What Is Resilience & How To Build It (Positive Psychology)

Resilience in Psychology
What Is Resilience In Psychology?

Resilience is commonly known by many terms: hardiness, toughness, spunk, tenacity, fortitude, mettle, grit, and mental strength. It is used to portray people who fight back stressful events and recover strongly from those experiences.

The word resilience is used in psychology, ecology, and engineering. The meaning remains the same — resistance and recovery from distress.

The resilient people not only recover from their setbacks but also often find meaning in their suffering. As a result, they grow from it.

Definition And Meaning of Resilience

Resilience in psychology may be defined as the human ability to bounce back better from misery or adversity. According to Ledesma (2014), (resilience is) the ability to bounce back from adversity, frustration, and misfortune.

(Resilience is) The ability to see yourself in the dark abyss of failure, humiliation or depression and bounce back not only to where you were before but to even greater height of success, happiness, and inner strength.

— Everly Jr, Strouse, & McCormack, 2015

What is the meaning of resilience?

In positive psychology, resilience means the ability to —

  • put up a brave face in times of adversity and hard times,
  • use the available strengths and resources to resist and cope,
  • recover and flourish from the event and experience.

Resilience is our mental ability to handle the hardships and recover from them. There’s something native and deep-rooted in us that makes us resilient.

The German philosopher Nietzsche knew about it, and had said:

What does not kill me makes me stronger.

Psychologists know it too and assure us that resilience is a skill we can forge stronger with practice. They say, in fact, our innate capacity for post-traumatic growth — that is, thriving and growing into a much more capable person after a trauma — is quite remarkable.

According to Ann Masten, professor at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, resilience is the “capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully to disturbances that threaten system function, viability, or future development of the system.”

Humans are not just capable of handling the fall but also rising up and coming back stronger after the fall.

What resilience does not mean?

Resilience does not mean we reject our negative and unpleasant emotions.

When we deny our negative emotions, we unconsciously yield to them. This downgrades our resilience. But when we accept them and allow them to flow over us, we take back control and begin the process of recovering from the situation causing them.

Feeling and expressing our negative emotions is a sign of our mental strength. And that grows our resilience against them.

George Bonanno On Resilience

A psychology professor at Columbia University, and pioneering researcher in the field of bereavement and trauma, George A. Bonanno revolutionized the field of resilience.

Till Bonanno arrived on the resilience scene, psychologists held widely that it was rare for people to grow resilience soon after a traumatic experience. The accepted idea was that people who did not show marked reaction to the loss before growing back to their normal selves were either lying to themselves or repressing their emotions.

Bonanno, after his studies, found the way most humans respond to loss and trauma was not at all like what everyone thought.

Bonanno bust the myth that humans must mope before they could cope.

In a survey of 2,752 New Yorkers after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, his team found 65% of participants had either none or only one symptom of PTSD six months.

Further, more than half of those who helped with the 9/11 rescue effort, or were at the disaster site during the attack, also reported few or no symptoms of PTSD.

Bonanno drew three path-breaking conclusions from the study:

  1. Resilience is different from recovery.
  2. Resilience is common, not a rare trait.
  3. There are multiple pathways to resilience.

“Resilience is the core experience of human grief and trauma reactions,” says Bonanno. What he means by that is people are resilient even when they’re facing extreme stress or loss – not after the event only.

Bonanno also shook the earth by claiming that grief therapy does not offer any overall positive benefit. He pointed out it does more harm than good as about one-third of the people get worse on grief therapy.

When the worst possible news breaks, you will almost certainly get through it unscathed. Almost everyone does.

— George A. Bonanno (The Other Side of Sadness)

Bonanno suggested while most people figure out effective ways to handle the challenges of life, some do it in a way that is messy. He coined the phrase “coping ugly” for such processes.

In “coping ugly,” the resilient people often develop characteristics that are not altogether their natural self. This happens while they are trying to control their situation and do something about it. For example, people recovering from a calamity may start to behave as narcissists.

How To Build Resilience

First, we must realize resilience is a learnable quality.

Second, it is not that only some of us are blessed with resilience. Research shows we all have it in us, and we all can build it.

We can make ourselves more resilient by practice. The resilient people often find a purpose in the experience and grow more capable out of it. But when we accede to the view that resilience can not be learned, we accept vulnerability and defeat.

