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"Wolfe: like the animal !" Stress & Resilience Workshop 2021

The 2021 Open University Psychological Society Stress and Resilience Workshop (SRW) was a thorough exploration of the leading themes. Interestingly, as someone who has attended several OUPS events, there were so many elements which elicited memories of previous events as well as OU course content. You can graduate, but certain memories endure! However, as with most things, our motivations, that which we remember, and what we take away, can vary enormously. There were course weekends occurring concurrently with the SRW. There were new friends meeting for the first time as well as longed-for reunions. We wrote our name badges in the bar, had dinner in the dining hall and then headed off to our respective events.

The nature of the workshop was outlined in the introduction on Friday night. Participation was encouraged, not enforced. We agreed as a group to respect privacy and confidentiality. Fight Club rules. During this first session, we introduced ourselves and gave a couple of pieces of information, for example, our psychological background, and what we hoped to get out of the SRW. I was “Wolfe. Like the animal”, at the end of a difficult masters, and I needed to overcome my debilitating stress to write my MSc dissertation.

Our group reflected the diversity of Open University alumni, despite being small in number in accordance with the Covid-19 rules. We had a weekend involving trials, tribulations, and a competition in which we were all invested! Our two lecturers were OUPS legends and great friends, occupational psychologist, Jim Handley, and clinical psychologist, Professor Neil Frude. They introduced themselves and previewed the workshop’s structure. This report is about the Workshop, but will not break copyright of the material, break the Fight club rules, or, crucially, reveal too much of the content. The last point is so important because the workshop can be of benefit to everyone, so no spoilers! In addition, my notes at the time, the lecture material, and how I remember the event is a snapshot from just one person.

clara badge

 Stress and resilience are each complex phenomena which necessitate taking a biopsychosocial approach. The biopsychosocial approach is also relevant in the consideration of how the C19 pandemic has impacted society, especially among those suffering with Long Covid. We covered a range of topics across the weekend interspersed with activities and sharing perspectives and/or experiences. For example, Zoom has been invaluable during the Covid restrictions, but it also represents stress, resilience, and much more, such as issues of self-image, the relief among some children at not having to go into (the oft-hellscape of) school, and the fatigue of a life lived online. The stress of the pandemic cannot be underestimated however, the resilience it has inspired within populations deserves attention too. Conversations about coping during the pandemic were reminiscent of both the LOUPS Conference: Social Psychology Today, for example, the importance of human interaction such as volunteering, and the LOUPS Conference 2020: Technology and Psychology, due to the necessity of technology during the pandemic.

The stress and resilience of the pandemic are entangled, but how we approach them impacts our experience. The stress and/or resilience we feel about some of the issues of the pandemic are within our control to a greater extent than we may realise. Across the SRW, there were multiple times when our reactions to a phenomenon were critical in determining outcomes. The biopsychosocial approach to stress and resilience offered personal reflection, group discussion, and the conceptualising of some issues along spectrums, continuums, and perhaps, [musical] scores?Music was a dominant theme across the weekend, both in and out of the classroom. The competition in which we were invested referred to relatively scarce tickets to an even scarcer gig. We shared conversations about music and its impact upon our stress and resilience. The shiver a certain song elicits, the joy of being part of a choir, and the power of dancing despite pain. We talked about playlists, memories, and song lyrics. As I’m typing, listening to Fluorescent Adolescent, and chuckling at “is it a Mecca dauber or a betting pencil?”, the individuality of music is apparent: a stress-busting song for one, is an audio assault to another. There are certain sounds or wavelengths which act upon the human body: classical music when studying, Mozart in utero, for example.

Individual differences were relevant to stress such as through personality factors. Classic psychology acronym OCEAN tested our recall on both the first and last day. The big 5 personality factors, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (https://positivepsychology.com/big-five-personality-theory/), impact a person’s response to a stressful stimulus, and their degree of resilience. For example, my incorrigible neuroticism meant people laughed at my prospective attendance of the SRW [RUDE!]. Conversely, the openness among the group meant that our individual differences made for a genuinely interesting and illuminating workshop. Much like the variety of our musical proclivities; our encounters with stress, demonstrations of resilience, and shared or diverging experiences with each, our individual differences demonstrated one of the most important themes of the workshop: hope.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. Hope is many things, including opportunity. Across the weekend there were references to the power of individuals to self-manage stress and build their resilience. The trials of the weekend were entangled in hope through the recommendation to experiment with the more than fifty techniques proposed by Jim and Neil. Embrace our scientist sides and investigate. Some of the suggestions stirred memories of previous modules, for example, ‘green space’ reminds me of biophilia from DD210, plus the ongoing discourse about spending time in nature. Some of the formal therapeutic interventions were discussed in DD310 among other modules.

Some of the interventions covered may make us immediately crinkle our nose at their mere mention *cough mindfulness cough*. However, it is important to try as many of the interventions as we can because surprises may lurk. For example, mindfulness can induce a “not today, Satan” response based on past experiences. However, as was apparent in the LOUPS Pub Social: Mindfulness stress management, mindfulness can be more than stereotyped oversimplified conceptualisations, and can be incorporated into many other interventions. There is no one-size-fits-all intervention: “no silver bullet”. As the late, great Aaliyah so beautifully sang: if at first you don’t succeed, then dust yourself off and try again.

