Resilience is crucial to overcoming adversity. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb, or do you surmount?
Environmental threats can come in various ways; from chronic – exposure to violence or poor treatment; being a child of problematic divorce, etc. to acute: experiencing or witnessing a traumatic violent encounter, or being in an accident. What matters is the intensity and the duration of the stressor.
What sets resilient people apart?
Some elements have to do with luck: a resilient person might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another, quite large set of elements is psychological, and has to do with how the individual responds to the environment. Resilient people tend to “meet the world on their own terms.” They are autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and have a “positive social orientation.”
Resilience could also change over time. Some resilient people could be called “unlucky”: they experience multiple stressors at vulnerable points and their resilience evaporates. While on the flip side, some people who hasn’t always been resilient somehow learn the skills of resilience. They can overcome adversity later in life and go on to flourish as much as those who’d been resilient the whole way through. This, of course, raises the question of how resilience might be learned.
One of the central elements of resilience is perception: Do you understand an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Experiences are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening experience, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to understand the event as filled with meaning – perhaps it would lead to greater awareness of a certain disease, or closer connections with your community – then it may not be seen as a trauma. In other words, living through adversity, be it endemic to your environment or an acute negative event, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll suffer going forward. What matters is whether that adversity becomes traumatizing, and what makes it traumatizing is your response to it.
The good news is that positive perception can be taught. We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things. Research shows that teaching people to think of stressors in different ways – to frame them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot” – changes how they experience and react to the stressor. People can be taught to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. But focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.
So where does that leave some of us who would like to be more resilient?
It helps to empower your inner defiance. Some people would say they survived bullying and intimidation from others because they refused to accept that what was being said about them was true. When trauma and life become difficult, own the fighter within. Resist defeat in your own mind. Fighting back on the inside is where battling back on the outside begins.
Try reaching out to family, friends or professionals who care. It is a myth that resilient people don’t need help. Seeking support is what most resilient people do.
Make a realistic plan to begin your recovery, and work toward it day by day.
Finally, remember the different ways you have been courageous and strong. Too often we remember all too well and keep in mind what we experienced rather than what we have done to survive and thrive.
Adapted from The New Yorker: www.newyorker.com