Psychological Resilience. Can it be developed?

Theory and science of psychological resilience

2 min read

Firstly, a few things that resilience is not.

It is not about having a solution to every problem.

It is not about always being ok / always being happy / always being calm.

It is not the absence of fear / anger / this weird emotion that we don't have a name for, but it sure is irritating.

It is not about knowing what to do and doing it straight away.

It is not endurance and the ability to push through.

It is not about being prepared.

Most of us navigate life effectively. We handle everyday irritations, manage our emotions adeptly, and maintain relationships. By and large, we lead fulfilling lives. However, life has a way of presenting unexpected and, at times, immensely challenging situations. Maybe the coronavirus pandemic was the first significant upheaval in your life, or perhaps you've weathered personal storms in the past. Regardless, it's beneficial to examine your coping strategies and determine your level of resilience. While we can't eliminate stress entirely, we can certainly enhance our ability to cope.

Resilience can be characterized as the capability to adaptively confront adversity - to "bend but not break". Some experts delve deeper, positing that resilience isn't just about surviving but also thriving during tough times. This perspective underscores the idea that we're not merely passive recipients of external events; rather, their impact on us hinges on our interaction with them.

May I stress that coping is a dynamic process? As circumstances change, we refine our responses. This iterative approach provides an opportunity to grasp the issue more profoundly and adjust accordingly. We experiment to discern effective strategies. Is your go-to response to challenges seeking control? That's commendable, but it won't always suffice. Effective coping entails recognizing the specific demands of a situation and then mustering a uniquely tailored, and often creative, response. My online Resilience course dedicates a full session to psychological flexibility, a trait I've dubbed "the holy grail of psychology". This adaptability in coping strategies is pivotal for navigating novel, unpredictable challenges.

Emotions play a crucial role in this journey. While many definitions link resilience to the ability to sidestep intense psychological turmoil after severe stress, suggesting resilience equates to the absence of reactions that could disrupt our mental equilibrium, I find this perspective somewhat limiting. Occasionally, we encounter these "pathological" states, like episodes of post-traumatic stress, acute anxiety, or depressive symptoms. I concur with experts who argue that these challenging mental phases can be integral to the coping process, allowing for adaptive responses.

Studies indicate that acceptance is a robust predictor of resilience. Emotions are natural; feelings like fear and sadness are innate reactions to adversity. In my view, resilience doesn't originate from these automatic emotional reflexes – they are as involuntary as a knee-jerk reaction. True resilience is cultivated when we introspectively assess our emotions. Do we acknowledge them? Suppress them? Glean insights from them? Do we employ them as informative cues?

While our genes influence our stress responses to some extent, there's ample room for learning and growth. Even if we don't flourish as a direct result of a crisis, like the recent pandemic, it presents an invaluable opportunity to introspectively understand our reactions.