Resilience is the ability to bend, not break



Dr Neil Counihan shares his thoughts about resilience and fortitude at a time when everyone needs it the most.


Neil is an orthodontist and stem cell entrepreneur who recently skied to the South Pole across one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet with The Extreme Leaders to raise funds for brain tumour charity Lewis Moody Foundation. Today he hopes that his experience can give some reassurance and support to dental professionals who may be finding it tough to cope with the ramifications of the current pandemic.

Part of resilience is to question this: am I a victim in all this or is this a challenge? The minute I ask myself whether it is a challenge, it changes my whole chemistry and sets my mind into a different mode which activates another basic question: “what can I do?”

We know resilience is teachable, it can be trained, it is a dynamic process. It is an ability to resist shock, maintain performance and recover effectively and efficiently from physical and/or mental stress. Resilience is not something we have or don’t have. When I was in the South Pole we were put to extreme tests, just as we are all experiencing today, across the globe. We had to develop our resilience, build it hour by hour, day by day as we overcame one challenge after another - each one helped us to build on our emotional, physical and mental strength.

During both the North and South Pole expeditions, I never thought I would have the capability and strength to face such extreme conditions. Contrary to the pandemic hitting us today, I had prepared very thoroughly for my challenge, and yet the reality was of a much higher scale. No amount of preparation could replicate it.

I found myself incredibly strong and resilient and able to cope in these environments thanks to the right mind-set. When you wake up at minus 43 degrees, and parts of your body ache and your eyes are frozen and you have ice up your nostrils, to then get your skis on and set one foot in front of the other requires a certain mind-set.

By helping my team mates prepare, packing their sledges, and so on, I learnt that my coping mechanism was to stop thinking about myself, help others and be part of the team. When I witness my own community go into action, estate agents donating their cars to deliver food to the elderly, online campaigns to pay for the parking for nurses and critical care workers before payment charges were lifted, local podcasts talking to the community, I applaud and smile. We help ourselves by helping others.

In the South Pole I got my mind set focussed on how lucky I was to be in such a remote place. I would actively change my thinking and embrace gratitude, how lucky I was to be in this environment, it was not going to last forever, there was a start and a finish, I didn’t know how long it would take us, but we were in it together. That really helped me.

It is not about the past or worrying about the future, it is about bringing it all to the moment. When you are at the Pole, it is about putting one foot in front of the other, being aware of the danger around you with polar bears ready to attack, the risks of falling into crevasses, suffering from hypothermia…

Living in the present brings another pillar of resilience - that of self-care. Self-care means preparing yourself, it is about re-evaluating the basics of diet, sleep, exercise and relaxation - all really essential. These are the foundations of wellbeing and if one gets a bit shaken, any additional strain on top of that is likely to cause a catastrophic collapse. So, it is important not to just pile in lots of sugar, chocolate, crisps,  comfort food and alcohol. Try to focus on yourself, eat well and exercise if you are stuck at home for a prolonged period of time. Nothing is stopping you from walking up and down the stairs, jumping onto free online exercise programmes, making the most of your garden. All these will make you sleep better.

And try to be grateful for what you have, for having another day ahead of you. There are lots of people right now with illness and disease outside of the pandemic coping every day with disability and pain. I consider myself lucky because I am very healthy. When in the South Pole, I thought a lot about my cousin who has a brain tumour, he would have loved to have been there. My pain was temporary and so was my need for resilience, whereas he has a brain tumour forever. When you really have to, you can become incredibly robust and resilient in the same way as I had to push myself during this expedition. And we can all do this.

We all rush through our busy lives, and take things for granted. During any current down time why not take time to relax? Relaxation is so important. Switch off and immerse yourself in something which you enjoy. When we were at the South Pole, we invited our companions, living in different tents, for dinner. That may sound preposterous but walking ten foot and piling four big lads into a two-man tent was fun: we laughed, shared stories and relaxed. We would pinch ourselves to remind us that our tent was fixed on the ice thousands of miles from anywhere. Isolated. Nobody likes to be in isolation, and in my experience, in dentistry, we are particularly social beings.

This shocking pandemic has arrived and impacted everyone across the globe. But this crisis will pass, we will get through this, and our incredible skills will be put to good use again as soon as the opportunity rises. And we will be successful again.

In the meantime, we can all take the opportunity to do the things we often wish we had time to do: update our skills, update our knowledge, take up online courses ready for when we return to work.

Share your vulnerability. What makes me a good leader is the fact that I can open up and acknowledge my fear, but act on it anyway. At the Poles, we faced extremely scary and serious situations with ice cracking under our feet and a super storm coming towards us. It was not that I was not frightened, but I could act despite my fear. Focus on what needs to be done next, on the right thing to do to protect yourself and others. We are all in this together. It is about being a good human being, supporting one another to get through.

Practise resilience. We are all vulnerable at this time, so surround yourself with good people. Positive people. We should feel lucky we have an NHS. My son is a front line A&E doctor and he constantly advises everyone to stay at home and wash your hands. Refuel, rest, be fit, eat healthily and prepare for when we go back.

If you think that I can be of help to you please contact me:




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