By: Julia D’Addurno
Beyond their capacity to disrupt and injure, adversity and distress often help people to develop in positive ways. In the aftermath of a traumatic event, many people report new levels of psychological resilience, additional survival skills, greater self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and a greater sense and appreciation for life. Adversity can also lead to increased empathy and a more broad and complex view of life in general (Briere and Scott, 2015).
The concept of psychological resilience is very compelling to mental health professionals and researchers in the mental health field. As an aspiring psychotherapist, I believe humans, over time, with help and support, can overcome the most adverse circumstances. I have witnessed the strength and resilience in people, seen many people push forward through their struggles and move towards a more meaningful life; it is something I've come to admire in this field. Something that constantly amazes me about humans is our ability to adapt, to continue to live through emotional pain, endure life’s greatest struggles and often come out stronger. In fact, humans are hardwired for this. We are hardwired to learn how to cope and to live. Our ability to adapt to life-changing situations is a remarkable function.
In psychology, resilience is defined as the process of adapting well or bouncing back in the face of adversity, tragedy, trauma or significant stress. It can be referred to as the ability to mentally or emotionally withstand a crisis or return to a “pre-crisis state.” According to Isaacs (2018), resilience is coping with adversity and learning from it. How do we do this? Resilience can be learned because it is an ordinary human adaptive response to tragedy. It is actually the lack of resilience that is considered abnormal. There has been a lot of research on what facilitates resilience in people. According to resilience expert, Dr. Lucy Hone, (2017) people who are more resilient are able to do three things:
Acknowledge that adversity is a part of life and they are not the only victims or the only people who go through hardships and struggles. These people understand that things happen in life and adversity does not discriminate.
They focus on the positive and give their attention to the things that they can change. This does not mean they never think negatively, they just focus on the good things. Paying attention to the positive and “tuning in” to the good things in life is a vital and learnable skill for building resilience. These people do not ask why their life is the way it is or find explanations or reasons for their circumstances, they just focus on what it is they can do to move forward.
They ask themselves “is what I’m doing helping or harming me?” This is possibly one of the most useful coping tools psychologically resilient people engage in. This includes being self-aware of actions and whether they are helping and promoting their well-being or harming themselves.
Other factors associated with resilience include holding positive views of yourself and your abilities, the capacity to set goals and execute them, being a good communicator, viewing yourself as a survivor or fighter rather than as a victim, having high emotional intelligence and knowing how to manage your emotions. These are all skills that can be learned as well. Fletcher and Sarkar (2013) also found that those who were able to overcome certain difficult circumstances like poverty or family challenges possessed certain characteristics including easy temperament and problem-solving or planning skills.
Social support is another critical component to building resilience (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2013). Having people who you can trust and confide in to discuss difficulties is imperative to your overall well-being. Talking about these difficulties with someone you trust doesn’t make the pain go away but opening up and sharing your feelings can help you identify those feelings and make sense of them, relieving you of some pain. It can also help you gain insight and new perspectives to help you manage your challenges in more effective ways. Our family and friends can be a great source of support and strength, but talking to a mental health professional can help you see yourself in new ways. A relationship with a therapist can be such a special and unique relationship, different from any other one in your life with a loved one. A therapeutic relationship can help you foster resilience and find new strength.
It should be noted and emphasized that being resilient does not mean you will not experience emotional distress or difficulties. It does not eliminate stress or life’s difficult circumstances. People who have experienced adverse life events or trauma do not just see the world as positive and through rose-coloured glasses, they too experience emotional pain. Being resilient also does not mean experiencing these events and then immediately being okay and back to “normal.” Feeling and embracing the pain is a vital part of the healing process. Resilient people just understand that setbacks happen and that life is not easy and can be painful for anyone. They still experience life’s pain and experience grief but their mindset can help them work through these feelings. What this means is that people experience emotional pain, process it in a healthy way, integrate it into their lives and likely become stronger. As much as resilience requires the ability to “bounce back” or recover from situations, it also can involve personal growth and strength commonly known as post-traumatic growth.
Hone, L. (2017). Resilient grieving: Finding strength and embracing life after a loss that changes everything. New York. The Experiment.
Isaacs, D. (2018). Resilience. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 54(3), 219-220.
Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist, 18(1), 12.