Resilience: Falling Down And Rising Higher
11 Minutos de Leitura
“ I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.”
- George Patton
I was talking to a resilience trainer a few days ago and we were sharing ideas about psychology and the challenges we all face.
He said: adversity knocks on everyone’s door, it’s not a matter of possibility, it’s a matter of what and when. No one has a hardship free life, whether it’s a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one, a divorce, unemployment or whatever else it is life throws us.
Most of us have imagined scenarios in our minds of sitting in our doctor’s office being told we have some sort of terminal illness and wondering how we would react to it. Would we succumb to the diagnosis or would become one of those stories of tremendous courage and hope?
One of the things we as humans are fascinated about is this ability of some people to face insurmountable challenges and not only overcome them but use them as stepping stones for tremendous growth.
Are they endowed with higher levels of resilience?
What Is Resilience?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after significant adversity. It’s about being able to respond in healthy and productive ways to a major stressor, trauma, tragedy or the daily stresses of life.
It’s exemplified in kids who grew up in the most impoverished conditions with everything against them and went on to live healthy, productive lives.
Why do some kids become hopeless and falter while others endure the most difficult environments and turn their lives around? What is it about those kids that keep them going?
Even though not everyone has a story worthy of a Hollywood movie, everyone comes face to face with problems, struggles, and hassles, so the need for resilience is ubiquitous. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when we’ll need it.
Where Does It Come From?
Resilience is a product of a dynamic interaction of genetics and environment, a play between our internal and external worlds. Resilience is often determined by childhood experiences. Factors like low birth weight, childhood poverty, divorce and physical abuse will undoubtedly tax a child’s resilience and in themselves can never be reversed, only dealt with.
The internal factors are the ways in which people think about themselves, others and the world. It’s what we call thinking styles. And children will pick up the way their caregivers explain and handle difficulties and will be influenced by that reference throughout their lives.
Research shows that these childhood circumstances influence a person’s resilience well into adulthood because they fundamentally shape the child’s belief system and ability.
Some people, take months, sometimes years to get back on their feet after a major setback. And a lot of the early research on resilience focused on studying these cases.
Aaron Beck is a psychiatrist and is widely regarded as the father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which is based on the premise that how we think, how we feel and how we act all interact together and particularly, that how we think determines how we feel and act.
According to the cognitive approach, errors in cognitions about ourselves, others and the world are at the heart of dysfunction. Beck proposed a model termed the cognitive triad that helps understand depression.
The cognitive triad involves 3 forms of negative thinking, typical in individuals with depression:
- Negative view of self
- Negative view of the world
- Negative view of the future
These thoughts tend to be automatic, occur spontaneously and interfere with the way people interact with the world, affecting perception, memory, and problem solving, leading people in obsessive spirals of catastrophic thinking.
Albert Ellis is the psychologist behind Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy (REBT), which works at changing irrational beliefs to more rational ones.
Ellis offered that we all have unique views about ourselves and the world and that these guide our behaviors and how we respond to the situations we come across.
In some cases, these beliefs are largely irrational and guide people away from their goals and any chance of success or happiness.
A lot of the research around resilience shows that the biggest obstacle to steering through difficult times is in fact, our thinking style. The way in which we perceive the world and interpret different situations.
We believe we see the world as it is, when in fact, we perceive it through our own unique lens and then use that filter to interpret whatever happens. We want to believe we’re simply observing reality as it is, we’re not. We’re perceiving it through our own biases.
When we face adversity, we resort to automatic shortcuts to make sense of what’s happening. Sometimes these shortcuts help us cut through all the information. More often, they lead us astray and into self-defeating patterns.
And developing resilience is mostly about understanding our own biases and learning skills that enable us to see the real causes of adversity and its effects.
The Ultimate Ingredient
“We know that as people start to build a track record of small successes by solving problems, self-efficacy follows naturally.”
- Karen Reivich, Andrew Shatté
Studies show that the most important factor in overcoming chronic stress is self-efficacy, which is the belief that you can respond effectively to whatever situations you’re faced with and master your environment.
People high in self-efficacy commit and persist longer to solving their problems. They’re more likely to come up with creative solutions until they find a suitable answer. And in solving their problems their sense of self-efficacy is enhanced. Which in turn, increases their chances of bouncing back next time adversity comes knocking on their door.
On the other hand, people who doubt their ability to handle the hurdles of life interpret any difficulty as proof of their lack of skill, causing them to give up too soon or to falter in the pursuit of solutions, thus proving their belief right. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The most resilient people in the face of trauma, exhibit 3 characteristics that act as a shield against psychological disorders:
- A task-oriented coping style: taking incremental steps to solve their problems
- A belief in their ability to influence the outcomes of their lives
- An ability to reach for social support in times of need
Resilience Aid Kit
So what other factors come into play when it comes to resilience?
