Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress (e.g. family and relationship problems, serious health problems, financial stressors). In short, resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ from difficult situations—do you succumb or do you surmount?
A multitude of research over decades has consistently demonstrated that resilience is not an ‘either you have it or you don’t’ characteristic. In the case of resilience, resilience lies on a spectrum or continuum that varies from a lacking resilience on one end to having a strong capacity for resilience on the other. We all naturally fall somewhere along this continuum. This, of course, raises the question of how resilience might be learned.
To better understand how resilience can be learned, let’s first revisit some of the earliest research on resilience…the 1989 publication of the results of a 32-year long longitudinal research project by psychologist Emmy Werner. She had followed a group of six hundred and ninety-eight children from before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.”
Dr. Werner soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success—and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.
What was it that set the resilient children apart? Dr. Werner found that several elements predicted resilience: a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.
Werner also discovered that resilience could change over time. Some resilient children were especially unlucky: they experienced multiple strong stressors at vulnerable points and their resilience evaporated. Resilience, she explained, is like a constant calculation: Which side of the equation weighs more, the resilience or the stressors? The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed. Most people, in short, have a breaking point. On the flip side, some people who weren’t resilient when they were little somehow learned the skills of resilience. They were able to overcome adversity later in life and went on to flourish as much as those who’d been resilient the whole way through.
One of the central elements of resilience is perception. Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. He maintains “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” and therefore has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the how the individual construes, or ‘sees and explains’ the event.
Between the extremes lack of resilience on the one end to a think of a continuum anchored by “not at all resilient” on one end of the spectrum, and ‘highly resilient’ on the other. Somewhere between the extremes of ‘not at all resilient” and “highly resilient” is a level of resilience that you might naturally have, and an opportunity to improve that level of resilience with the right knowledge and steps to take—steps that involve changing your behaviours and changing your thinking. Psychologists sometimes call this your ‘capacity for resilience’—the larger your capacity for resilience, or the stronger, the more resilient you are to suffering from some of the adversities that life can present, and taking healthy action instead.
The American Psychological Association defines the following factors as
the primary contributors to resilience.
- Having caring and supportive
- Relationships within and outside the family
- Raking realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
- Viewing yourself positively, having confidence in your own strengths and abilities skills in communication and problem-solving
- The ability to manage strong feelings and impulses (sometimes called “emotional health”)
- the belief that you have the potential for control over your life, believing you can influence your circumstances and recover your natural, enthusiastic self.
In addition, research has suggested additional qualities to help build the capacity
for more resilience. For example, people with stronger quality of resilience:
- Have realistic and attainable goals.
- Take an active and committed approach to life.
- Find ways to interpret adversity in terms of a personal challenge to be overcome.
- Show good judgment and problem-solving skills.
- Persist in the face of failure. And if they do fail, they learn from that failure and try a different approach the next time.
- Communicate effectively.
- Care about how others around them are feeling.
- Feel good about themselves as a person. And,
- Are optimistic.
In order to become a more resilient person, it is necessary to work on cultivating these beliefs and attitudes for your own life. Learn more about resilience and how to gain the ability to bounce back from challenges and move forward with energy, enthusiasm, and confidence.
10 building blocks of resilience
9 ways to improve resilience at work
Can you become more resilient? Psychological wellness: Small actions that pay big returns
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For more information about resilience and personal development the following resources may be helpful.
Building Resilience -- HealthLinkBC
The Road to Resilience -- American Psychological Society
How To Build Your Resilience -- Psychology Today
Resilience in Children: Strategies to Strengthen Your Kids -- Psycom
Building Resilience -- Psych Central