“This is how sailors’ bodies are hardened against the sea, farmers’ hands are calloused, soldiers’ arms are strong enough for throwing javelins, runners’ legs are swift. In each case, what is exercised the most is the toughest.” (Seneca)


The devastation caused in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 may seem a world apart from the overwhelming situation facing a lawyer in central London.

One involves an environmental disaster facing thousands of people over a wide area; the other, a local crisis facing one individual and having immediate implications for only a handful of others.

However, the environmental disaster over a decade ago and Andrew’s crisis have a much in common.

Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation and former President of the University of Pennsylvania, has written recently on the social implications of the destruction brought about by Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in New York in 2012.

Without resilience, she argues, communities and individuals are unable to bounce back from crisises, learn from them, and achieve revitalisation [1].

Andrew faced a crisis.

It came about through the combination of internal and external stresses that he found overwhelming, confusing and impossible to manage.

After receiving support from his GP, he was able to adopt a number of strategies to help him begin to get his life back on track.

In Churchill’s words, he ‘did not let a good crisis go to waste’.

The same principles, says Rodin, apply to social groups on a global scale.


Steeling and turning 

Over the last decade, a large body of literature has been produced at academic and popular levels to apply theory in the area of resilience.

Various definitions of the concept and scope of ‘resilience’ have been suggested.

For example, resilience is ‘an interactive concept that refers to a relative resistance to environmental risk experiences, or the overcoming of stress or adversity’ [2].

Or, it is ‘normal development under difficult conditions’ [3].

It implies ‘exposure to risk factors (adversities) and protective factors (beneficial resources) leading to developmentally appropriate (and thus resilient) outcomes’. [4].

A reasonable working definition was coined by former Crystal Palace manager Ian Dowie: ‘bouncebackability’.

This gets closer to the original sense of the word which means to ‘rebound’ or ‘recoil’, implying elasticity and toughness.

One academic who has contributed much to the research on resilience recently is Michael Rutter, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Kings College, London.

In 2006 Rutter outlined proposed research on the nature of human resilience [2]. This research was followed up in 2012 with research outcomes [5].

The study shows that there is considerable variation in our response to various amounts of environmental adversity.

Put simply, some people cope better than others.

Negative experience may have either a ‘sensitising’ effect or a strengthening (‘steeling’) effect in relation to the response to later stress or adversity.

Rutter noted that an individual’s ability to cope with adversity may be affected by ‘turning point effects’ associated with experiences that increase opportunities and enhance coping [5].

One broad thrust from this research is that it’s not the absence or reduction of stress that prepares and strengthens us to cope with difficulty, but that significant amounts of adversity can predispose us to better outcomes when facing later difficulty.

This flies in the face of much popular current theory about stress reduction and avoidance of stress.

It probably reflects much of our own experience as lawyers: we would not have got to where we are in our profession, whether a trainee, associate, head of chambers, or senior judge, had we not put in the early hours.

It looks like Seneca was on the right lines …




[1] Rodin, J. (2015). The Resilience Dividend: Managing disruption, avoiding disaster, and growing stronger in an unpredictable world. London: Profile Books.

[2] Rutter, M. (2006). Implications of Resilience Concepts for Scientific Understanding, Annals New York Academy of Sciences, 1094, 1-12.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept, Development and Psychopathology, 24, 335-344.


(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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