One of the goals of this blog is to discuss psychological principles that will help improve your resilience, an important personal strength, that we all possess at some level. There have also been several iconic examples of the power and importance of resilience in overcoming extreme adversity in recent years. Here I wanted to address some various topics related to improving resilience.
Resilience can be thought of as the ability to buffer yourself both mentally and physically from a variety of stressful life events and circumstances with your own personal attitudes, beliefs, and skills as well as the various interpersonal resources you have such as family and friends.
Some resilience is probably biologically based whereas other resilience strengths are developed throughout life in the skills, beliefs, and values that are learned. Resilience is needed not only to cope with serious life events (even traumatic experiences), but also the ordinary challenges we face on a regular basis. In essence, resilience can be thought of an essential life skill that helps minimize our vulnerability to stressful demands and also helps us maintain persistence in meeting our goals and priorities throughout life. Resilience, once developed, is there regardless of whatever type of challenges occur in the future.
Some authors relate resilience in successful adults to factors such as positive relationships with others, contentment in lifetime roles (for example, as a mother, father, or coworker), and a general feeling of optimism. Resilience is needed whether or not you have experienced great adversity/trauma since we all encounter some degree of stress and challenge in everyday life. Building resilience is protective at other times in life when we are challenged beyond normal limits.
THE NATURE OF RESILIENCE
Resilience is not an all-or-none characteristic, but comes in many degrees of competence. Because there are so many factors that influence our resilience, we have to separate some factors that we do not have any control over in our lives and other factors over which we do have some control. Some of the biggest factors over which we have no control are the qualities, personalities, and behavior of the adults in our early lives. For example, research on children and adults consistently finds that children who have had nurturing parents or other adult figures in their life (including grandparents, coaches, teachers, spiritual leaders, etc.) will have more resilience just due to the behavior of these other people throughout life. The main point here is that children have no control over whether their parent(s) or others will be nurturing, negligent, or even abusive.
Other factors which are not under a child or adolescent’s control that can influence resilience can include things such as financial stability at home, structure and support from immediate and extended family members, and good opportunities for success in school, sports, or other activities. Fortunately, even if we were not lucky enough to be in a nurturing and supportive childhood environment, this does not mean that we will not be able to develop resilience in other ways.
Research cited by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, one of the most respected authorities on this topic, has described in various works that 50-65% of children with severe childhood neglect and negativity eventually do become resilient adults.
ARE THERE LIMITS TO RESILIENCE?
- There are many well-known cases of resilience in recent years and probably thousands that never receive any notoriety. One well known example is the story of the young girl Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teen and activist for female education, who survived a traumatic injury when shot in the head by Taliban extremists. She survived after extensive medical treatment to became an international icon of resilience and continued her work on making education available to girls and women. She became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
- Another well-known example of resilience is entertainer Trevor Noah who was born to inter-racial parents in South Africa where this was against the law at that time. Trevor literally had to be “hidden” in various situations to be protected legally. He also survived severe bullying by his classmates as a child. Later, as a young man Trevor became a successful stand-up comedian, and he eventually was chosen to be the host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central.
- Alonzo “Zo” Mourning, a favorite star of the Miami Heat basketball team, published his book aptly titled Resilience. Here he summarized his struggle as a child to challenge his biological parents in court in order to live with a foster family where he was fortunate to have a loving motherly figure in his life. There he succeeded in both school and sports. He received his college degree where he was a standout basketball player which led to the NBA. Later, as a professional basketball player he faced another major life challenge. He had a life-threatening illness that could only be treated with a kidney transplant from which he not only survived but thrived. Zo was part of the 2006 NBA Championship Team with the Miami Heat and he was eventually inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
These are extraordinary stories of well-known individuals who overcame major adverse childhood experiences. Most of us are also familiar with others who are symbols of resilience as adult survivors such a Senator John McCain’s recovery after years being tortured as a POW and Nelson Mandela who became President of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid efforts. Resilience does not eliminate all of the negative effects and grief after traumatic events, but it does provide short and long term buffers that help in the psychological healing process.
The reason these dramatic stories are mentioned is not that we all need to demonstrate such phenomenal feats of recovery to be successful in life with our level of resilience. However, each of us will have our own non-traumatic stressors, problems, and challenges in life that cannot be avoided. Our goal is to develop resilience in meeting these “normal” challenges such that we can help insure growth in our own personal stories of success. Normal challenges provide the true opportunities to develop and enhance our resilience to be better prepared should we encounter more significant life events.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO ENHANCE RESILIENCE?
There are a number of coping skills, life style patterns, and psychological attitudes that will improve your resilience regardless of what your current level might be. Unlike some factors discussed above, these are within your control if you are motivated to improve your resilience and overall ability to cope with life’s demands. These skills include basics like:
- improved self-awareness,
- the ability to regulate your physical and emotional distress,
- how to think rationally when faced with various stressful events, and
- how to be proactive and creative in your problem solving.
In addition, improvements in your self-confidence, self-esteem, expressions of gratitude, and assertiveness can all improve resilience in various ways.
In summary, in spite of your early experiences, working on resilience can enhance several aspects of your life and provide a healthy protective buffer from everyday stress as well as from any major and challenging life events that could occur. Although we cannot be perfectly resilient to all of life stressors, we can be better prepared if we improve our skills now before any major events hit us. The iCope books attempt to teach the core skills to enhance resilience in various ways. Be patient and persistent in learning these skills since the payoff can be quite important throughout life. Our hope is that by changing what is within your control and accepting other things in life that you cannot change from the past or present, you will achieve a number of positive outcomes that adults with high resilience share.
Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.