Hope should be neither ignored nor deferred because there truly is no time like the present. In particular, the best time to build defences is when they are not in demand. The multitude of techniques proposed by Jim and Neil encompassed the biological, the psychological, and the social. The social aspects are especially significant owing to the pandemic’s effect on social connectedness. The green light of Gatsby’s belief is a green light for us all to build our defences and empower ourselves against stress. Whether or not we heed the green light, we should all increase our time in green space: the benefits of which are in their infancy of recognition. Warwick is a beautiful campus with an abundance of green space. The view from my window [below] included plants, trees, squirrels, and baby rabbits! Nature is awesome!

 clara view

The tribulations of SRW were personal but darkly comic, and as humour was among the stress-inoculation and resilience-building techniques: no guts no glory? There were numerous activities over the course of the workshop involving feedback, speculations, and assumptions. In the moment, they were personally acutely stressful, but should they result in post-traumatic growth, will have resulted in resilience. In brief, a few of the activities and/or interventions were predicated on everyone having at least a small number of specific resources such as a measure of life satisfaction, and someone to rely on in a crisis. That is not the case for us all. Comments during sessions including, “I hope nobody got a score of X”, “generations of … nervous wreck rats”, “I hope everybody has at least someone”, and “you would look after a cut”, were delightful metaphorical gunshots to the soul. However, the immediate stress of these moments has diluted since the SRW, while the ability to sit through such unpredictable, unrelenting, and visceral hits arguably demonstrated some resilience. Lacking support triggered memories of the LOUPS Mental Health Seminar 2019, and the importance of Dr. Jutta Tobias-Mortlock’s advice to “share something real with someone you trust”. Trials and tribulations are part of the rollercoaster of life, but the inoculative impacts of a robust support system should be recognised and encouraged: no lone Wolfe, no lone wolves...  

Choice was a recurrent theme across the weekend; indeed, it is a powerful theme of life. Regardless of the topic of a particular talk, choice was important. In terms of stress, we may not always have much choice over the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we can benefit in how we choose to respond. Similarly, resilience can include how we respond to stress. For example, the same scenario may be experienced as extreme stress for one person, yet an adventure for another such as with sky diving, bungee jumping, or Disneyland in half term. There are individual differences in experiences of stress and resilience which can be partially attributed to the choices we make. For example, in times of stress or uncertainty, how we characterise our choices/options impacts our ability to survive or thrive. Thriving is the aim and is more within our grasp than we realise: to some extent, it’s our choice.

We spoke about the conceptualisation of issues in terms of what is reasonable, realistic, and rational. For example, with my dissertation stress; it was reasonable to be stressed about it given the circumstances, [hopefully!] less realistic to imagine it will fail and tank the entire year, and so a rational response would have been to direct my energy into writing it rather than plummeting down a spiralling stress hole. There are different models and explanations of stress, but it remains important to reflect as calmly as possible upon your choice of response to difficult situations. There is power in choosing to temper our response to a stressor: building our resilience.

The workshop material drew upon diverse sources of psychological knowledge, quotes from many walks of life, and anecdotal evidence. Jim and Neil afforded the SRW content and lectures a rich conceptualisation for stress and resilience. In addition to their wealth of experience, their tangible friendship, and easy repartee, the positivity of their presentations was notable. The topics of stress and resilience can be loaded and difficult. However, the importance of positive psychology is fundamental in building resilience reserves. Resilience is akin to a muscle which can and should be trained. Indeed, exercise in a green space, and you are hitting several goals concurrently! The positive psychology approach from the SRW will endure. Reframing or reconceptualising a problem as a challenge or opportunity for growth is useful if only to get a moment of distance from the problem. Give it a go!

The OUPS Stress and Resilience Workshop 2021 was stonking return to form while also respecting the Covid-safe terms. For example, there were fewer places on each running course to enable physical distancing, we were in large rooms which were well-ventilated, and we sat apart in the classrooms. Fight Club rules were invoked on the SRW because of the workshop nature of mutual participation, the copyrighted material, and specific to this report, to avoid spoiling the content in any way as there are tangible benefits for people to attend future workshops and experience the content first-hand.

Stress and resilience are complicated phenomenon, and the biopsychosocial model is a beneficial approach to take in their consideration. As well as being one we are familiar with after/during our OU psychology studies! 😊 The SRW featured a competition for tickets during our discussions of the importance of music for coping with stress and enhancing resilience. Individual differences, whether music taste or personality dimensions were important aspects, in addition to the individuality of the interventions in which we were encouraged to trial to build our resilience reserves. Personal tribulations of being the living embodiment of an onslaught of bad examples was stressful but, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. One can hope.

Hope is a choice. Choosing how to approach a stressful scenario can alleviate some of its sting and thus induce hope. Hope and choice were personally strong overarching elements of the workshop. The exercise of articulating or breaking down stressors into what is a reasonable expectation, a realistic expectation, and a rational expectation can offer distance between erratic reactivity, catastrophising, or freezing. The positive psychology of the weekend similarly added a different dimension into the stress and resilience discourse.  

Ultimately, the weekend raised many questions and contemplations: more than could be addressed in one weekend or one article. However, are questions not what drives us as scientists, as psychologists, and as human beings? As we learned during the Stress and Resilience Weekend 2021, there is no single answer that fits all: no single silver bullet. You just have to keep investigating, experimenting, procrastinating [just me?!], and forging ahead so that when somebody asks how you are, you can tell them you’re thriving, you’re flourishing. And mean it.

Of course you can!

 

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