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The American Psychological Association (APA), defines resilience as:
“the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” It goes on to support the notion that resilience can be cultivated and practised with the necessary resources and skills.
Although a popular concept in psychology, resilience research reviewed by the Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2011) highlights how Psychologists have long grappled with the nuances of what “resilience” actually is. The term resilience is used in many different ways with many Psychologists using the term to refer to “characteristics” or “outcomes” evidencing a person’s positive adaption in times of stress or traumatic experiences. Research psychology talks about 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 the ability to measure resilience by tracking someone over time and measuring their mental health and overall functioning, that raises important questions around 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. Recovery is followed by sustainability, defined as continued interest in leading a meaningful life.
3. Finally, there’s post-traumatic growth which manifests in finding more purpose in life than before the event, enabling people to re-assess their goals and priorities, create stronger relationships and a greater appreciation of life.
Crucially, resilience research overwhelmingly challenges one important misconception of what it is to be resilient. It dispels the common assumption that resilience is about “mental toughness,” or remaining unaffected, instead emphasising 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 as well as being able to seek support when needed.
So, as you can see, like many things involving people, there are nuances in the definitions of 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 we are asked, “what is resilience?” we define resiliency as the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and socially. We believe while the definition of “bouncing back” is useful in therapy, in everyday life, for the majority of people, resilience is as much about bouncing forward 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:
The Big Five personality model emerged to describe the essential characteristics that serve as the building blocks of personality.
Overcoming adversity in the past:
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 they are 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 what your predominant “thinking style” is and how that relates 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.
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 how you act despite those feelings.
Build emotional intelligence: by developing and cultivating a skill-set originating from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. It generates a “self-coaching” culture able to solve problems and adopt positive reappraisal” techniques to confidently process their thinking and emotions in a more positive way.
Understanding 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:
Build your social intelligence
Building strong and trusting relationships take effort and attention. Resilient people study social situations and their own behaviour. They adapt to others and learn from social successes and failures.
We take a strength-based approach
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 talking to. 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.