It is time we talked about the R-word: resilience. So many articles, memes, songs, and podcasts talk about how to be resilient and see ourselves through tough times. But what does it really mean to be resilient, and how useful is this concept still?
“Can’t you see? Life’s easy if you look at things from another point of view.”
Many readers will be familiar with these iconic lyrics from the DB Boulevard song “Point of view.”
This song describes what many people understand through resilience: the ability to consider negative events “from another point of view,” one that allows them to construct a different, positive narrative.
Another way of understanding resilience might be through the phrase “grin and bear it” — going through negative life experiences by subduing “unwanted” emotions of anger, sadness, or hopelessness.
How useful is each of these takes on resilience, though, and does either of them fully explain what psychological resilience is?
To better understand this ability and how useful the notion of resilience still is in a world of global and individual crises, Medical News Today have spoken to three experts.
Dr. Mark Hoelterhoff — lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom — is a counseling psychologist with expertise in positive psychology and a research interest in psychological capital.
Tania Diggory is a business neurolinguistic programming practitioner and mental health trainer. She is also the founder and director of Calmer, a company providing mental health and well-being training courses for businesses and professionals.
Dr. Tim Lomas is a former lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London in the U.K., author of The Positive Power of Negative Emotions, and currently a researcher at the Wellbeing for Planet Earth foundation.
Mostly everyone will have heard of resilience and likely has their own understanding of what being resilient means.
However, even psychologists and researchers do not always agree on how resilience is defined, and the discussion around what this trait means and what shapes it in every individual continues.
In a perspective paper informed by a 2013 discussion panel, specialists define resilience variously as “the ability to bend but not break, bounce back, and perhaps even grow in the face of adverse life experiences” or “a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event.”
Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychologist with a special interest in resilience who chaired the original discussion panel, points out that there is no consensus even on whether resilience is “a trait, a process, or an outcome.”
Dr. Southwick says:
“[R]esilience more likely exists on a continuum that may be present to differing degrees across multiple domains of life. […] Resilience may [also] change over time as a function of development and one’s interaction with the environment.”
In speaking to MNT, Dr. Hoelterhoff also noted that resilience can be a difficult concept to define and that using mantras from popular culture to think about and understand it may not always be helpful.
“What should [therapists and counselors] be communicating to people, and what should we, as people, be encouraged by or challenged by in regards to our own resilience? […] There was a while that everybody had a mug or a poster or something […] [with] this ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ [message],” he remarked.
“We saw these everywhere, and really the message is just […] ‘let’s not freak out about this, and let’s not overreact […] we’ll be OK, but we just need to keep going.’ It’s about continuing to move forward,” he noted.
Such popular messages of encouragement, Dr. Hoelterhoff told us, can come in handy as momentary morale boosters. He added, however, that they do not encompass the complexity of resilience and can fall short when it comes to helping people achieve a sustainable constructive mindset.
“[E]ven [other messages such as] ‘grin and bear it’ or the whole […] ‘stay strong, it’s your mentality that kind of shapes your resilience’ — those are all important messages. I think they tend to fall short if that’s the only message you hear,” he explained.
Instead, he suggested thinking about resilience as a process — not just the ability to bounce back from a challenging situation, but the process of transforming and growing through and from it.
“[I]f we take a definition of resilience as […] being able to survive adversity, then I would suggest that that is a definition that […] is incomplete. However, if we change that definition just slightly to say that resilience is not about getting through adversity but thriving because of adversity, that […] makes a big paradigm shift, and what we’re actually expecting then from resilience is more than just coping.”
– Dr. Mark Hoelterhoff
“If resilience is actually, from a perspective of growth, that […] we’ve experienced these hardships, adversity, this trauma, this difficult thing, and not only have we gotten through it, but because of it, we have changed as a person — hopefully, for the better — [then], hopefully, we [have] grown and gained new perspectives and have [a] new appreciation of things [in life],” he went on to say.
The question arises, however: To what extent is resilience an innate trait, and to what extent is it a “skill” that each individual is able to build throughout their life?
This is a long-standing question that applies to all of humans’ psychological skills and traits, not just resilience. As far as the latter is concerned, however, past research has suggested that there may be a genetic component to individuals’ adaptability to stressful situations.
