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Defining resilience

Consider the following scenario: Two women both lost a son in a war. One returns to work immediately and starts volunteering at an organization helping families of fallen soldiers. The other is unable to leave home, spends most of her days crying and sitting in front of her son’s belongings that were left untouched. Who is more resilient? The answer largely depends on how one defines resilience. Some might argue the first woman is more resilient because she has resumed functioning and maybe even found a deeper purpose in life by giving to others. However, others might argue the second woman is actually more resilient as she is allowing herself to mourn whereas the first woman may be avoiding dealing with her son’s death.

Numerous attempts have been made in defining resilience. The term actually originated from the field of physics and was used to define the ability of metals to absorb energy and return to their normal state after the energy was unloaded. As such, resilience can be viewed as a temporary change from which a person recovers. Thus was born the traditional psychological definition of resilience as the ability to bounce back.

However is this sufficient? What about those individuals who seem to get by in life without much effort—are they considered resilient? Or should resilience be found in the process of coping rather than in the end result? And bounce back from what? Is resilience to stress the same as resilience to trauma? Should resilience be viewed only in the face of adversity?

The bottom line is that resilience is hard to define because it is dynamic and multidimensional. It’s possible for an individual to be resilient in one domain yet not another. Take for example the child who is a quiet, obedient student that gets good grades. By all appearances we might assume that this child is resilient, however knowing that he has no friends or is throwing tantrums at home might change our minds. Thus, it is important to examine resilience within multiple contexts. Culture may influence what is considered resilient. Some cultures place more emphasis on physical rather than emotional symptoms. Some value stoicism over emotional expressiveness. Furthermore, resilience changes depending on developmental stage. A child who was successfully treated for sexual abuse at age six and live normally for several years, might have issues arise in adolescence as he starts dating. To further complicate matters, an individual who appears resilient may still be approaching the stress threshold. Thus, what is true resilience?

Although resilience is a difficult construct to define and measure, the good news is that there are things we can do to enhance it. In the same way that stressful experiences can impair neurobiological systems, the brain has the ability to form new neurons and connections in response to novel experiences. Thus, the more a skill is rehearsed the more the brain will rewire. Psychotherapeutic interventions aim to do this through teaching of skills such as affect expression and regulation, cognitive restructuring, and coping/relaxation strategies. Early intervention is important as the brain is most malleable in childhood. There is the idea of stress inoculation, exposing an individual to some level of stress but not too much or too little. However, experiences of minor stress do not necessarily equip a person to be able to handle greater stress. It seems that it is more about whether a person has the desire to overcome. A specific temperamental factor may not be necessary but a key feature of resilient individuals appears to be cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt to the situation. It is important to keep in mind that the majority of the population, about two thirds, is resilient. Therefore, preventative interventions become crucial in bolstering developmental assets such as problem-solving, motivation, self-esteem, and social competence. Most important, however, may be empowering individuals to draw on their own innate strengths to become their own agents of change. Resilience is not something you either have or don’t, everyone has the ability to become resilient.

Featured image credit: Neuron. CC0 via Pixabay.

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