Resilience is more likely to be mastered when:

  • one can avoid strong, frequent, or prolonged stress
  • the ill effects are buffered by supportive relationships

10 Tips To Build Resilience

  1. Find in your life a sense of purpose
  2. Have positive beliefs in your capabilities
  3. Update your skills. Build your core strengths
  4. Foster a supportive social network
  5. Accept negative emotions. Embrace change
  6. Nurture yourself – eat, sleep, exercise well
  7. Stay hopeful and optimistic
  8. Set up meaningful and realistic life-goals
  9. Focus on what you can control. Let go of the things you can not
  10. Take bold actions to solve problems
10 Tips To Build Resilience In Life
10 Science-Backed Tips To Build Resilience

3 P’s That Block Resilience Building

Martin Seligman, Father of Positive Psychology, notes the pessimists tend to believe bad events will last long, will undermine everything they do, and they are the ones at fault.

These are the 3 P’s that hinder our growth after adversity:

  1. Permanence — that this tough time will last forever
  2. Pervasiveness — that this will affect all areas of our life
  3. Personalization — that it has affected us the most, like no one else

We can and must learn to push back these 3 P’s that hampers our recovery and resilience.

4 Factors That Help Building Resilience

Some other factors that can make you more resilient are:

  1. a positive attitude/mindset
  2. optimism and hopeful attitude
  3. ability to regulate our emotions
  4. ability to see re-frame failure as feedback

6 Attributes To Have For Building Resilience

According to The Resilience Institute, here is a short list of attributes when we seek to recover from serious adversity, in approximate order of impact:

  1. Strong relationships of respect, love and trust
  2. Impulse control and positivity
  3. Physical fitness, good sleep and nutrition
  4. Capacity to stay calm under pressure
  5. Ability to focus attention and be situation aware
  6. Ability to plan and execute effective solutions

We can learn to improve each of these, and can measure how we fare.

How Can Employees Build Resilience At Work

According to Paula Davis-Laack, M.A.P.P. , resilient employees do these seven things differently: They…

  1. Develop high-quality connections.
  2. Manage their stress and avoid burnout.
  3. Are authentic, and work their values and strengths.
  4. Take care to pursue their passions.
  5. Stay, and try to keep themselves, inspired.
  6. Have mental toughness and flexibility.
  7. Manage changes and setbacks.

Importance of Resilience

Why is it important for us to bounce back?

Without resilience, the human species couldn’t have survived 200,000 years of disasters and adversities, and grow into the most intelligent beings on this earth.

Resilience is a natural part of human survival experience after any major stressful event, as the Coronavirus pandemic. The resilient people are better able to handle adversity and rebuild their lives after any catastrophe.

Resilience is important as it gives us the strength to process and overcome hardships. Those who lack a strong resilience can buckle under pressure, and turn to unhealthy ways to cope with stress.

Resilience is important because:

  • it enables us to develop strategies for shielding ourselves against the catastrophic experiences,
  • it helps us to hold on steadfast in our lives during the traumatic and stressful times,
  • it serves us to guard ourselves from some serious mental health issues as depression and suicide.

Resilience is also one of the most important traits of happy people. And we humans are quite good at ultimately finding our way to happiness.

2 Limiting Features of Resilience

Positive psychologists have unearthed two limiting features of resilience:

  1. Even when we all have resilience, we do not have it in equal amounts. Some people are more resilient than all others.
  2. We are more likely to bounce back better when stressful events are less harsh and less often. And when we have people around to support us.

3 Sources of Resilience

1. Personal Factors

The following personal factors all evidently contribute to resilience:

  • Personality traits — openness, extroversion, and agreeableness
  • Mastery, self-efficacy, self-esteem
  • Positive interpretation of events, positive self-concepts and mindset
  • Optimism and Hope
  • Intellectual resourcefulness
  • Psychological flexibility
  • Social attachment and adaptability
  • Emotional regulation and internal locus of control
  • Positive emotions
  • Spirituality

Some other personal factors that influence resilience are age, gender, race, ethnicity, and stage of life.

2. Biological Factors

Findings from recent research on biological factors in resilience reveal harsh environments in early ages (as children growing in war-ravaged Syria) can affect the development of brain structure and function.

There can be changes in the brain size, the nerve networks, the sensitivity of receptors, and the production of neurotransmitters.

These brain changes in younger years can reduce the capacity to regulate the negative emotions, and lower their resilience to adversities.

Studies also show past and current life and social experiences can lead to sizable and long-term changes in genes. Later on, one can transmit these genes to the next generation. So, resilience as a trait can be genetically inherited.

