We’ve all heard stories of people who not only withstand stressful or traumatic events, but who also emerge stronger in spirit and mind. Have you ever wondered how they do it?
Resilience, or the ability to bounce back from stress and adversity, is not a special personality trait, or a superpower reserved only for the lucky few. Resilience is a common human capacity, and involves thoughts, emotions and actions that we all have the potential to develop.
What we find stressful in life and how we respond varies greatly between people – one person's crisis, is another person's adventure. We also see differences in how people respond to adversity, which helps us explore and learn more about how to tap into the human capacity for resilience.
In the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl recounts his experience in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Many prisoners survived extreme emotional and physical adversity. Frankl put their survival down to finding meaning in every moment of life, even in the face of suffering. Frankl found that love and the image of his wife sustained him through even the most difficult times. This suggests that connecting to your values, and making decisions based on what is important to you, is helpful during a difficult time.
Growth from Adversity
Resourcing and building your resilience brings substantial personal growth. Roman poet Horace said:
The research on post-traumatic growth suggests five main types of growth following a trauma. These include changes in oneself and one’s philosophy of life, a more positive outlook on life, a strengthened belief system, and closer family relationships.
Some people report that whilst they may feel more vulnerable, they also feel more capable and self-sufficient, and even enjoy life more. Still others report increased compassion for others, and feeling as though they can express their emotions more freely. These changes might sound surprising in the midst of adversity, but are possible, even if in just small ways at first.
Tackling smaller, individual problems as they present can be helpful when faced with a larger stressor. This might involve viewing problems as challenges and opportunities for learning or self-growth. Asking yourself what you can learn from a crisis or adversity? What would be helpful in this situation?
Develop confidence in your capacity to solve problems is one attribute of resilient people. A useful problem-solving technique involves listing all the possible solutions, picking your top three, evaluating the pros and cons of each, choosing one and implementing it, repeating the steps if needed.
Emotions and Kindness
Developing resilience does not necessarily entail a life free from suffering. Experiencing and learning how to cope with emotional distress is often essential to the development of resilience. As Frankl learnt from firsthand experience, choosing how you respond to distress is crucial.
Part of learning how to be resilient is learning how to be kind and compassionate towards yourself. What would you say to a close friend going through a tough time? Offer yourself these words of comfort. And when things get too much, meditate, relax or do something that you enjoy – taking care of themselves both emotionally and physically is something resilient people do well.
Barbara Fredrickson, psychology researcher, suggests that experiencing and cultivating positive emotions helps to foster resilience. Resilient people acknowledge the negatives of a situation, but are also able to find some positives. Feeling grateful for positive experiences, showing kindness, and being of service to others are ways to boost positive feelings. For example, when someone close to us dies, while it is often a time of great sadness, it is also an opportunity to recall the good times and to connect with others in your family and friendship group.
Hope and Optimism
Frankl believed that maintaining a sense of hope and optimism was one of the most important reasons for why some prisoners were able to endure great suffering. The research on resilience supports Frankl’s experience, with many studies demonstrating that maintaining a sense of hope and optimism is one pathway to resilience.
How is hope cultivated? Hopeful people truly expect that good things will happen in the future, and act in ways that make them likely to occur. They set realistic and meaningful goals for themselves, as well as generating multiple pathways toward their goals. They don't give up when they hit a road block, instead they re-group and look for an alternate way through. They take small, consistent steps everyday toward their goals.
While the art of developing resilience is being able to draw upon our inner reserves and adapt our behavior to the situation, there is one other vital ingredient. Psychological research has consistently shown that drawing upon supportive relationships and the broader community are essential for coping well with stressful events. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – in more ancient times, the group was fundamental to survival, with greater strength in numbers. It seems that we are wired to connect, in good times and in bad.
One universal truth of life is that it is hard to live with out suffering of some kind – whether it is a romantic heart break, poor physical health, or financial hardship – life is full of both suffering and great joy. While few people would choose the experience of suffering over joy, we cannot always avoid it.
Learning to accept suffering as a part of life is a large part of learning to be resilient. You do not have to embrace the suffering, but merely acknowledge and accept it as a normal part of human existence. In the same way that happiness may be fleeting, knowing that suffering seldom lasts forever.
Recognising the things you do have control over, like self-care, inner growth, hope and connection with others, can be empowering. Resilience is available to us all, and can sometimes be found in unexpected ways. Next time life throws you a curve ball, see if you can use it as a chance to cultivate your own capacity for resilience.
Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? The American Psychologist, 59, 20 – 28.
De Terte, I., Becker, J., & Stephens, C. (2009). An integrated model for understanding and developing resilience in the face of adverse events. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 3, 20 – 26.
Frankl, V. (2004). Man’s Search for Meaning. London, UK: Rider.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Kobasa, S. C., Maddi, S. R., & Kahn, S. (1982). Hardiness and health: A prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 168 – 177.
Tedeschi, R., & Calhoun, L. (1995). Trauma and transformation: Growing in the aftermath of suffering. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.