By TALA JARJOUR
Every few years, new buzzwords come about and, while some go out of fashion rapidly, others linger for some time. Perhaps a good example of the latter is “resilience.” While the word itself may well give way to other, perhaps newer, terms as the circumstances that led to its current preponderance evolve, its significance is likely to endure. This certainly seems to be the case at the moment, when the world is working hard to be a post-pandemic one.
So in what ways is resilience a relevant concept in today’s world, specifically in the countries of the Arab world and the wider Middle East? Are there ways to understand resilience that may be particularly beneficial to the region? In thinking through these questions, I share in this piece some thoughts on one aspect of resilience: The conditions that contribute to its coming about, namely major stressors, and why such conditions are relevant to the region and its impact on the wider world, both present and future.
My first encounter with the term resilience was in materials science. When studying different materials, engineers need to know how they behave in relation to external forces that may change them, such as pressure. Science determines why some materials have more resilience than others by understanding how they respond to elastic deformation, which is the kind of force that changes their shape or size temporarily, without causing permanent deformation. Highly resilient materials, such as rubber, can endure a great deal of pressure by changing shape temporarily and then returning to their original form. Ceramic, on the other hand, does not behave in the same way. Deformation is more permanent in ceramic, as it breaks under external forces such as pressure. So in resilient materials, up to a certain amount of pressure causes changes that are fully reversible once the pressure is removed.
The same principle has been adopted by psychologists to describe an ability shown by people who have gone through major stressors but have returned to their normal, pre-stressor state relatively quickly. Resilience in psychology, then, is the ability to adapt to and recover from life-changing stresses and return to the pre-stress state without significant damage to one’s psychological or emotional health.
When trying to understand this elasticity, as it were, psychologists found that resilient people often emerge stronger than they were before major stressors or even trauma. In a way, it seems that previous experience with adversity, when successfully overcome, can increase resilience. Of course, not everyone who has had to endure life stressors learns how to do so without damage, but those who have overcome past stress successfully are more likely to be able to do so in subsequent crises.
The coronavirus pandemic, under which the world continues to reel, is a major stressor — a global crisis that is still affecting individuals and communities. University students, for instance, are reported to have undergone unusually stressful disruptions. The major adjustments they continue to have to make have been widely reported in the media, and some readers of these lines might have experienced them personally or through relatives.
I asked the head of student mental health services at a major UK university, which is also one of the world’s top universities, if they had noticed any difference in dealing with pandemic-related stress between students who have a history of stress endurance and those to whom pandemic levels of uncertainty were new. After some thinking, the answer was yes. During the pandemic, counselors started seeing a student population that they did not see before. Students with no history of major adversity, and whose college years normally progress without significant disruption, do not normally visit a counselor’s office. The uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it seems, has been a major stressor for these students, such that it requires mental health support. But for students who have previously experienced major stress, the disruption caused by the pandemic seems less world-shattering.
It seems that previous experience with adversity, when successfully overcome, can increase resilience.
Another worthy group to note here is migrants, or refugees, especially those who left Arab countries after suffering extreme hardship. During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when the world suddenly came to a halt, many an account surfaced about migrant Arabs taking initiatives to help their new communities around the world. One BBC documentary followed a handful of Arab individuals in London, among them entrepreneurs, professional health workers and a female bus driver. In the British capital as elsewhere, Arabs were not only keen to act, but also quick to act and, more importantly, able to do so. –AN