Can a person be resilient after exposure to stress? This was something I questioned during one of the plethora of assignments I had to complete in graduate school – on the topic of coping with stress. In the many years since, I have learned through my clinical experience and academic work, that resilience can be learned, which means that we can acquire skills over our lifetime and build our individual capacities for resilience as life moves us in complex directions.
So, what is resilience? The psychological literature has defined resilience as measuring the ability to ‘bounce back’ from a crisis or stressor or the ability to maintain a somewhat stable equilibrium when faced with stress. However, resilience has now become a broader construct that encompasses several components - personal characteristics, active coping methods and processes, risk and protective factors in the individual’s life, as well as the cultural context within which stress impacts the person. For instance, how do soldiers get back into service after facing exposure to trauma or death? How do police officers go back on duty after witnessing ongoing violence? And how do most of us face the day-to-day stressors of a busy life, balancing the pressures of work and home? It is usually a combination of those several components that allows us to manage both unique and daily challenges of life.
Let’s break this down a bit further. On a more day-to-day level, think about the employee (perhaps yourself on this occasion) who is overburdened at work, faces criticism, high pressure, and wonders how to meet the extraordinarily high expectations set by the supervisor. And then the inevitable happens – they make a significant mistake, an error, a mishap. How to respond to this error?
At a more extreme level, resilience also occurs in the context of severe trauma, death of a significant other, terrorist attacks, or other aversive events. In the aftermath of such events, it can be a challenge to maintain a stable mental and emotional equilibrium. Research suggests that resilience can present itself in multiple ways across individuals. This may depend on the support structures that are in place in your life, your overall health, and the individual flexibility that you might show after a difficult event. As an adult, resilience has a lot to do with how you cope, so that you don’t respond to stressors solely with fear, helplessness, judgment, and self-criticism.
How can we learn to respond differently then? I would like to begin by saying – mindfully. This means [developing] the ability to engage in self-awareness, paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and sensations in our body non-judgmentally. It also means developing a way to simply notice and observe uncomfortable and distressing thoughts and feelings. Next, being able to view the setback or aversive event from more than the ‘lone ranger’ negative perspective and expanding our ability to view it from multiple perspectives is essential for having options to cope with the event. Having options to resolve difficult emotions and experiences, and considering them in a full way, gives us the flexibility to work towards a solution or desired outcome for our emotional health.
In the case of the employee, the desired outcome could simply be learning how the error occurred, and understanding their own role in it, so that they can implement their learning and shape their approach in handling future errors. In the context of severe trauma, an in-depth exploration of personal resources available to the person to actively cope with the trauma (family/friend support), early professional intervention such as therapy for emotional help, resisting the need to suppress difficult emotions, and listening to your body by, resting well, developing healthy habits, not pushing into overdrive, and overcoming perfectionism are all great solutions.
Additionally, after experiencing a traumatic event or a difficult stressor, we start to question our skills, our competence, our self-worth and knowledge. We may become more sensitive to our perceptions of what our peers might think of us, and before we know it, we start to travel down the spiraling path of self-doubt, criticism, and harshness. This path also takes us to a more difficult emotional state where we can get stuck. And being able to regulate our feelings towards a different emotional outcome (i.e., moving from anger to acceptance) is also a key feature of resilience-based coping. In the midst of vulnerability, thinking about and actively reaching out to our connections, our support systems, mentors, friends, therapists, to give us that boost of optimism after a fall, can also be a meaningful and active way of coping with adversity.
If there is one thing that you take away from this article, it is that resilience can be a learned skill and competency, not necessarily something that you either have or don’t have. Increasing our levels of productive engagement with others and ourselves in the face of stress or after a crisis is a way to move forward in coping effectively, versus using avoidance as a way to cope with distress.
Divya Kannan, PhD, is a clinical psychologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, where she has spent the last several years working with adult survivors of violence. She is currently a practicing clinician in Bangalore.