George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist who’s been studying resilience for nearly 25 years, he’s been trying to understand why some people are better at coping with adversity than others.
His starting point was this observation: we all have the same fundamental stress response system that evolved over millions of years and that we share with other animals. Most people are pretty good at using this system to deal with stress. But when it comes to resilience, why are some people able to use this system more often or more effectively?
He found perception plays a key role. Whether people perceived the event as a traumatic experience or an opportunity to learn and grow influenced how they responded to it. The experience of the event is inextricably tied to our perception of it.
“Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.”
- George Bonanno
Even something as devastating as the death of a loved one can trigger sadness and grief but also the opportunity to build meaning around that event and maybe deepen relationships in the family.
2. Internal locus of control
Emmy Werner is a developmental psychologist who followed a group of 198 children from Hawaii over a 32-year longitudinal study, monitoring them for any adversity they faced: stress in utero, poverty, family problems, etc.
Most of the children came from stable backgrounds, however, one-third was at risk. Between those, not all of them coped with difficulty in the same ways. Two-thirds developed behavior problems, but one-third actually turned out to be healthy, competent and caring adults. What guided those children in a healthy trajectory?
She found several elements influenced their development. Luck played a part, some children were lucky enough to rely on a stable and supportive caregiver like a teacher or a mentor.
But a large set of elements was psychological. The resilient children had an internal locus of control: they believed that their actions played the major part in how their lives unfolded. “They believed that they, not their circumstances, affected their achievements.”
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, studied helplessness before he turned towards the positive aspects of life. And found that different explanatory styles lead to a different set of behaviors.
When confronted with bad events some people perceive them as their own fault (bad events are my fault). They have an internal explanatory style, while others in the same circumstances might experience difficult emotions but don’t take on the fault of the event to themselves (bad events are not my fault), they display an external explanatory style.
Some people generalize the events as a sign that everything is falling apart, while others limit the event to a specific area of their lives (general vs specific). Some people perceive the difficulty as a temporary circumstance and others view it as a permanent source of distress (temporary vs permanent).
It’s not to say that some events aren’t indeed difficult and stressful, however, our minds have this extraordinary capacity of either exaggerating the difficulty or turning it into an opportunity for growth.
"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist that survived a concentration camp and founded meaning therapy subsequently. Frankl describes the moment he was working on the camp, worried about whether he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup.
He realized how trivial his life had become and that in order to survive he needed a compelling purpose.
So he created goals for himself and imagined life after the concentration camp, giving lectures and using his experience to provide hope and meaning to others experiencing adversities.
Building meaning helps people make sense of their difficult experiences and helps endure even the most adverse circumstances.
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”
- Viktor Frankl
Dr. Gregg Steinberg explains it's possible to fall up in life and to use adversity to recreate a life with greater meaning.
4. Social Support
One of the factors that contributes to resilience is social support. Children who grew up in dysfunctional families but were lucky enough to find someone to provide a stable source of support and affection developed into healthy, productive adults.
Good relationships and strong social support systems are very important. Social support acts as a shielding factor that reduces the psychological discomfort that follows trauma and helps people bounce back. Being able to ask and accept help in times of need is a strength resilient people draw into.
Less resilient people have a harder time reaching out to others and asking for help. Sometimes it’s because they lack the intimate connections or because they’re uncomfortable with the vulnerability that is required to share emotions and reactions. But this lack of connection hinders recovery, while connection helps you heal.
Wrapping It Up
The thing about resilience is that you never really know how resilient you are until life tests you. And even though, genetics play a role, a lot of the factors that determine our resilience levels can be learned and developed.
Life is full of challenges and we all have different roles we take on. The demands are higher than ever, so are our stress levels. Even if we’re lucky enough to never face a major trauma, the hurdles of modern life pose enough reasons not to overlook resilience. One way or another, we’re all going to need it one day, if we haven’t so already.
We've seen how our mental traps can lead us down helplessness and depression. But even people who aren't going down that road have thinking habits they'd like to change. Habits that take away their focus and ability to steer their lives towards their goals. Habits that, when push comes to shove, can determine how we respond to a curveball.
Amy Morin shares her deeply moving story and how becoming mentally strong is about changing unhealthy habits. Because we all need to become mentally stronger.
A.P.A. The Road To Resilience. Retrieved here.
Harvard Business Review (2002). How Resilience Works. Retrieved here.
Reivich, Karen and Andrew Shatte? (2003). The Resilience Factor. Three Rivers Press.
Tsui, Bonnie et al. How People Learn To Become Resilient. The New Yorker. Retrieved here.