mental health interventions delivered by clinical psychologists, like myself, simply repackaged and resold as a “resilience interventions”.

For example: the aptly titled “Penn Resilience Programme” is a programme delivered to school aged children based on cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT). Equally, an examination of the contents of books about resilience can look almost identical to the chapter headings from an individually focused CBT self-help book. This may seem odd, because remember the evidence for resilience also points to the importance of relational and community attributes. We might also wonder whether traditional CBT, or any other psychological intervention, is evidenced to reliably move all of the individual attributes potentially relevant to resilience. In short, it seems possible that there is a disconnect between the findings from contemporary resilience research and the contents of contemporary resilience interventions.

Part of the reason for raising this concern, is that it points to an old but important debate within the field of clinical psychology and applied psychology more generally. The debate centres on the concern that applied psychology and our interventions can sometimes be too individually focused. That, perhaps without meaning to, we can too easily place both the problem and apparent solution to problems within the skin of an individual. Sometimes even seeming to “blame” the individual. As I say, this is not a new debate, in clinical psychology it has been going since at least the 1960’s. An entire field, community psychology, (remember the festival from earlier?), arose in response to it and tries to promote a broader response to these issues.

Interestingly, this old debate has direct and recent echoes in resilience research. For community psychology, systems thinking and ecological theory is very important. Very simply this means thinking beyond the individual. For example, developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner noted the importance not just of the individual, but of different systems of broader scales around the individual including micro-, meso-, exo-, macro- and also time (chrono-). These ideas are key in community psychology.

What is interesting is that Masten and others psychologists interested in the resilience of children and families have relatively recently started defining resilience as: “the capacity of a system to adapt successfully to significant challenges that threaten its function, viability, or development”. They use the word “system” deliberately because their thinking is explicitly influenced by exactly the same systems thinking and ecological theory as community psychology.

As a clinical psychologist, I am very aware that there is a place for individually focused interventions. But I am also aware that sometimes the key to the solution does not lie there. It is interesting, for example, that in recent reviews promoting resilience frameworks for children and families Masten highlights the importance of wider systemic interventions (e.g. boosting resources like housing support, health care, food programs, tax credits or cash transfers) as much if not more than individual or family focused work (e.g., the quality of parent–child relationships, maternal depression).

As resilience gets talked about more, in more and more settings – we perhaps need to be a little more alert as to where the problem and solution is being situated. Perhaps we need to wonder aloud whether all the responsibility, and even implicitly the blame, is being placed on the shoulders of the individual and if that is appropriate.

For example, are individually focused resilience workshops “the” answer for stressed colleagues working in the NHS? Maybe. I can imagine a place for them. Especially if everything else is working well in the NHS at wider levels – if waiting lists aren’t heaving, budgets aren’t being cut, and pressure isn’t being put on individual staff to deliver more and more, with less and less. But if some, or all, of those things are happening, are individually focused resilience  interventions really the answer? See here for one local account of how these workshops are experienced by some NHS staff. Like the Doctor interviewed in the article, I am in no way anti-mindfulness (see my publication record), but there does seem to be a potential tension if adopting an individual approach to resilience ignores wider issues, or even more problematically situates the problem within the individual.

Articles like the above are small signs that a public debate around resilience is growing and becoming more nuanced. This is to be welcomed. Another example is a recent, short, Radio 4 programme about resilience, from the series “Keywords for our time”. Here GP and broadcaster Farrah Jarral discusses the term, its popularity and, like this blog, wonders if there might be a possible dark side to its use.

Finally, rightly, other academic areas are also involved in the conversation. In geography, the resilience of urban and regional places is a subject of study. And here similar discussions are being had. Specifically, the potential risk of placing the problem and solution within the smallest unit (e.g. a disadvantaged community) while ignoring the wider factors that are as, if not more, responsible for causing the issues in the first place. Interestingly, in disciplines like geography, terms like: political critique, power structures, material resources, global capitalism and neoliberalization seem to appear more often than they do in mainstream psychology publications. Perhaps we should all take note. If resilience is increasingly talked about at many different levels of society, and psychology and psychologists are asked to comment or deliver interventions – what is our response, at what level, and how effective can it be?

Research Experience as an Undergrad: My summer internship and placement

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By Josh Lee

I’m a second-year psychology student at UWE, and throughout my first year I found myself developing a keen interest in psychological research. The more I engaged with my degree, the more interested I became, and I started actively seeking opportunities to gain research experience towards the end of first year. I was interested in learning more about the research process, and I also know how valuable experience can be for postgraduate applications.

In May of this year I went on an animal behaviour research trip to the island of Lundy. This was shortly after applying for my first research role, a paid summer internship with Drs Kait Clark and Charlotte Pennington. I learnt a lot on Lundy and made friends with the other student researchers. Towards the end we realised we were on the same wavelength…three fellow Lundy attendees and I had been invited to interview for the same position. The interviews were scheduled for the week after our return from Lundy, and we were now friends competing against each other. All we could do was wish each other luck in the interview and hope for the best.

