Resilience is a dynamic process of continuing to pursue your core objective by positive behavioral adaptations in the face of stress, threats, and adversity. This is my definition. You’ll find many other definitions online. Zolli and Healy published a book this year called, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. They define resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”
Why do we care about resilience? I’m in the medical field. Thirty to fifty percent of physicians experience burnout. Resilience combats emotional exhaustion and negative job stress—main factors predicting burnout. Resilience also applies to children growing up in stressful and abusive homes, dealing with the loss of a loved one, facing life again after a natural disaster—hurricane, flood, tornado, or coping with the dire results of an illness, accident, or terrorist attack.
While some challenges are greater than others, we are all faced with stresses, changes in circumstances and adversities; car breaks down, loved one dies, job loss, financial issues, illness, didn’t get that client, going through a divorce, etc. Why is it that some people seem to take more things in stride remaining calm during adversity; untoward events rolls off of them like water on a duck, while others decompensate; are stopped in their tracks, and suffer long-term ill effects?
Resilient people cope well, recover and may actually benefit from stressful challenges. Those with low resilience become overwhelmed—dwell on problems and utilize unhealthy coping mechanisms—incurring setbacks and negative consequences of dis-stress.
Resilience does not change external stressors. It allows us to move on despite real or apparent difficulties. Resilience allows us to look at stressors as a healthy challenge rather as an immobilizing threat. Viewing potentially deleterious situations and events as challenges versus threats is a main differentiator of our ability to function optimally and flourish or decompensate and languish during stressful times.
So why do some bounce back quickly? Is this a genetic trait or can anyone learn to do this?
Resilient people tend to be more self-confident and intelligent. They take more risks, have a stronger desire to learn, and focus more on personal excellence and academic achievement. Realize that these are associations, not necessarily cause and effect. Whether having these traits allows people to become more resilient or being resilient results in people gaining these beneficial qualities is not known. Resilient people are better able to identify and access social, psychological, and physical resources that help sustain their well-being.
While there is a genetic component to resilience, it is also a trait and skill set that can be learned and cultivated. Resilience research by sociologist Dr. Emmy Werner showed that about one-third of kids do not seem to be affected by poverty, alcoholism, and abuse in their homes. Of the remaining two-thirds, many become troubled teens, but by their 30’s and 40’s, they straighten out their lives.
When Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement performed his original studies on dogs not being able to complete a task successfully, they found that the majority of the dogs stopped trying to save themselves from getting an electric shock, they learned that attempts to do this were futile—Learned Helplessness. Now, many years later we’re trying to understand what it is about the “other” dogs in the original studies that continued to try new methods and did not give up—the resilient ones. Peter Schulman in the Journal of Selling and Sales Management showed that optimistic insurance sales people sold 35% more than pessimists and that pessimists were twice as likely to quit in the first year as compared to optimists. Dr. Seligman has been on the forefront of teaching people how to become more optimistic. Just as we learn to be helpless in certain situations of repeated failure, we can also learn to be optimistic when faced with adversity.
There are a multitude of studies showing certain traits and behaviors that correlate with resilience. While there are some common abilities and skills that generally determine resilience, it is also dependent on both the person and the situation. Resilience toward illness will require some different cognitive and behavioral strategies than will resilience during an unwanted divorce or during a terrorist attack. Dr. Seligman suggests a PERMA model—Positive Emotions, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments. The American Psychological Association has suggested “10 Ways to Build Resilience” including maintaining hope, developing self-confidence, and taking decisive actions. Still others have offered that resilience lies in being aware of a situation, recognizing that setbacks are part of life, identifying as a survivor rather than a victim, embracing change, nurturing yourself, taking time to problem solve, and working on your personal skills.
Based on extensive readings of the resilience literature and my own personal research, I have developed a list—Farber’s Fifteen Steps to Resilience: Teflon Training 101. Tune in next article for the list.
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