3. Environmental Factors

The factors in one’s environment can sufficiently increase or decrease their ability to show resilience.

  • Social support, including family, teachers and peers
  • Stable family, good parenting, non-abusive father/mother
  • Depression or substance abuse in the parents
  • Good school and supportive community
  • Sports and artistic opportunities
  • No exposure to violence near home or neighborhood

4 Types of Resilience

Jane McGonigal, a gamer scientist, in her TEDx talk talks of four types of resilience. She said people who boost these four behaviors regularly live up to 10 years longer than those who don’t.

Here are the four types:

  1. Physical resilience — you are physically resilient if you don’t sit still longer than an hour at a time. You keep moving, especially when you don’t feel like it. I don’t know about you, but as I age, the temptation to sit on the couch or to nurse a pain by not moving is high. A physically resilient person works out the kinks and makes physical activity a priority.
  2. Mental resilience — you are mentally resilient if you test your brain. Do puzzles. Play board games. Try new hobbies. Read new books. Stay engaged in work. Grow a garden. In short, mentally resilient folks stay challenged.
  3. Emotional resilience — you are emotionally resilient if you engage in regular reflection on things beautiful, fanciful, visionary. Emotional resilience exercises our capability to imagine, dream, plan and create. It fortifies the soul. Emotional resilience allows us to find positive things even when circumstances stay grim.
  4. Social resilience — when you stay in touch with others socially, you are being socially resilient. Hugs and handshakes stimulate the brain. Having a friend who you look forward to visiting with and taking the initiative to stay engaged is social resilience.

5 Skills of Resilience

According to Glyn Blackett of Stress Resilient Mind, the five key resilience skills are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Attention – flexibility & stability of focus
  3. Letting go (1) – physical
  4. Letting go (2) – mental
  5. Accessing & sustaining positive emotion

According to Leonie Hurrell, however, there are seven key skills of resilience:

  1. Resilient people are autonomous
  2. Resilient people have a realistic awareness of self
  3. Resilient people are adaptable
  4. Resilient people are optimistic
  5. Resilient people are pragmatic
  6. Resilient people are socially connected
  7. Resilient people demonstrate self-compassion

6 Competencies of Resilience

Master Resilience Training (MRT) is a 10-day resilience-training program that is offered by the United States Army. It is a joint effort between the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the United States Army.

The goal of this training is to build resilience in non-commissioned army officers. Learn more about it here.

The resilience training curriculum is designed to build the following six core competencies of resilience:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Regulation
  3. Optimism
  4. Mental Agility
  5. Strengths of Character
  6. Connection

7 C’s of Resilience

Pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg specializes in building resilience in kids. He developed the 7 C’s model to offer a practical approach for parents and communities to prepare children to thrive.

If you are a parent, then find time to read his award-winning book Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings to help build resilience in kids from the age of 18 months to 18 years.

Here’s a brief introduction to Ginsburg’s 7 C’s (competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control):

  1. Competence — Competence is the ability to handle situations effectively. Parents can encourage children to focus and build on their strengths. They can let children make some safe mistakes so they could correct themselves.
  2. Confidence — Confidence is the solid belief in one’s own abilities. Parents can encourage cultivating the personal qualities like fairness, integrity, persistence, and kindness. They can Praise children honestly and specifically.
  3. Connection — Connection is giving your child your unconditional love, and empathizing with their positive and negative emotions. Parents can allow their children to have and express all kinds of emotions. They should not encourage them to suppress the unpleasant feelings.
  4. Character — Character is the fundamental sense of right and wrong so that the child is prepared to contribute to the world positively. Parents can encourage children to consider right versus wrong when making their choices. They should always be a role model to the child, as actions speak louder than words.
  5. Contribution — Children get a sense of purpose when they see how important are their contributions to the world, and this motivates them to take similar positive actions in future. Parents can teach the children the value of serving others who lack the good things in life. They can find opportunities for children to volunteer.
  6. Coping — Children who learn to cope with stress effectively become better at overcoming life’s challenges. They can learn to avoid unnecessary anxiety. Parents can avoid reacting emotionally when they feel overwhelmed. They can teach the children the importance of exercise, nutrition, sleep, and relaxation.
  7. Control — Children who get some control over the decisions that affect their lives, become more resilient as they know they have internal control. Parents can encourage their children to recognize and celebrate their successes, small or big. They can reward a carrying out of responsibility with increased freedom.

