Understanding resilience: What does it really mean?

Resilience does not occur in a vacuum or an all-or-none manner - it is contextual

Kamna Chibber

“I lost my mother when I was 17. My younger sister (who was 16 at the time) and I were very close to her. She was our friend and confidant—​ someone we turned to every time we struggled with something. Her loss left me shattered. Even after a whole year had passed, I could not recover and was taken to see a therapist. My sister surprisingly had moved past it. She missed her and cried when we spoke about her. But her life continued, whereas mine had stopped.”

Mira, the person who shared her experience above, always wondered what it was that made it difficult for her to cope with the loss of her mother. She questioned herself for not being able to deal with the loss. Most importantly, she compared herself with her sister and needed to understand if she lacked something that made her more vulnerable to stressors.

Understanding resilience

Most people believe that there is something which differentiates individuals who experience the same situations but navigate their way through them differently. They believe that the difference is not just about the people we are or the experiences we have had. There is something inherent and inbuilt, which was initially conceptualized as an attribute that makes people invincible and invulnerable. It was called ‘resilience’ and it was the factor assumed to differentiate how different individuals react, respond to and ultimately cope with and overcome a stressful situation.

But our current understanding of the term has shifted. Resilience is now known to be the ability to adapt to a given situation, which may not be favorable for an individual.

Historically, we can take the example of victims of floods, earthquakes, landslides and other natural disasters to describe resilience. Recently, the floods in Kerala brought to light a similar situation, where there were some who displayed immense strength and will, overcoming the disaster that destroyed most of what they possessed, and found ways to help others who were in a better off, similar or even worse situation.

Is resilience an all-or-none phenomenon?

Resilience is not a trait that either someone possesses or doesn't. People vary in their resilience across situations.

“I think I am weak. I cannot deal with any situation,” pat came Mira’s reply, when she was asked what she thought about her ability to deal with difficult situations. Her husband was accompanying her and I could see him shaking his head imperceptibly sitting next to her. When asked what he was thinking, he said, “I don’t believe that is true. We have had a tough time post our marriage since my parents never accepted our union. Ours was a love marriage and for me, Mira has always tried to be nice to my parents, checking on them and trying to be involved with them despite how nasty and rude they are with her.”

Mira, like most people, could not see her resilience in dealing with a difficult family circumstance and remained steadfast in her lack of belief in herself.

The adaptive process of resilience does not occur in a vacuum or an all-or-none manner. People are resilient in a context. As situations vary and change, the levels of resilience vary too. Continuous stress over a period of time also compromises an individual’s resilience and makes it difficult to cope across situations.

This helps us understand that resilience can also be built, and is not an extraordinary trait possessed by a few chosen special people.

Building your resilience

The role of the individual and their family and community in building and maintaining resilience across situations cannot be emphasized enough. A combination of factors is at play in making people resilient.

  1. Being resilient often involves working through difficult emotional experiences, distress and trauma yourself.Your experience with a difficult situation can strengthen you and give you the belief in yourself to overcome challenges. Until you have experienced a stressful situation, you will never know if you can cope with it. It is the same with resilience. Working through your own emotional pain and sadness makes you resilient.
  2. Knowledge of the existence of your support system makes you resilient.This emphasizes on the need to create strong and effective support systems.  Focusing on having healthy relationships at home, with friends and at your workplace is key to resilience.
  3. Understanding yourself, strengths and weaknesses allows you to be better prepared for adversities. A realistic knowledge of what you will be able to do and cope with makes you resilient as well. It creates the space for you to be able to reach out for help as soon as you recognize that you are faced with an overwhelming situation.
  4. Change your perspective on situations. Recognize that what you see as a crisis shall pass. What seems insurmountable today would be gone by tomorrow as you would have found a way to conquer it or the situation would change.
  5. Focus on building your problem-solving and decision-making skills. Enhancing your capacity in these domains would enable you to develop a positive belief system in your own self. A positive sense of self creates an opportunity to trust yourself across diverse situations and your ability to stay strong through them.
  6. Maintain a balanced sense of optimism to create a positive outlook. As you keep working towards your goals, look at the things which are good. Problems will always be there and some things can easily go wrong. But looking at the larger picture will help you stay grounded and maintain your resilience in the face of difficulties.

Different combinations of the suggested strategies would work for different people. To know what may work best for you, look at your past experiences and find out what has worked for you to derive a strategy for building resilience.

Kamna Chibber is a consultant clinical psychologist and Head - Mental Health, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.