The interview was competitive, and we were all given a short programming task to attempt in advance. Maybe there was something in the sea air, but when an email came through from Kait offering the job, all four our names were on it. Taking the extracurricular opportunity to learn and conduct psychological research on Lundy perhaps led to an edge in the interview, and we now had the chance to contribute to a legitimate paper together.

The main aim of the project was to develop a set of visual and social cognition tasks for the purposes of establishing test-retest reliability, building on a recent study by Hedge, Powell, & Sumner (2018). Our first task was to complete a comprehensive review of visual cognition literature. Although I had experience of examining research papers to get references for essays, this was much more in depth and specific. The process of comparing the different papers took a while to get used to, but it has been eye-opening to review papers with a view towards designing our own study rather than evaluating a proposition for an essay. It highlights different issues within and between papers that I would not have considered otherwise, and I feel like it has helped me develop a more complete approach to evaluating research papers in general. We were given lots of freedom to conduct the review and research – this was hugely beneficial as it left a lot of potential for creative ideas and individual contribution.

We chose measures for which the test-retest reliability had not already been established so our research could have the most impact. Each of us then chose one measure and worked through writing the Python code to implement parameters in alignment with previous studies. We are using PsychoPy, open-source software, to program our measures. I have limited coding knowledge (but enough to pass the interview stage!) so using Python has been a learning experience. Although frustrating at times, help has always been available and through a combination of initiative, trial and error, and advice, the measures shaped up nicely. I developed a motion coherence task, and piloting it on my friends has been interesting – explaining what the task is for and the wider context requires a thorough knowledge of it, and I am genuinely passionate about it. I never thought I’d be excited about a spreadsheet.

During our summer internship we also had an opportunity to meet with Dr Craig Hedge, whose recent paper has inspired our current work. We got to hear about his research first hand and discuss our project and how it related to his paper. It was interesting and insightful to talk about his work and how our test-retest reliability project came about.

Now we’ve finished the development stage of the project, and with all the tasks up and running, it’s time for data collection. I’m continuing to work on this project as my work-based learning placement for my Developing Self and Society (DSAS) module. Time slots are available on UWE’s participant pool for students to book in, and so we have all been running sessions for up to four participants at once. This involves briefing, setting up the experiments on the computers, giving instructions, addressing issues that arise, and ensuring that the conditions are the same for every session. It’s fun to discuss the study when debriefing the participants, to raise awareness of what is being investigated and help them understand why they did the tasks involved. The integration of my internship with one of my second-year modules shows how beneficial an opportunity like this can be. In isolation, it is good experience on its own, but linking it with my regular studies and incorporating my experience into university work has made it invaluable.

It’s been great working closely with Kait and Charlotte in addition to Austin, Triin, and Kieran. Chatting with staff as well as students in a different year to me has given me insight into the university and the course itself. I have learnt a lot already and will continue to do so. The project will also help me with my own research project and my degree in general. I’m excited to see what the rest of it brings.

Community psychology perspectives on student mental health

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By Miles Thompson

The 4th UK Community Psychology Festival is being held on the 23rd and 24th of September 2018 in the Hertford Theatre, Hertford. It follows the success of the 3rd festival, which was held at the Arnolfini in Bristol and was joint hosted by UWE’s Social Science Research Group.

Three members of UWE’s Psychological Sciences Research Group are curating a slot at festival number 4 titled: Community psychology perspectives on student mental health. In the festival spirit they want their session to be as interactive as possible and are asking all festival goers to participate in their session – before it takes place – whether they are able to attend the actual session or not. In short they invite people to read the extract below from their festival abstract and respond:

Mental health problems for students in UK higher education are receiving increased attention. Since 2008, some universities have experienced a threefold increase in demand for student support services. Student suicide has also been on the increase. A new document by Universities UK called “Step Change” has started to shape policy in this area.

You are a psychologist – interested in community psychology – teaching at a UK university. The university has concerns about growing student mental health issues. It is keen to tackle the problem by offering 1st year students a series of “resilience workshops” that focus on individual emotional regulation skills. What community psychology perspectives, evidence and even interventions might you suggest to complement or even replace the current suggestion?

Specifically, we invite festival goers to respond in advance of the session by either:
Posting a comment at the end of this blog post
Tweeting a response using the hashtag #commpsySMH
Or e-mailing: miles2.thompson@uwe.ac.uk with their response.

We plan to spend the timetabled session considering both the responses to the scenario above and wondering together about how UK community psychology might contribute more widely to this area.

Remember, please respond to the above scenario before the actual session whether or not you are able to attend it. Thank you.

Introducing our new lecturer, Dr Gamze Arman!

