What Is Resilience?
What is resilience, why is it so important, and how do you know if you’re resilient enough?
Resilience is typically defined as the capacity to recover from difficult life events. “It’s your ability to withstand adversity and bounce back and grow despite life’s downturns,” says Amit Sood, MD, the executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being and creator of Mayo Clinic Resilient Mind in Rochester, Minnesota. Resilience is not a trampoline, where you’re down one moment and up the next. It’s more like climbing a mountain without a trail map. It takes time, strength, and help from people around you, and you’ll likely experience setbacks along the way. But eventually you reach the top and look back at how far you’ve come.
What Is Resilience Theory? People experience all kinds of adversity in life. There are personal experiences, such as illness, loss of a loved one, abuse, bullying, job loss, and financial instability. There is the shared reality of tragic events in the news, such as terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and natural disasters. People have to learn to cope with and work through very challenging life experiences.
Resilience theory refers to the ideas surrounding how people are affected by and adapt to things like adversity, change, loss, and risk. Being resilient does not mean that people don’t experience stress, emotional upheaval, and suffering. Some people equate resilience with mental toughness, but demonstrating resilience includes working through emotional pain and suffering. Resilience isn’t a fixed trait. Flexibility, adaptability, and perseverance can help people tap into their resilience by changing certain thoughts and behaviors. Research shows that students who believe that both intellectual abilities and social attributes can be developed show a lower stress response to adversity and improved performance. (1) Dr. Sood, who is a member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board, believes that resilience can be defined in terms of five principles:
Top Factors of Resilience Developing resilience is both complex and personal. It involves a combination of inner strengths and outer resources, and there isn’t a universal formula for becoming more resilient. All people are different: While one person might develop symptoms of depression or anxiety following a traumatic event, another person might not report any symptoms at all. A combination of factors contributes to building resilience, and there isn’t a simple to-do list to work through adversity. In one longitudinal study, protective factors for adolescents at risk for depression, such as family cohesion, positive self-appraisals, and good interpersonal relations, were associated with resilient outcomes in young adulthood. (2) While individuals process trauma and adversity in different ways, there are certain protective factors that help build resilience by improving coping skills and adaptability. These factors include:
Social Support Research published in 2015 in the journal Ecology and Societyshowed that social systems that provide support in times of crisis or trauma support resilience in the individual. (3) Social support can include immediate or extended family, community, friends, and organizations.
Realistic Planning The ability to make and carry out realistic plans helps individuals play to their strengths and focus on achievable goals.
Self-Esteem A positive sense of self and confidence in one’s strengths can stave off feelings of helplessness when confronted with adversity.
Coping Skills Coping and problem-solving skills help empower a person who has to work through adversity and overcome hardship.
Communication Skills Being able to communicate clearly and effectively helps people seek support, mobilize resources, and take action.
Emotional Regulation The capacity to manage potentially overwhelming emotions (or seek assistance to work through them) helps people maintain focus when overcoming a challenge.
Research on resilience theory shows that it is imperative to manage an individual’s immediate environment and promote protective factors while addressing demands and stressors that the individual faces. (4) In other words, resilience isn’t something people tap into only during overwhelming moments of adversity. It builds as people encounter all kinds of stressors on a daily basis, and protective factors can be nurtured.
Why Is Resilience Important? Resilience is what gives people the emotional strength to cope with trauma, adversity, and hardship. Resilient people utilize their resources, strengths, and skills to overcome challenges and work through setbacks. People who lack resilience are more likely to feel overwhelmed or helpless, and rely on unhealthy coping strategies (such as avoidance, isolation, and self-medication). One study showed that patients who had attempted suicide had significantly lower resilience scale scores than patients who had never attempted suicide. (5)
Resilient people do experience stress, setbacks, and difficult emotions, but they tap into their strengths and seek help from support systems to overcome challenges and work through problems. Resilience empowers them to accept and adapt to a situation and move forward. Resilience is “the core strength you use to lift the load of life,” says Sood.
What Are the 7 Cs of Resilience? Pediatrician Ken Ginsburg, MD, who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, developed the 7 Cs model of resilience to help kids and teens build the skills to be happier and more resilient. The 7 Cs model is centered around two key points:
- Young people live up or down to the expectations that are set for them and need adults who love them unconditionally and hold them to high expectations.
- How we model resilience for young people is far more important than what we say about it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics summarizes the 7 Cs as follows:
Competence This is the ability to know how to handle situations effectively. To build competence, individuals develop a set of skills to help them trust their judgments and make responsible choices.
Confidence Dr. Ginsburg says that true self-confidence is rooted in competence. Individuals gain confidence by demonstrating competence in real-life situations.
Connection Close ties to family, friends, and community provide a sense of security and belonging.
Character Individuals need a fundamental sense of right and wrong to make responsible choices, contribute to society, and experience self-worth.
Contribution Ginsburg says that having a sense of purpose is a powerful motivator. Contributing to one’s community reinforces positive reciprocal relationships.
Coping When people learn to cope with stress effectively, they are better prepared to handle adversity and setbacks.
Control Developing an understanding of internal control helps individuals act as problem-solvers instead of victims of circumstance. When individuals learn that they can control the outcomes of their decisions, they are more likely to view themselves as capable and confident. (6)
The 7 Cs of resilience illustrate the interplay between personal strengths and outside resources, regardless of age. Types of Resilience: Psychological, Emotional, Physical, and Community The word resilience is often used on its own to represent overall adaptability and coping, but it can be broken down into categories or types:
What Is Psychological Resilience? Psychological resilience refers to the ability to mentally withstand or adapt to uncertainty, challenges, and adversity. It is sometimes referred to as “mental fortitude.”
