What is resilience?

Resilience is a trait, a process and a skill that can be developed

Why is it that some people are able to overcome trauma, adapt and move on? And why are some others impacted by adverse or painful experiences even years after they occur? How is it that some people are able to face adversity and stay mentally healthy, and have healthy relationships with other people, while some others are unable to do so?

We often refer to people who deal with adversities as being resilient. But what exactly is resilience?

Understanding resilience

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. The term refers to how one copes, manages emotions and seeks support in challenging times.

The concept of resilience has been explored with children who had adverse childhood experiences, through studies that tracked them into adulthood. Based on these studies, we can say that:

Everyone has the ability to be resilient: All of us have our own way of responding to stress and adversity. However, the way each one of us responds to stress depends on various factors. How we cope and adapt is a distinctive characteristic that is present within all of us. Some of the internal factors that can bolster resilience are determined by our ability to:

  • Make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
  • Express ourselves and our needs with others
  • Find solutions and work towards resolving problems 
  • Be aware of our own feelings/emotions, thoughts and behavior
  • Be introspective and reflective by questioning ourselves - what is happening to me? What do I need to do? What can I do? Whom can I ask for help? etc.

External factors also determine one’s resilience: Resilience is not just an internal ability to cope and adapt to adversities. Certain external factors also play an important role in determining one’s resilience. Resilience is enhanced by:

  • Having caring and supportive family members, friends and relatives
  • Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models, and offer encouragement and reassurance
  • Supportive social structures like the society or community. For example, if the government builds educational institutions for free education of children it can - in a broader way - work towards building their resilience. 

Both internal and external factors are important for developing resilience: Resilience is a process of interaction between internal as well as external factors. Resilience develops based on an individual's internal ability to adapt, external support available and positive experiences.

Our perception is key to resilience: How we perceive an event or situation can make a world of difference. Having a positive view and confidence in your strengths and abilities contributes to resilience. 

Our ability to be resilient can change over time : Research shows that children are comparatively more resilient than adults.This is primarily because our ability to deal with stress physically and psychologically decreases with age.  However, at any given point in time, it is not possible to judge if someone (whether child or adult) is resilient or not. S/he may respond differently to different situations depending on the type, intensity and duration of adversity. 

Some people are born with resilience but everyone can develop resilience: There may be some aspects of resilience that we might be born with. For eg. some infants are more adaptable to their environments. Not all are. But research shows that it is a skill that can be learnt and all of us can become resilient irrespective of our backgrounds or the challenges that we face. (Link article on How to build resilience) 

 This article has been written based on the inputs given by Dr Poornima Bhola, associate professor of clinical psychology, NIMHANS 

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