Find your resilience

  • 13th October 2023

Phil Holdcroft

Phil Holdcroft has faced daunting challenges in military conflict but nothing prepared him for a challenge closer to home

At 43 years old, I’m taking a moment to reflect on resilience. What exactly is it? How do we become resilient? And what can we do to support the resilience of future generations?

For a start, I’d encourage you to be deeply suspicious of anyone claiming to be an authority on resilience. I’d be the first to admit that, despite my passion for the topic, I’m very much a work in progress when it comes to resilience. I say this having served 20 years in the Royal Air Force as a combat helicopter pilot, having been shot at and mortared while deployed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also say this as a veteran of extreme challenges of endurance, having run 100-mile ultramarathons and rowed unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean.

Why the scepticism? It’s because I once had my rug of resilience ripped out from beneath my feet.

If you’d have asked me in the summer of 2014 if I was resilient, I would have told you “Yes, absolutely, completely… I’m bulletproof ”. In my eyes I’d been on the receiving end of world-class resilience training thanks to my time in the military. Not only had I received world-class training, but I also believed I had innate resilience – a natural grit and determination to overcome adversity. I interpreted my instinct to seek out challenges right on the edge of the possible as irrefutable evidence of my ‘natural’ resilience. Surely, someone who ran marathons for fun and completed the backbreaking All Arms Commando Course just for a Green Beret souvenir was mentally unbreakable?

Yet, despite believing that I epitomised resilience, weeks later I had completely unravelled. What happened? My youngest daughter, Isla, then 22 months old, was diagnosed with leukaemia. The news completely shattered my fortress of resilience. I simply couldn’t comprehend our new reality, and my world began to fall apart. I felt wholly ill-equipped to deal with the psychological trauma of the impossible journey that lay ahead.

Heroics on operations, Green Beret, pilot wings, resistance to interrogation training, and marathon endurance counted for nothing. Terrors from the battlefield of Iraq and Afghanistan paled into insignificance next to the horror of watching my own flesh and blood walk a tightrope of life and death. When I most needed to be resilient I felt completely impotent.

It was my wife Beth, a primary school teacher, who was the towering strength in our darkest hour. Beth hadn’t received military leadership training, she hadn’t been hardened on foreign battlefields, yet she showed strength and resolve I couldn’t conceive. How? She instinctively understood that resilience was so much more than natural ability and training. Beth knew that she needed to draw on the support of others. In short, Beth recognised that resilience can be provided through the ‘social’ support of others. This knowledge allowed her to be vulnerable, to openly share her fears and insecurities. In doing so, she opened the floodgates to waves of help, support and reassurance that our family desperately needed.

Nine years later and Isla is a happy, healthy and thriving 10-year-old. In so many ways she’s a paragon of resilience. It’s as if what leukaemia tried to take away, nature has given back twofold. She’s both an early bird and a night owl, and she fizzes with a zest for life that allows her to flourish physically and academically. I simply couldn’t be prouder or more thankful that she survived.

Resilient Isla

Reflecting back, I would never wish our experience on anyone. However, I would love others to see the world through our eyes and understand the incredible lessons we’ve learned – especially when it comes to resilience. So, what have I learned? What lessons about resilience would I want my school-aged self to understand in preparation for the big wide world?

What is resilience? Resilience is ability to adapt and deal with stress, adversity and trauma. The greater our resilience, the better our response when things are tough. I think the model at Figure 1 does an excellent job of explaining how resilience can affect the outcome of a crisis. Resilience not only helps us to recover and avoid damaging consequences of a crisis, but it also provides the route to a positive outcome – post-traumatic growth.

Resilience is multifaceted. Resilience is so much more than just grit and determination. Yes, I believe there is a ‘nature’ component to resilience. However, I also believe we all have the potential to increase our resilience through knowledge, training and social support structures. As such, I believe we need to embrace a holistic approach to growing resilience.

Self-awareness. We need to recognise strengths and vulnerabilities within our own resilience and the resilience of others. This is about understanding the unique and individual nature of resilience. In some contexts, for example, academic testing, an individual may naturally thrive, while in others, for example, domestic conflict, they may crumble. Understanding individual strengths and weaknesses helps us to make provision to reinforce resilience through education, training or social support structures.

Resilience training. Carefully controlled exposure to stress is a proven mechanism to help individuals grow their resilience. This could be via physical exercise, academic testing, public speaking etc. The goal is to help individuals understand that personal growth and development requires exposure to stress. However, linked to self-awareness, it’s critical to understand that we each have unique profiles for what optimal stress looks like, hence resilience training needs to be calibrated and personalised for the individual and the context.

Support structures. Research demonstrates that social networks and access to support resources, such as coaching or counselling, is critical for supporting resilience. Schools, like all organisations, need to promote resilience support structures positively, to increase both access and understanding.

Resilience project. Resilience should be viewed as a life’s work; a project which needs to be prioritised, nurtured and reinforced at every stage of life. At no point are you the finished project – we’re all work in progress. Childhood education represents a golden opportunity for children to start their resilience project.

Reflections on resilience has become both my passion and purpose to help equip others with the knowledge, skills and mindset to be resilient to adversity.

Phil Holdcroft is a Royal Air Force wing commander, transitioning from the military late this year.

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