You have probably noticed that people can have very different reactions to the same situations. Why do some people seem to break when something goes wrong, while others seem to thrive even in times of extreme stress?
The answer lies in psychological resilience, or people’s ability to bounce back after a crisis. In addition to helping people deal with crises, resilience also promotes overall happiness. Some people are naturally more resilient, while others build resilience as a result of their circumstances in life.
In this article, I will take a look at the determinants and benefits of resilience, as well as some tips on how to become more resilient.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What is resilience?
As with everything in the field of psychology, there are a few competing approaches to resilience. Very generally, these differing approaches fall into two categories.
The first approach is focused on the ability of the individual to recover quickly from the psychological effects of an adverse event. For example, a resilient person is able to quickly bounce back psychologically from an event like the loss of a job and focus on seeking a new one after a brief period of sadness or grief.
The other defines resilience as the ability of the individual to remain psychologically healthy or stable despite the fact that they have been exposed to an adverse event. For example, in this case, the resilient person doesn’t let the loss of a job affect them at all psychologically.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Resilience can manifest both as a quick recovery or the full retention of psychological stability during times of stress. The type of resilience can depend on both the person themselves as well as the nature of the adverse event.
American researchers have proposed the GROW framework of resilience, which defines the four core ingredients:
- Good emotion: optimism, joy, pleasure, positive emotions, happiness;
- Reason: purpose, meaning, having worthwhile goals in life, contributing to something larger than self;
- Others: social connectedness, positive relationships, altruism, achievement and mastery (of something other);
- Wellness: flexibility, emotional learning, self-awareness, reflection, ability to grow, gratitude, humor, curiosity.
Where does resilience come from?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, resilience has been extremely well-studied in stress-prone and high-risk occupations like medical and law enforcement personnel, first responders and mental health professionals. These occupations have a higher risk of experiencing traumatic events or secondary traumatic stress as a part of the job.
However, since our lives are filled with stressful events, we could all use some resilience. But what affects how resilient we are?
According to Adriana Feder and colleagues, there are both social as well as biological factors that affect the development of resilience. In their 2009 paper, they write:
“Beginning in development, an individual’s genes and their interaction with environmental factors […] shape the neural circuitry and neurochemical function that are expressed in an observable range of psychological strengths and behaviors characteristic of resilient individuals.”
Biologically and genetically, resilience is influenced by many of the same genes that code our stress response, as well as serotonin transporter genes. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood regulation and low levels of serotonin have long been associated with depression.
Resilience has also been associated with a safe upbringing, with childhood trauma or growing up in an abusive home being related to worse stress-response.
But resilience is not just the absence of pathology. It’s not passive and our levels of resilience can change over time. For example, we may be able to bounce back from a single, isolated adverse event, like the loss of a loved one, but not from a prolonged period of stress, like an abusive relationship. And it works the other way around, too. Some people can handle constant stress, but fall apart after experiencing one isolated adverse event.
I finished See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill recently. It’s a harrowing read about domestic abuse and its effects on the victims and society at large, but what touched me the most were the cases of victims who develop tremendous resilience and strategies to survive the abusive relationship, only to be broken psychologically by the law system after the end of the relationship.
This just goes to show that resilience isn’t a passive reservoir to tap into whenever you need, but rather a moving and changing body of water with its own ebbs and flows.
The benefits of resilience
There are more benefits to resilience than just helping you survive the hard times. One widely researched benefit is to do with physical health – there is evidence that resilience helps people handle physical illnesses and injuries.
For example, a 2019 study reports that since resilience is an important protective factor against psychological distress and closely related to mental health, it can also lead to favorable psychological and treatment-related outcomes in cancer patients. The authors go further, and propose that resilience-building interventions should be an essential component of cancer care.
A 2013 study showed that in people with mild traumatic brain injury, lower preinjury resilience predicted higher postinjury anxiety.
In addition to physical health, resilience is also related to mental health. A 2010 study conducted on a sample of athletes showed that resilience was positively associated with sport achievement and psychological well-being. A 2011 article also reports that people with higher levels of resilience reported significantly higher levels of life-satisfaction and lower levels of depression.
Resilience also has an effect on happiness. A 2017 study conducted on a sample of Korean nurses showed a positive correlation between happiness and resilience. A 2016 study on Korean nursing students also reports resilience having a significant effect on subjective happiness.
It has been suggested that resilience is the mediator between positive emotions and happiness, meaning that positive emotions increase overall happiness by building resilience. Such findings are reported in a 2009 paper, in which the authors write:
“Change in resilience mediated the relation between positive emotions and increased life satisfaction, suggesting that happy people become more satisfied not simply because they feel better, but because they develop resources for living well.”
How to build resilience
If you’re itching to reap the benefits resilience provides, I don’t blame you. Who wouldn’t like to bounce back just a little more easily from something as difficult as cancer?
But as you’ve read, resilience is partly determined by genes. However, there are a few skills you can learn that help you increase resilience.
1. Change your thinking
To quote Shakespeare: “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet act 2, scene 2). A truth so simple it was known 400 years ago. How we react and think about different events is what makes some of us so resilient and others less so.
When something “bad” happens, we tend to think of it as the end of the world. In psychological terms, we catastrophize. Losing a job means we’ll never work again. The end of a relationship means we’ll never love or be loved again.
Instead of thinking of every setback as the end of the world, look for the positives in it. If there are no positives to be found – which can sometimes be the case – try to look for the small ways in which you can improve your situation and tackle the problem.
2. Establish clear goals
This goes hand in hand with the first tip. One way to change your thinking is to focus on the specifics instead of the whole situation. This may seem counterintuitive, but when you’re facing adversity in life, it’s better to set yourself an achievable and manageable goal that tackles one specific part of the problem, instead of trying to solve the whole thing in one sitting.
For example, if you’re just broken up with your significant other, make an action plan. Firstly, figure out your living situation: is one of you moving out? Who and when? Secondly, take care of your psychological needs. Set up a meeting with your friends and family. Take yourself on a “date” and treat yourself to a day out.
It’s also important to focus on what you can control, as fixating on the things that are out of you control only leads to frustration. For example, it’s no use trying to control your ex’s behavior after the breakup, but you can control your own.
3. Nourish your relationships
Even though there’s a certain pride in handling everything alone, it’s often the support of others that gets us through the hard times. And not just the hard times: research shows that friends make us happier overall.
When it comes to resilience, simply knowing that you have someone to lean on, or just talk to, is enough to make the burden lighter.
Resilience is what makes some people swim while others sink. It’s the mental strength that allows us to bounce back from stressful events. While it’s genetically determined to an extent, it can still be built and developed over a lifetime. And with rewards like happiness, psychological well-being, and even better treatment outcomes from severe physical illness, doesn’t it sound like something worth building?
Do you consider yourself to be resilient? Are you naturally resilient or have you become resilient as a result of your experiences in life? I’d love to hear about your story in the comments below!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“