But it also explains that environmental factors themselves may alter the expression of the genes that regulate people’s adaptability to stress, which makes the idea of “natural” resilience less clear-cut.
Yet psychologists have also pointed out that much of what we think of as resilience is also a skill that we can learn and build throughout life.
Dr. Hoelterhoff also explained that resilience most likely comes out of a combination of innate factors and acquired responses.
“The truth is that it’s very rare in anything when we’re dealing with the human experience that it’s not a combination of both [natural inclination and learned behavior],” he told us.
“[W]e can certainly acknowledge this genetic component to what your natural abilities are, but that’s not to say that people are incapable of optimism or even [that] optimistic people are incapable of pessimism. […] [T]he human experience is not that simple,” he added.
Cultural upbringing may also play a role in conditioning a person to be more or less optimistic, he admitted. Yet Dr. Hoelterhoff is a proponent of positive psychology, an approach advocated and popularized by Prof. Martin Seligman.
“[P]ositive psychology,” Dr. Hoelterhoff explained, “is really trying to look at the components and the attributes of optimal living, thriving, flourishing, and so on.”
“When we look at traits, even cross-culturally, even though they might manifest themselves differently in different cultures, and even though personality types might manifest them differently, they are achievable and livable across the general population.”
– Dr. Mark Hoelterhoff
“And all that to say is that, yes, people might be born or have been raised in an environment that tends to maybe have them respond in a certain way, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot learn and […] practice ways of thriving and flourishing,” he continued.
Research suggests that various activities and practices might help people cope better with stressful situations. Making time for and engaging in leisure activities, for instance, might help people respond more constructively to stress.
To consolidate resilience, Diggory also suggests that individuals make a conscious effort to take time to tend to their own mental and emotional well-being.
“Heightening a sense of self-awareness and giving yourself permission to put time aside to prioritize your mental well-being is key to building resilience,” she told MNT.
“Just as you would prioritize a work project, a personal commitment, or a leisure activity, your mind also needs attention and nourishment. So, consider planning into your diary pockets of time that you can dedicate to activities that nurture your mental health.”
– Tania Diggory
“Whether you read a self-development book, practice journaling, or take time for a guided meditation, these are just a few examples of activities that help increase your self-awareness, enhance your resilience skills, and [enable] you to identify if there is a need for further support,” she noted.
Past research has also indicated that people who have a reliable support network also seem to have a stronger sense of resilience in the face of adversity.
However, during widespread, chronic crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, many people may experience social isolation.
In such situations, Diggory suggests that people may benefit from reminding themselves of the bigger picture, as difficult as that may seem in the moment.
“The reality is that we are naturally social beings and thrive on connecting with others. Even if you’re someone who identifies with being genuinely content in their own company for a long period of time, at some stage, you’ll feel a need to connect with others — this is part of our human survival [instinct],” she told MNT.
“Research suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social connections and influences, and feeling isolated for a long period of time can have an impact on our happiness and well-being,” Diggory added.
“Reminding ourselves of the impermanence of the challenges we’ve faced can be a source of resilience, that even though it feels unnatural to be isolated from those we love, in time, this will change, and it won’t always be this way.”
– Tania Diggory
When a crisis situation becomes ongoing — as is the case with recent national lockdowns around the world — Diggory emphasized that it is important to acknowledge and express the impact that this has on us.
“Talking about our feelings and having outlets to express our emotions is a vital part of coping when facing challenges,” she noted.
“Processing our emotions helps turn down the dial of the stress response in the brain and enables us to regulate our feelings and have clarity of thought,” she went on to explain.
Diggory suggested: “Consider who you trust that you could speak to, or look into therapeutic interventions with a professional who can help you identify your emotions and explore new coping skills. Also, let go of putting any pressure on yourself to feel at your best every day.”
“You do not have to struggle or consolidate your resilience alone — often, sharing and exploring possibilities with someone you trust can unlock new ideas and ways of coping,” she added.
Past research has suggested that acknowledging and accepting negative emotions as we experience them could actually boost psychological well-being in the long run.
These were the findings of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2017.
Commenting on the results, senior study author Dr. Iris Mauss — a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley — says that “people who habitually accept their negative emotions [in the moment] experience fewer negative emotions [on the whole], which adds up to better psychological health.”
