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22 May 2022

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY: How you can help build lifelong resilience for when the challenges come

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson Offaly psychologists

Tullamore-based clinical psychologists, Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson

WHO would have predicted that as we entered the 2020s nearly 28 months ago now that it would be such an eventful decade already?

First, we have experienced a global pandemic which has certainly challenged us all in many different ways. Then, just as the world felt that we were over the pandemic, a war started in Europe as Russia invaded Ukraine. All of Europe is currently feeling a significant ripple effect from this devastating war being waged on the Ukrainian people.

Approximately five million people, the majority children and their mothers, have had to flee from their country and loved ones. Ireland has already welcomed over 20,000 Ukrainian refugees since February 2022. In addition, in the first few months of this year, communities across Ireland have experienced other devastating tragedies, often (but not always) random and fatal attacks on people going about their daily lives.

In our clinical practices over the past few months (and further back) we have certainly witnessed clients’ shock, pain and sense of helplessness as these events have unfolded. However, alongside this pain is often something else, resilience.

Coping, adjusting, re-adjusting and living with Covid-19, over the past two years, has certainly tested our resilience stores. How have five million people in the 21st century, been able to uproot themselves, their families and make their way across Europe to safety in appallingly stressful conditions?

All of these “bigger” events are of course layered on top of all our individual, personal stressors and the challenges and demands we face in our everyday lives.

We wondered what it is about people that keeps them going in the face of challenge and adversity. We wondered how some people seem naturally more resilient than others and if this is something that can be taught. Dr Chris Johnstone, a medical doctor, author and resilience trainer has written a really useful book called 'Seven Ways to Build Resilience' (book cover pictured below).

In this article we are going to look at some of Johnstone’s ideas and how they fit into the broader field of positive psychology.

Johnstone defines resilience as the ability to cope with and recover from difficult situations. He says it includes our capacity to make the best of things, to deal with stress and to rise to the occasion. Encouragingly – since he is an expert in this area – he says that we can learn to be more resilient. Each of the seven ways to build resilience is described in each of seven chapters and Johnstone describes a range of tools that can help us with the building work.

Like with all psychological tools, some people will find particular tools really help them while other people will prefer different tools. As we say to clients, get familiar with the psychological tools and techniques, practise them and see which work best for you. This applies to a range of psychological conditions and life stressors, not just to building resilience.

Johnstone starts with illustrating a core concept in clinical formulation, the interplay between factors such as protective and risk factors. For all of us, we face challenges with our own unique strengths and skills and life circumstances and experiences. Protective factors quite literally protect us from adversity; they can include a healthy childhood, healthy, supportive adult relationships, being psychologically flexible in our thinking, having a job we like and so on. Risk factors make it harder to cope; examples might be a problem with alcohol, chronic insomnia, a fixed, inflexible thinking style, a highly developed self-critic.

Johnstone uses a visual analogy of a boat and water level to illustrate his point.

When we have good protective factors in our lives this buoys up the boat (us) and stops it hitting the rocks. Risk factors on the other hand, push down the water level and the boat is more likely to hit the rocks. Johnstone urges us to check our water level and address and adjust risk and protective factors accordingly. So, for example, if poor sleep/staying up late at night is a risk factor then maybe we need to improve our sleep hygiene. Self-compassion (a topic we discuss regularly in this column) is an example of a personal protective factor that fosters resilience.

In addition, Johnstone tells us that this “boat and water level mapping tool” can be applied to anything we would like to change by analysing the factors that help and hinder.

Johnstone talks about “emotional first aid” using the very clever acronym SSRI.

In psychiatry and psychology SSRIs are usually the shorthand description for commonly prescribed antidepressants. Johnstone’s SSRIs are of the non-pharmaceutical kind: S stands for individual coping strategies; S stands for individual strengths/qualities; R stands for resources available to us that offer help and support; I stands for Insights into problems (maybe what has helped us in the past...). When we examine ourselves and the challenges using this framework we can really enhance our resilience.

Johnstone looks at how problem solving can be enhanced by our beliefs. He normalises our tendency not to believe we can do something and views disbelief rather than as an endpoint, but as part of the process whereby we accept our disbelief and move along from there to belief. He looks at how we can develop flexible thinking when we are fixed in our thoughts and ideas but unwilling to let them go - that sort of “my way or the highway” mentality that we are all guilty of at times. Johnstone urges us to look for a more helpful way of thinking about problems, mirroring one of the core concepts of Steven Hayes Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

One chapter that has particularly resonated with us has been Johnstone’s advice on “overload management”. We have all been there. Felt overloaded and overwhelmed. Johnstone gives some very practical advice that we often forget when our stress levels are running amok. For example, we need to examine the demands on us and really try to see what is necessary/unnecessary. He calls this “commitment cropping”. He urges us to remember our assertive rights and skills; we are allowed to say “no” to others when we need to say “no”.

There is considerably more good advice for the development of resilience in this book, but we will end here on the final chapter in which he urges us to strengthen our supports in ourselves, in our relationships with others, with our friends and families and in our wider communities and networks. At a time when our local, national and global communities are facing all sorts of challenges and adversity this seems very fitting advice.


Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They will present 'Mindful Compassion for Wellbeing', a practical half-day course, on June 13 next.

Topics will include -

  • What is mindful self-compassion and how is it helpful for emotional wellbeing?
  • What happens in our bodies and minds when we are self-critical and self-compassionate?
  • Paul Gilbert’s model of emotional regulation
  • Managing difficult emotions and everyday struggles such as anxiety and low confidence using mindful self-compassion
  • Experiential exercises and meditations

Imelda Ferguson and Julie O'Flaherty recently returned to hosting positive psychology courses with a half-day course in Tullamore which was well attended and rated as successful by the participants.

The Mindful Compassion for Wellbeing course will take place on Monday, June 13 from 10am to 1pm in the Central Hotel, Main Street, Tullamore (opposite Lidl).

The course facilitators, Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty (who write the fortnightly Positive Psychology column on this page) are both chartered clinical psychologists with extensive experience in the adult mental health field.

The course cost is €90 (a reduced early bird fee of €75 is available for those who pay by May 27). The fee includes course materials, tea/coffee and hotel parking.

For further information or to book a place contact Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie 087 2399328 or send a private message on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.

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