People who exhibit psychological resilience develop coping strategies and capabilities that enable them to remain calm and focused during a crisis and move on without long-term negative consequences.
What Is Emotional Resilience? There are varying degrees of how well a person copes emotionally with stress and adversity. Some people are, by nature, more or less sensitive to change. How a person responds to a situation can trigger a flood of emotions.
Emotionally resilient people understand what they’re feeling and why. They tap into realistic optimism, even when dealing with a crisis, and are proactive in using both internal and external resources. As a result, they are able to manage stressors as well as their emotions in a healthy, positive way.
What Is Physical Resilience? Physical resilience refers to the body’s ability to adapt to challenges, maintain stamina and strength, and recover quickly and efficiently. It’s a person’s ability to function and recover when faced with illness, accidents, or other physical demands.
Research published in April 2016 in The Journal of Gerontology showed that physical resilience plays an important role in healthy aging, as people encounter medical issues and physical stressors. (7)
Healthy lifestyle choices, building connections, making time to rest and recover, deep breathing, and engaging in enjoyable activities all play a role in building physical resilience.
What Is Community Resilience? Community resilience refers to the ability of groups of people to respond to and recover from adverse situations, such as natural disasters, acts of violence, economic hardship, and other challenges to their community. Real-life examples of community resilience include New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; and the communities of Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in the wake of recent mass shootings. Research and Statistics on Resilience Research into what promotes resiliency supports the idea that certain protective resources, rather than the absence of risk factors, play a significant role in a person’s capacity to confront and work through stressors. (8) Things like social support, adaptive coping skills, and the ability to tap into one’s inner strengths can help develop and strengthen resiliency in an individual. When it comes to the idea of “natural resilience,” or a person’s innate ability to recover from adversity, the research is mixed. Some studies suggest human resilience in the face of adversity is fairly common. To support this, one study reported that even though 50 to 60 percent of the U.S. population is exposed to traumatic events, only 5 to 10 percent of those people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (9)
Nevertheless, other research highlights the difficulty in studying resilience. One particular study, published in March 2016 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, examined spousal loss, divorce, and unemployment and found that the statistical model used to interpret the resilience scores greatly influenced the results. (10) The authors concluded that prior research may have overestimated how common resilience is, and suggested that resilience may be more difficult to quantify and study than previously thought.
Resilience Training The good news is that resilience can be learned. For example, people can build up social support networks or learn to reframe negative thoughts. Learning to be resilient doesn’t mean figuring out how to “grin and bear it” or to simply “get over it.” It’s not about learning to avoid obstacles or resisting change. Building resilience is a process by which people utilize flexibility to reframe thought patterns and learn to tap into a strengths-based approach to working through obstacles.
How to Build and Cultivate Resilience It’s helpful to think of resilience as a process. The following are steps that can help build resilience over time:
Develop self-awareness. Understanding how you typically respond to stress and adversity is the first step toward learning more adaptive strategies. Self-awareness also includes understanding your strengths and knowing your weaknesses.
Build self-regulation skills. Remaining focused in the face of stress and adversity is important but not easy. Stress-reduction techniques, such as guided imagery, breathing exercise, and mindfulness training, can help individuals regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Learn coping skills. There are many coping skills that can help in dealing with stressful and challenging situations. They include journaling, reframing thoughts, exercising, spending time outdoors, socializing, improving sleep hygiene, and tapping into creative outlets.
Increase optimism. People who are more optimistic tend to feel more in control of their outcomes. To build optimism, focus on what you can do when faced with a challenge, and identify positive, problem-solving steps that you can take.
Strengthen connections. Support systems can play a vital role in resilience. Bolster your existing social connections and find opportunities to build new ones.
Know your strengths. People feel more capable and confident when they can identify and draw on their talents and strengths.
How Resilient Are You? Resilience is not a permanent state. A person may feel equipped to manage one stressor and overwhelmed by another. Remember the factors that build resilience, and try to apply them when dealing with adversity. In general, resilient people have many of the following characteristics:
Locus of Control Focus on how you, as opposed to external forces, can control the outcome of events.
Social Support Rely on family, friends, and colleagues when needed.
Problem-Solving Skills Identify ways within your control to work and resolve a problem.
Optimism When the going gets tough, believe in your ability to handle it.
Coping Skills Find techniques to reduce stress and anxiety.
Self-Care Make your mental, emotional, and physical health top priorities.
Self-Awareness Know your strengths and weaknesses and how to put internal resources to work.
Mental Health and Resilience Resilience is a protective factor against psychological distress in adverse situations involving loss or trauma. It can help in the management of stress levels and depressive symptoms. Psychological resilience refers to the mental fortitude to handle challenges and adversity Resilience in Children Kids confront any number of challenges as they grow — from starting school and making new friends to adverse, traumatic experiences, such as bullying and abuse. “Building resilience — the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress — can help our children manage stress and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). (18)
The 7 Cs model specifically addresses resilience building in kids and teens. It lists competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control as essential skills for young people to handle situations effectively. Parents can help children develop resilience through positive behaviors and thoughts. The APA lists 10 tips for building resilience in young people:
Foster social connections
Help children by having them help others
Maintain a daily routine
Take breaks from sources of stress
Set realistic goals
Nurture a positive self-image
Keep things in perspective
Accept change as part of life
There is no universal formula for building resilience in young people. If a child seems overwhelmed or troubled at school and at home, parents might consider talking to someone who can help, such as a counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional.