Some of us may be more vulnerable than others to adverse pressure because of earlier life experiences.

Thankfully this need not mean that we have to throw in the towel when things get tough.

Research indicates that a strong supportive adult relationship can effect a turning point and can have a significant beneficial effect on our ability to cope [1].

This may be from a partner, friend, a work colleague, mentor, LawCare volunteer, or therapist.

The indication is that where an individual feels safe and has positive relationships, they are more able to rise above adversity and to think more clearly about their own and others’ mental states, in other words to mentalise.

Because it enables more flexible and objective thinking, mentalising can protect self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Even when someone is more vulnerable than others to the negative effects of stress through prior difficulty, this capacity can be developed in close relationships at any point in life.

Research carried out in the field of child development also supports these findings. Characteristics that appear to protect children from the adverse effects stressful experience include high intelligence and good problem-solving ability, effective coping styles, autonomy, a sense of self-worth, interpersonal awareness and empathy, planning abilities and a sense of humour.

‘Reflective function’ (an ability to think realistically about states of mind in self and others) is the most consistent factor in identifying resilient mothers [2]. 

Anecdotally, a number of these qualities are reflected in psychiatric literature. In the fourth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) effective coping styles are listed including anticipation, affiliation, altruism, humour, self-assertion, self-observation, sublimation and suppression [3]. 

An optimistic conclusion to this is that we can learn to develop these qualities in the context of supportive relationships to boost our ‘psychological immune system’ [4]. 


Combat de-stress

The American military is currently in the process of adopting a model of resilience training developed by Martin Seligman and others to build mental toughness under the title of ‘Master Resilience Training’ [5].

The programme is not without its critics but appears to have been adopted and accepted widely in a stereotypically macho culture.

Seligman admits that he and his colleagues were nervous that hard-boiled soldiers would find resilience training ‘touchy-feely’ or ‘psychobabble’.

But, contrary to expectation, the general response has been particularly favourable.


… and more widely

The idea of resilience can be applied at an individual and an institutional level.

For example, at the individual level we have a lawyer, the group in which they work (a set of chambers, a team within a larger organisation, a law firm), and the wider legal community (which would include other firms or chambers, clients, professional bodies and the court system).

One could also look at these groupings and consider their own qualities of resilience.

But this is beyond the scope of this short study and I’ll limit things to considering personal and individual resilience.

The principles, however, can be extrapolated …




[1] Stein, H. (2006) Does Mentalizing Promote Resilience? In Allen, J. G. & Fonagy, P. (eds.), Handbook of Mentalization-Based Treatment (pp. 307-326). 

Chichester: John Wiley & Sons (p.308).

[2] Fonagy, P., Steele, M., Steele, H., et al (1994). The Emmanuel Miller Memorial Lecture 1992: The theory and practice of resilience, Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 35, 231-257.

[3] American Psychiatric Association (2000) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Text revision (4th ed.), Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Press.

[4] Holmes, J. (2001) The search for the secure base: Attachment theory and psychotherapy. Hove: Routledge.

[5] Seligman, M. E. P. (2011) Building Resilience, Harvard Business Review, 89, 100-108.


(This is an edited excerpt from my book A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellbeing and Managing Stress published by ARK Group in 2015.)

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