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By Gamze Arman

My name is Gamze Arman, and I have recently joined the UWE Department of Health and Social Sciences as a Lecturer in Occupational Psychology.

I received my undergraduate and master’s degrees from the most prestigious universities of Turkey (Bogazici University and Koc University, respectively) and my Ph.D. degree in Industrial/Organisational Psychology from DePaul University in Chicago – IL, USA. Prior to joining UWE, I worked as an assistant professor at MEF University (Turkey) for two years, with a joint appointment in the psychology and business administration departments.

At UWE, I will be primarily teaching at the masters’ program specialized in Occupational Psychology, and I will be involved in the modules such as training and development, and psychological assessment, in addition to the undergraduate module on research design and analysis.

My research is relevant to the “Optimising Performance and Engagement” theme of PSRG and focuses on two key areas: 1) diversity and interpersonal relationships in organizations as determinants of the task and 2) contextual performance in the work context. Within the broad scope of diversity, I am interested in gender and culture as the critical bases, and in my research so far, I have specifically focused on the following topics:

  • Career development of female employees (What is the role of senior female managers on career development of junior women? How does involvement in Women in Business student clubs impact the career perceptions of female university students?)
  • Expatriates and high skilled immigrants (How do host country nationals perceive and treat expatriates from different cultural backgrounds? What are the factors facilitating or hindering female expatriates’ career development in a given cultural context?)
  • Functioning of multinational teams (How does subgroup formation take place in teams consisting of members from several national backgrounds? How does it impact team functioning?)

Within the area of interpersonal relationships in organizations, I am primarily interested in:

  • Abusive supervision and the dark side of leadership (What is the role of third-party observers in abusive supervision cases? Which factors impact their perceptions and willingness to help the victims?)
  • Relational energy among employees (How do people in a work context impact each other’s mood and motivation?)

Although my priority is research, I am a proponent of the scientist-practitioner model of occupational psychology. In my experience as a practitioner, I worked for human resources departments of multinational companies such as Accenture, and I engaged in consulting projects in the USA and Turkey. I look for opportunities for collaboration with practitioners since I believe consulting and delivering training programs to professionals provide valuable inspiration for my research via the interaction with people working at different organizations.

The Power of Yoga: Using yoga to promote psychological and physical health

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By Emma Halliwell

I was 21, living in Brighton, studying and partying when went to my first yoga class. I was immediately hooked. I have been practicing yoga, with varying frequency, ever since. In those early days yoga helped me cope with the aftermath of late nights and exam stress. Over the subsequent two decades yoga has helped me cope with more serious health and emotional issues.  I can definitely attest to the ‘power of yoga’ in my own life.

Despite my long relationship with yoga, I’ve only begun to research yoga relatively recently. Fortunately, I have a brilliant yoga teacher, Sam Burkey, as a collaborator. She has a wealth of experience and expertise about the benefits of yoga. Together we take an evidence-based approach, integrating evidence from the academic literature, classic teachings and professional experience.

Yoga improves both physical and psychological health. It offers benefits for numerous health conditions including diabetes, cancer, anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Of course, beyond peer-reviewed research, there is also an extensive and rich literature on yoga. The seminal text, The Yoga-Sutra, was written two-thousand years ago (although references to yoga date back 5,000 years). Numerous texts have been published as guides to practice and as testament to the benefits of yoga. Based on these resources, we can draw some clear conclusions and also identify some significant challenges.

For many people yoga is a lifelong pursuit. The benefits of this sustained practice are well documented. These benefits also change and emerge in response to an individual’s own development. There is also evidence that relatively brief yoga courses improve health and wellbeing.

Currently, we are seeing an explosion in the types of yoga on offer, from the more traditional to the more bizarre. It is not clear whether positive impact of yoga extends to some of the more recent variants. Also, we are seeing the emergence of programs that seem to take yoga away from the basic philosophical routes of self-compassion and acceptance, e.g. “beach body yoga workout”.  These developments makes it more challenging to simply recommend yoga as a route to improve well-being.

Against this backdrop, our aim is to evaluate stand-alone yoga-based interventions that also provide a foundation for future practice that will support psychological and physical well-being. Specifically, we are developing brief yoga-based interventions that

  1. target and improve specific aspects of psychological and physical well-being and
  2. offer an informed entry route into yoga practice.

To date, we’ve delivered yoga interventions in schools and university. Our initial data indicates that our targeted yoga-based intervention approach is effective. For example, our yoga-based intervention led to sustained improvements in mood and body image among young women and 40% of them continuing yoga practice.

We have many other projects planned. Most imminently, with an extended cross-disciplinary project team, we are working on yoga programs for individuals who’ve experienced cancer.

So far, this research area has been extremely exciting and rewarding. The significant intervention effects are very promising. Of course, some of the most compelling evidence comes from qualitative feedback. In our most recent study, one participant reported…

“I have taken up yoga and want to do it forever”

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