“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention. And perhaps if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up,” she hypothesizes.
Yet negative emotions also play a valid role in people’s relationship with the world they inhabit. Speaking to MNT, Dr. Lomas said that “[a] common and helpful way to look at emotions generally — positive and negative — [is that they] are […] a form of information that help[s] us understand and act in the world.”
“From that perspective,” he explained, “negative emotions can be signs that indicate something is wrong, e.g., that there is a threat we need to be careful about. Such emotions can then be helpful to the extent that they allow us to deal with these challenges.”
This, he cautioned, is not always the case. If “these processes […] go awry, e.g., our information may be faulty, or the signals may be overamplified or distorted, […] emotions may not be helpful or useful and, in serious cases, may be deemed to constitute a mental illness,” he warned.
“But, overall,” Dr. Lomas noted, “if functioning ‘regularly’ and appropriate[ly], even negative emotions can help people find and maintain well-being.”
He also explained that the way in which we understand negative emotions and the various roles that they play is also important.
“One main misunderstanding [that people may have about negative emotions] may be around the concept of ‘negative’ itself. The theorizing in this area can sometimes sound paradoxical, e.g., ‘positive can be negative,’ and vice versa, until one realizes that there are different forms of positivity and negativity,” he explained.
He also observed that, under normal circumstances, while negative emotions may feel like something we never wish to experience, they can ultimately help improve psychological well-being.
“With respect to emotions, two different forms are positive [versus] negative ‘valence,’ e.g., whether an emotion is experienced as pleasant or unpleasant, and positive versus negative ‘utility’ or ‘outcome,’ e.g., whether an emotion ultimately helps or hinders well-being. So, although emotion might feel unpleasant, that is, be negatively valenced, it may yet contribute to well-being, that is, have positive utility, and vice versa.”
– Dr. Tim Lomas
“Appreciating these subtleties helps move us away from rigid, binary thinking patterns, e.g., categorizing certain emotions as either positive [or] negative, or good [versus] bad, and allows us to see the nuances and complexities of our emotions more clearly,” Dr. Lomas told MNT.
He further noted that “even when [negative emotions] don’t contain useful information, since sometimes we can indeed feel bad without it seeming to have any identifiable purpose, it can still be helpful to try to acknowledge and accept their presence.”
“This not only can be conducive to well-being in itself, as shown in the emerging literature around mindfulness, but, moreover, trying to resist them can sometimes be counterproductive, e.g., it paradoxically may serve to make such emotions more tenacious and durable,” he explained.
Although thinking of resilience as our adaptive capacity to cope with stressful situations may be a useful starting point, some specialists, including Dr. Hoelterhoff, argue that we must go beyond resilience as “just coping” or “surviving” and focus on how we can thrive beyond adverse events instead.
“[M]y definition of ‘resilience’ is that, of course, all of those aspects of coping are important, but that coping is insufficient […] and so I tend to stray away a bit from the word ‘resilience,’ just because it means so many different things for different people,” Dr. Hoelterhoff told MNT.
“I like to think about things like thriving and flourishing, you know, […] what would it mean for a person to really experience a sense of life in which they are flourishing? And that’s not the absence of adversity. Oftentimes, it’s because of adversity that we can flourish and thrive,” he pointed out.
In order to learn to respond to adverse events in a way that allows us not just to survive but to actually thrive, Dr. Hoelterhoff makes use of a concept known as psychological capital, which looks at our psychological resources as any other type of resources, which can become depleted or, with the right investment, increase.
“‘[P]sychological capital’ is […] a model of thinking about developing the assets and the strengths that we have to [have in order] to flourish,” Dr. Hoelterhoff explained.
When in doubt, think ‘HERO’
To think about the main psychological resources that could help us improve our well-being, an acronym may come in handy: HERO.
“So just taking each letter of HERO, the first [stands for] ‘hope,’ and research indicates that people who tend to have higher levels of hope tend to thrive and function and experience greater levels of well-being,” Dr. Hoelterhoff said.
“[H]ope is not some sort of mystical […] wishing that the future would be better,” he explained. “Hope is about really envisioning the future being better. It’s about actually picturing that things can be better and, specifically, that you have the capacity to make it better […].”
