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It’s important to remember that the word resilience means many things to different people. To us, resilience means the ability to positively adapt and grow with change. Research has shown that resilience is pretty common and people tend to demonstrate resiliency more than you think.
So you would think that psychology would have a clear definition of resilience, right? Well, that's not quite the case.
Although a popular concept in psychology, a review of research by Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2011) highlights how Psychologists have long grappled with the nuances of what “resilience” actually is.
Research psychology focuses on the human capacity to “transform and thrive” and the existence of an overarching psychological process in which people can continue to grow and move forward resiliently during times of stress or trauma. They point to measuring resilience by tracking someone over time and measuring their mental health and overall functioning. This approach raises important questions about how mental health conditions do and don’t factor into resilience.
Some psychologists would argue that developing a mental health condition in response to stress and then bouncing back is recovery rather than resilience. Other schools of thought do include recovery as part of resilience. Research in Human Development (2010) breaks down the concept of resilience into three separate elements:
1. The first is recovery or bouncing back to a baseline level of functioning before the stressful or traumatic event.
2. Sustainability follows recovery, defined as continued interest in leading a meaningful life.
3. Finally, post-traumatic growth manifests in finding more purpose in life than before the event, enabling people to re-assess their goals and priorities, create stronger relationships, and appreciate life.
Crucially, research on resilience overwhelmingly challenges one critical misconception of what it is to be resilient.
It dispels the common assumption that resilience is about “mental toughness” or remaining unaffected. Instead, the research emphasises that resilient people also experience the same feelings and emotions as everyone else during difficult times. Schetter and Dolbier (2011) further highlight the fundamental role of relationships and social connectedness and seek support when needed.
So, as you can see, like many things involving people, there are nuances in how psychologists define resilience as a concept. Yet, they all have something in common – the ability to move on from and thrive after adversity.
In real terms, the answer to the question, “what is resilience?” means being able to perform, remain well and grow through change, challenge and uncertainty. These many differing definitions only add a further layer of complexity in the quest to develop resilience in ourselves, others, our community and our organisations.
How we define resilience
When asked, “what is resilience?” we define resiliency as the ability to positively adapt to change mentally, emotionally and socially. While the definition of “bouncing back” helps therapy, resilience is as much about bouncing forward in everyday life as it is bouncing back. For us, Psychology focuses on resilience as reactive – bouncing back from adversity, as opposed to focusing on creating the conditions that enable everyone to thrive. That’s true resilience.
A person’s capacity for resilience is rooted in a combination of factors:
Biology and genetics:
According to a 2016 review in Behavioral Medicine, various neurochemical systems contribute to resilience. One example is the sympathetic nervous system, which kickstarts your fight-or-flight response when you perceive a threat in your environment. Your fight or flight response prepares you for action by releasing hormones, speeding up your heart rate and breathing. Research suggests that having a particularly hypersensitive sympathetic nervous system could affect how you respond and tolerate stress and thus impact your overall capacity for resilience. On this basis, genetics also seems to play a role.
The Big Five personality traits:
Overcoming adversity in the past:
Resilient people tend to make meaning from difficulty by looking at it through a lens of strength. They learn to use their experiences to be more prepared for next time, which leads to inner confidence. We call this adaptive resilience and you can find out more about it here.
And then there are environmental factors that play into resilience:
Social support: According to a 2016 paper in World Psychiatry, social support can indeed bolster resilience by helping you feel understood and valued. Knowing you are supported provides a psychological platform of motivation to deal with stress or trauma healthily, making you feel more in control and increasing your self-esteem.
Optimism is also strongly associated with resilience. The Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2011) review shows that optimism is the basis of positive thinking and highlighted in a person’s “thinking style” when faced with setbacks. Too little optimism can bring you down, whereas too much optimism can make you overconfident, flippant and unaware of the risks. Like most things in life, it is about understanding your predominant “thinking style” and its relation to your environment.
Spirituality: “For some people, religion or faith can be vital, allowing you to reappraise what happened to you and put it into perspective,” A 2017 Journal of Affective Disorders study of 3,151 U.S. military veterans found that a high level of religion or spirituality was associated with lower risks of developing PTSD, major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder.
So, how do you develop resilience?
In our work, we have identified three types of resilience.
- Natural resilience is the resilience you were born with. Our human nature.
- Adaptive resilience is resilience borne from adversity.
- Restored resilience is the third type of resilience and it is learned.
Think back to the notion that resilience can be cultivated and practiced with the necessary resources and skills. It means exploring and developing who we are and understanding and navigating our environment resiliently, while building on our strengths and resources.
Our programmes focus on building resilience in people, teams and organisations that promote tangible and measurable outcomes for positive adaption and growth. It means people can better manage stress, challenges and change as they happen. Whilst having the skills and resources to “bounce forward” and go from good to great.
We believe cultivating resilience is not about “fixing” people or getting them to “bounce back” to where they were before. Who wants that? Resilience is a journey rather than a destination.
For most people, teams and leaders, resilience is about building forward momentum, strong relationships and enabling happier, more engaged and resilient people. It provides people clarity of purpose, a sense of meaning and a clear direction in terms of goals, priorities, wellbeing and success.
Our skill-based approach uses an overarching mental, emotional and step-by-step, modular process that unlocks the capacity for resilience and confidently builds energy for change.
Our methodology focuses on the human factors of thinking, feeling and relationships.
Resilient people do not dismiss or suppress their emotions in response to adversity. They understand how their beliefs and thoughts connect directly to their feelings and accept those feelings. We would say that you can’t choose your feelings, but you can choose what you think and act despite those feelings.
Build emotional intelligence
Understand your thinking style
We all see obstacles and opportunities but to different extents. That might sound obvious, but it is something that people forget or never even discover. When we measure resilience, we use a positively reviewed British Psychological Society tool that helps people understand whether their current predominant thinking style is:
We then focus on skills that enable people to adapt and flex their “thinking styles” for more accurate thinking, decision-making and performance.
There is no wrong or right thinking style. Understanding your thinking style (and how it varies to others) helps build and maintain resilience in yourself and others.
Build social intelligence
Building strong and trusting relationships take effort and attention. Resilient people study social situations and their behaviour. They adapt to others and learn from social successes and failures.
Focus on strength
We all have strengths, although many of us are not aware of them or dismiss them. Identifying your strengths can unlock happiness, meaning, healthier relationships and provide a consistent platform to accelerate our goals. Positive psychology research that suggests utilising individual strengths can help enhance wellbeing for the above reasons.
So, to summarise the answer to what is resilience?
The answer depends on who you are asking. All would agree it’s a psychological toolbox. Some take a “bounce back” perspective, whilst others feel it’s as much about “bouncing forward.”
For us, the answer to “what is resilience?” is answered not by theory but practically. It’s about having the skills to adapt before you have to, whether that’s in a high-performance environment or a difficult situation. We believe the skills required to bounce back are the same as the skills to leap forward and go from good to great.