How To Measure Resilience

There are about 20 validated resilience scales. We can only mention a few here. To find out more about how the scales hold up against each other, check out this paper.

RSA: Resilience Scale for Adults is a self-reported scale developed by Friborg, Hjemdal, Rosenvinge, & Martinussen, in 2003 to measure individuals’ protective resilience elements. Many scholars have used it successfully and applauded its validity and reliability.

CD-RISC: The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC) was developed by Kathryn Connor and Jonathan Davidson in 2003 to measure resilience. It consists of 25 items:

1. Able to adapt to change. 2. Close and secure relationships. 3. Sometimes fate or God can help. 4. Can deal with whatever comes. 5. Past success gives confidence for new challenge. 6. See the humorous side of things. 7. Coping with stress strengthens. 8. Tend to bounce back after illness or hardship. 9. Things happen for a reason. 10. Best effort no matter what. 11. When things look hopeless, you don’t give up. 12. Know where to turn for help. 13. Under pressure, focus and think clearly. 14. Prefer to take the lead in problem-solving. 15. Not easily discouraged by failure. 16. Think of self as a strong person. 17. Make unpopular or difficult decisions. 18. Can handle unpleasant feelings. 19. Have to act on a hunch. 20. Strong sense of purpose. 21. In control of your life. 22. You like challenges. 23. You work to attain your goals. 24. Pride in your achievements. 25. You can achieve your goals.

BRS: There’s also The Brief Resilience Scale. The BRS is a reliable means of assessing resilience as the ability to bounce back or recover from stress and provides information about people coping with health-related stress.

The BRS is negatively related to anxiety, depression, negative affect, and physical symptoms when other resilience measures and optimism, social support, and Type D personality (high negative affect and high social inhibition) were controlled.

An Example of Psychological Resilience

Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian freelance foreign correspondent, was kidnapped while reporting in Somalia in 2008. She was just 27 then.

Amanda was held captive for 15 months, and subjected to every form of torture, including rape. What we’re experiencing right now, isolated in our homes in self-quarantine, is nothing compared to hers.

Amanda Lindhout on The Social

She wrote about the harrowing experience in her 2013 bestseller A House In The Sky.

The normal trajectory of human experience is that life will bring you to your knees at some point, if it hasn’t yet.

We try to ready ourselves for what life might throw our way, but I know that not everybody is building that muscle of resilience, and it is that which carries you through.

— Amanda Lindhout

Resilience In The Shadow of A Pandemic

A pandemic can test us to our extreme limits. It can blur and warp our imaginations because the future doesn’t seem anything like our known past.

In quarantine, it can break us from the inside, brick by brick. To start with, it can melt our weekends and weekdays into a crazy haze. Our constant keepers during these times of uncertainty are fear and gloom.

We’re in fear because we honestly can’t fathom what any of our tomorrows hold. And as human beings, we don’t like uncertainty. We prefer being in pain rather than being kept in the dark about what’s in store for us.

We’re in gloom because we have lost most of our sense of ordinary life and human touch. We now seem to figure out the power of non-physical closeness in these times of social distancing.

We are now a planet of lonely humans living uncertain lives.

We finally feel what passing by that stranger without looking up from our phone meant for us. We get it how good it felt to be in a city with humans around close enough to touch.

We don’t know how and when it’s going to end. We don’t know how much more pain humanity has to endure.

It looks like someone opened Pandora’s box and let loose all grief into the world. What we are left with now is just what Pandora had as the last thing inside her box — hope. And our best hope today is the time-honored promise: this too shall pass.

Till that day comes, when it all passes over, what we do would be our resilience. It is the resilience we would show as one person as well as one humanity. For it is the whole world against a virus now.

And we humans are one flexible and adaptable species.

Final Words

In times like this, when the future isn’t something we can look forward with absolute hope, we can look back into our past and collect our strength from there.

We can flip through the things we did before that went right and do those things again. When we rewind and look at the hardships we have faced before, we can gain courage from the lessons of our resilience.

We can also find fun in not doing things we had to do before whether we liked it or not, as taking the morning shower or wearing the formal pants.

A thing of solace is that the WHO assures us it is normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared, or angry during a crisis like this Coronavirus pandemic.

In the final say, it is not a situation we have opted for. Even so, we are stuck with it. We will adjust to this new normal and emerge stronger, wiser, and more humane as a world.

Resilience will be our envoy to a brave new world we shall step into now.

Check out the 23 Incredibly Inspirational Quotes On Resilience.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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