Dr. Hoelterhoff pointed out the importance of the phenomena referred to as internal and external loci of control, with regard to how individuals perceive the amount of control they have in the context of a stressful situation:
“[R]esearch indicates that people who have higher levels of internal locus of control — in other words, [who think], ‘I have power over my environment. I can make changes and do things to shape my environment’ — they tend to have greater levels of well-being. But people who have higher levels of external locus of control — [thinking], ‘Well, because of the government, I had this experience, and my family does this to me, or my job does this to me, or all these things outside of me are controlling my environment, controlling me’ — well, they tend to fare worse when it comes to measures of overall well-being and happiness […].”
“[T]he next letter in the acronym HERO, E, [stands for] ‘efficacy,’ and efficacy is about recognizing our strengths, recognizing our talents, our skills, you know, the assets that we have, and using them,” he went on to say.
There is also “resilience” in psychological capital — that is what the R in the acronym stands for. Here, “resilience is this idea that, again, it’s not just about coping with adversity, but thriving, and sometimes resilience really means having [a] growth mindset,” said Dr. Hoelterhoff.
In this context, he added, it may be useful to turn to research on post-traumatic growth, which “looks at people who experienced traumas and difficult circumstances, and what [it] find[s] is that people tend to have changes in [their] life after trauma.”
These can be positive changes that allow them to have an enhanced appreciation of the good things in life and to see “the bigger picture.” Finally:
“The O part of HERO is ‘optimism,’ and that is […] about acknowledging the positive. And as human beings, we certainly have a negativity bias, because it’s one of the things that help us survive — we spot the threats […] that are out there in the environment, and it helps us be aware of the bad things that are there, so we don’t go down that pathway again.”
– Dr. Mark Hoelterhoff
It may also be difficult for people to be optimistic given the nature of the modern world, where the news and social media feeds may often bombard us with stories that are apt to induce anxiety and disappointment.
“So how in the world do you have optimism in a world like that? […] I think one of the most simple things that people can do to foster optimism is to reflect on what they’re grateful for,” Dr. Hoelterhoff told us.
“[S]ome people [will keep] a gratefulness journal, and it can be just a day-to-day kind of thing where they reflect on something that […] they feel grateful for, [or maybe] they’ve noticed some positive thing that happened,” he suggested.
He also advised we may want to consciously stop and savor any positive stories when we come across them, as tempting as it may be to just quickly file them away with the rest of the daily news.
“Regardless of their temperament, their lifestyle, where they’ve grown up, or their culture, […] if [people] just take that moment to reflect on those [positive] things, we do see an increase in measures of well-being,” said Dr. Hoelterhoff.
“In fact,” he added, “even […] a neuroscience perspective […] acknowledges that that aspect of gratitude creates a dopamine release, and […] dopamine is one of these neurochemicals which help us, in a sense, feel OK, […] feel content.”
It has to be acknowledged that to foster resilience more effectively and to thrive in the face of hardship, individuals also benefit from being empowered in their journey by the people around them.
The search for psychological growth is something that is crucial to the well-being of groups and communities. It also has an impact on productivity.
In a world in crisis, the way in which managers and employers are able to support and empower their employees and direct reports to look after their own well-being can influence group dynamic, as well as individual motivation and creativity.
MNT asked Diggory what employers could do to help support their employees consolidate their resilience during difficult times.
“It’s important for employers to remember that everyone experiences stress differently, and what is stressful for one person won’t necessarily be the same for someone else, and vice versa,” she told us.
“So,” she added, “acknowledge that whatever stress your staff are experiencing is valid and real to them, and ask them what support they feel would be helpful from you and your organization.”
“Offering signposting to mental health and well-being support internally or externally is key. However, by asking them individually to share their thoughts on what would be helpful for them to build their resilience can help strengthen a sense of rapport and trust in your relationship, ensuring they feel valued and understood,” Diggory pointed out.
She also suggested that “[i]ncreasing the amount of check-ins with your staff can show that you’re conscious about their well-being day to day, [and] role modeling healthy habits, like sharing what you personally struggle with and what well-being initiatives help you, can open up a powerful dialogue, as well as encourage your staff to nurture their resilience.”
At the end of the day, there may be no single recipe for bolstering resilience and improving one’s well-being in the aftermath of a crisis situation. However, extending kindness and compassion to ourselves and others may be the first step that everyone needs to take.