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What is resilience?

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What is resilience?

We all experience adversity, from everyday changes and challenges to serious losses. Fortunately, people are able to adapt.

We have many ways of overcoming adversity. Resilience is the capacity to adapt successfully in the face of threats or disaster. People can improve their capacity for resilience at any time of life.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe. Psychologists have long recognized the capabilities of humans to adapt and overcome risk and adversity. Individuals and communities are able to rebuild their lives even after devastating tragedies.

Being resilient doesn’t mean going through life without experiencing stress and pain. People feel grief, sadness, and a range of other emotions after adversity and loss. The road to resilience lies in working through the emotions and effects of stress and painful events.

Resilience is also not something that you’re either born with or not. Resilience develops as people grow up and gain better thinking and self-management skills and more knowledge. Resilience also comes from supportive relationships with parents, peers and others, as well as cultural beliefs and traditions that help people cope with the inevitable bumps in life.  Resilience is found in a variety of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed across the life span.

Factors that contribute to resilience include:

  • Close relationships with family and friends
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
  • The ability to manage strong feelings and impulses
  • Good problem-solving and communication skills
  • Feeling in control
  • Seeking help and resources
  • Seeing yourself as resilient (rather than as a victim)
  • Coping with stress in healthy ways and avoiding harmful coping strategies, such as substance abuse
  • Helping others
  • Finding positive meaning in your life despite difficult or traumatic events

Resilience and happiness

Resilience and happiness are closely connected. People who have the close relationships and social supports that help them during times of adversity also experience much joy and satisfaction in these relationships during everyday life. People also get feelings of pleasure and meaning from doing things well, including the actions that help to overcome adversities.

Positive vs. negative emotions

Happiness involves feeling more positive emotions than negative ones. Just as important, it also means finding meaning and satisfaction when you reflect on your life. It does not mean a life free from adversity, and most happy people feel just as many negative emotions as people who say they are less happy. For some people, the road to deep satisfaction with life may lie through overcoming challenges. Positive emotions may fuel the motivation to learn and grow in hard times.

There’s a close link between negative and positive emotions. Many of the positive emotions cannot happen without being vulnerable, and sometimes they come in response to negative emotions. For instance, forgiveness and compassion are responses to being wronged. Creativity and flow involve taking risks, sometimes failing, and trying again. Awe, inspiration, serenity, and gratitude mean recognizing something outside of and larger than yourself. And generosity requires acknowledging other people’s needs and wants and sometimes putting aside your own desires.

Study of the interplay between negative and positive emotions
One study of the interplay between negative and positive emotions was conducted by psychologists Jack Bauer and George Bonanno. They interviewed people six months after they had lost a spouse and kept track of positive and negative comments they made about the lost relationship. They followed up two years later, and the people who were managing the best were the ones who had about five positive comments to each negative one. People who were more negative were not doing as well—and neither were those who had only positive comments. The ones who adjusted the best were those who could acknowledge the sadness of their situation without being overwhelmed by it.

Fuel for resilience
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have found that positive emotions are the “fuel” for resilience. They help people find meaning in ordinary and difficult events. Finding meaning in life events leads to more positive emotions, which in turn leads to a greater ability to find meaning and purpose. Fredrickson calls this an “upward spiral” of greater well-being. They also found that resilient people still felt as many negative emotions as less happy people, often very intense ones. But they felt more positive emotions, and it was the positive emotions that accounted for “their better ability to rebound from adversity and stress, ward off depression, and continue to grow.” Their increase in happiness came from feeling good; not from avoiding feeling bad.

The reason positive emotions predicted resilience and greater happiness is that positive emotions help us build skills and internal resources. Positive emotions like kindness, amusement, creativity, and gratitude put us in a frame of mind to explore the world around us and build a larger repertoire of assets that we can draw on in stressful times. In other words, “Happy people become more satisfied not simply because they feel better, but because they develop resources for living well.”

Posttraumatic growth

Researchers are studying this posttraumatic growth—positive changes people experience after struggling with a major life crisis or traumatic event.

We all deal with everyday stresses and difficult times. But what about people who experience severe trauma? In most cases, people exposed to traumatic events do not develop psychiatric disorders. However, most will experience feelings of grief, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions. During this process, some people discover positive changes in their lives or within themselves. Posttraumatic growth is common, but not universal. Just because people show personal growth in adversity doesn’t mean they will not suffer. In many cases, suffering and growth can coexist.

Psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have found in many cases that reports of growth after traumatic events far outnumber the reports of disorders.

They have identified reports of posttraumatic growth in a variety of serious traumas, including people who have experienced bereavement, life-threatening or life-changing illness, serious medical problems of their children, transportation accidents, house fires, sexual assault and sexual abuse, combat, refugee experiences, and being taken hostage

They describe five areas of growth reported by people who have experienced these and other traumatic events:

  • Discovery of new opportunities and possibilities that were not present before
  • Closer relationships with others, especially others who suffer
  • Greater appreciation for life
  • Greater sense of personal strength: “If I lived through that, I can face anything”
  • Spiritual growth

Researchers are careful to remind us that growth comes from the struggle to cope with the trauma—not from the event itself.

Trauma is not necessary for growth, and researchers do not suggest that traumatic events themselves or suffering are in any way good. They are observing the positive effects of coping with trauma. It is important to allow people enough time to adapt to the aftermath of the trauma, and in the meantime to avoid trite comments about suffering and growth.

Common misconceptions

Resilience is a trait. People either have it or they don’t.
Resilience is not a trait. Resilience is a capacity that involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned by and developed in anyone. Being resilient involves tapping into your resources, such as personal strengths and the support of family and friends.

Healthy families don’t have problems.

All families have problems. Healthy, resilient families have coping and problem-solving skills.

Resilient people are independent, tough, and self-reliant; they don’t need much from other people.

“Rugged individualism” is a stereotype in American culture, and a myth. Resilient people are resourceful, and friends and family are among their most important resources. Resilient people have strong social networks, close connections to family and friends, are able to self-disclose about their troubles to people close to them, and ask for help when they need it.

Resilient people are immune to stress and negative emotions.

Resilient people experience just as much stress and negative emotion as anyone else, with just as much intensity. However, they also experience positive emotions like gratitude, joy, kindness, love, and contentment. And they are able to find meaning and purpose for their lives, even in the face of loss and trauma.

Adversity makes people stronger.

People do experience positive changes in their lives after struggling with a crisis or trauma, a process called posttraumatic growth. But it’s not the adversity or suffering that makes people stronger. It is the process of struggling, learning, and persevering. It is the ability to maintain positive emotions as well as negative ones. In fact, positive emotions make us stronger and more resilient in the face of adversity. Positive emotions motivate us to explore the environment, learn new things, and ultimately build new resources that help us to overcome life’s difficulties. In the process of resilience, people experience not only their own capabilities, but also the support of families, friends, neighbors, and faith communities. People also gain confidence about overcoming future difficulties.

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