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Everyone wants resilient employees on the team; people who have the capacity to recover quickly from challenges or unexpected change so they can get on with the job whilst maintaining their own optimum mental health and wellbeing.  But the thing is, for many, this isn’t something that comes naturally.  Adult humans are programmed to avoid risky situations, let alone bounce back ready to face them.  Resilience, therefore, requires practice – the sort of practice military spouses get to experience all the time. 

Resilience doesn’t come naturally

The concept of resilience feels like an intuitive one.  But the challenging thing about bouncing back from adversity is the adversity itself.  That’s because, through the relentless pressure to outmanoeuvre predators over tens of thousands of years, human beings have produced a nervous system that is dominated by the need to avoid potential threats.  More specifically, a negativity bias is typically displayed – a tendency to register negative stimuli more readily and to dwell on these events.

Whilst this was all very necessary tens of thousands of years ago, the problem today is the survival hardwiring is still very much in place.  As a result, even though most people spend most of their lives in low-risk situations, negativity will be detected even in small changes in circumstances if they are unexpected – a change in role, a new boss, a change in IT system, a mistake made.  The conscious brain understands rationally that the risk to survival is unlikely but the subconscious mind’s heightened threat detection may think otherwise.  This manifests as behaviours such as delay, avoidance, procrastination, self-focus and obsessive “what-if” worry – all of which conflict with the behaviours of resilience.

So, this all sounds like the only answer is to get new brain?  Exactly.

The neuropathways to resilience

As with many things in life, the answer lies with practice.  That’s because the automatic way in which our brain behaves is caused by repetition of behaviour – not the other way around. Some of the most recent advances in the science of neuroplasticity have started to reveal amazing abilities for the brain to change by creating new connections in response to new experiences and repeated use.

Neural pathways are created in the brain based on our habits and behaviours.  The pathways become more robust the more a behaviour is performed.  This enables the brain cells to communicate more frequently, strengthening the connection between them.  These messages begin to transmit faster and faster and, with enough repetition, the behaviours become automatic.  Therefore, when changes in circumstances occur frequently, the new neuropathways associated with the management of this change are created.

Practice makes resilience

So, it turns out that all the house moves, all the new schools started, the decisions to leave jobs, the process of making new friends, the notification that in 3 weeks’ time you’re having building work that will prevent access to your kitchen for 18 days (and no, having a newborn baby, a toddler and a husband away won’t change that schedule) have a bigger impact than dealing with the isolated situation alone.  These repeated experiences and the practice of manging them have the ability to change the brain into a more resilient one.

The original Conor-Davidson Scales of resilience describe behaviours such as quickly accepting and focussing on the new situation, drawing on and trusting one’s own skills and competency to manage the change, helping others, maintaining a sense of humour and the ability to keep a higher purpose front of mind. 

Military spouses get to practice their response to new and often unexpected situations more frequently than most.  These experiences and the repeated act of managing them create proactive people who can navigate situations proportionately within the context of a bigger picture balanced with the self-confidence to quickly start tasks, adapt to new ways of working and support others.

At first glance, the career histories of military spouses may appear more dynamic than most but it’s actually these changes that have created some of the most resilient, efficient and lowest maintenance people in the workforce – and we’ve got the neuropathways to prove it.   

Alix Mackay is a proud forces wife now based in Glasgow.  Since becoming a military spouse she has founded her own marketing training and consultancy company for the life sciences sector and is the Chief Commercial Officer for Nuchido specialising in anti-ageing science.  Alix is also a member of the Scottish Life Sciences Industry Leadership Group and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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