Fall seven times, stand up eight. Japanese proverb

The word resilience conjures up many images: a child getting back on her bike after taking a tumble; an Olympian crossing the finish line with a broken leg; an elderly couple flourishing with hope and kindness, despite a lifetime of unthinkable traumas. To the naked eye, resilience involves courage and perseverance. Maybe even some luck. But science paints a picture that is all but straightforward. According to Professor Raffael Kalisch from the German Resilience Center at the University of Mainz, resilience is not a fixed personality trait that one is born with. Nor can it be captured neatly in a brain scan. Rather, it is an outcome of a dynamic process of adaptation. While a lot remains to be discovered about the processes that set in motion our resilience mechanisms, researchers like Kalisch are shedding light on how humans maintain their mental health in the face of adversity. Training resilience, it appears, has a lot to do with self-efficacy (our confidence in our abilities to handle challenges), appraisal style (the way we evaluate situations and events in our lives), and our general attitude towards life.

Here is Dr. Kalisch on resilience.

Stress affects our psychology and biology

“There are many findings indicating that people undergo changes while they are exposed to stress. We don't stay the same - not only psychologically, but also on a molecular level. Sometimes those stress responses are adaptive, and sometimes they are maladaptive. For example, there was a study on US soldiers before and after war deployment. Those who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the war showed enhanced expression of genes related to inflammation. But those who didn't develop PTSD, in other words, the resilient ones, had switched on gene networks related to wound-healing. It’s not that resilient people are simply inherently strong or insensitive to stress and thus stay the same after stress. Rather, resilience is a sign of a successful adaptation.”

Resilience can be trained

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Source: CC0/Pixabay

“While we need to know much more about the processes to really understand the mechanisms of acquiring resilience, you can learn to habitually appraise things from different, more optimistic perspectives. That is, you can learn to avoid overestimating the probability of negative outcomes. You can learn self-efficacy, which means you can appraise challenging situations as challenging - but not as a threat, because you know you can do something about them. Safety learning or extinction learning, for example, is also very important. If you have learned that something is dangerous, you begin to associate those stimuli with your traumatization (e.g. fireworks that sound like war noise). But when you are no longer in that situation, you learn that those stimuli don't predict danger anymore (fireworks are just fireworks). You start to extinguish your fears by learning that the stimuli are now safe. In other words, you exchange negative appraisals by more positive ones. This helps prevent the development of PTSD. This is also what we do in behavioral therapy when working with patients with PTSD. If you are good in identifying periods of safety in your life when you don't have to be stressed, you can avoid wasting your resources and use this time for replenishing them and building your relationships.”

Fine-tune your stress responses

“You need stress responses. They are necessary because they help you survive. But they need to be optimally regulated. If you experience too many unnecessary stress reactions, then your likelihood of getting a stress-related disorder is relatively high. Fine-tune your stress responses to an optimal level. Safety learning and extinction are ways to regulate stress responses, because you restrict your stress responses to those stimuli that are actually predictive of threat. If a stimulus no longer predicts threat, there is no point in being stressed.”

It’s what you make of a situation

“Let’s think about how the stress reaction comes about. You have a stimulus that may or may not be threatening. On the other end, you have the stress response. In between those two events, there is a gap where you can interpret things. It’s always what your mind makes of a situation, not the situation itself. One key to optimal stress responding is in how you appraise situations. For an optimal stress response, try turning down your overly negative appraisals where you overestimate the threat or catastrophize about the negative impact of the stress response itself.”

Be realistic and optimistic

“You need experiences with overcoming challenges to develop a realistic and a mildly optimistic (not negative) appraisal style, i.e. a positive appraisal style. That’s when after going through difficulties, you realize that things turned out a little better than you might have presumed. If, in addition, you have a generally positive outlook in life, a “say-yes-to-life” attitude, going out there and making experiences is probably the best recipe for protection against future hardships.”

One way to learn resilience?

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Source: CC0/Pixabay

“Live! Experience life. Develop courage and your own perspective, not necessarily following the prescribed ways of your culture, social environment or your past. If you go through life thinking there is no hope, and that things and humans are bad, then that would be difficult. But if you are open-minded, positive and curious, then you can develop your own resilience strategies.”

Look for meaning

“We humans are always in search of meaning. That’s what gives us motivation and something to live for. Meaning transcends us and our own lives. If you have a positive perspective and see meaning in life, then you can view many things that distress others in a positive light. In this way, meaning is like a defense, because it can help you create positive appraisals and to produce stress responses that are optimal.”

Write your own self-help book

“Resilience is something extremely individual. It’s fascinating to talk to people who have gone through very difficult times and have remained positive and mentally healthy. They often did not have a therapist, yet somehow, by themselves, they figured out coping strategies that worked for them. They stayed open to influences from other people, literature and philosophy. Then at the right moment, an idea or an inspiration came into their life, helping them to switch to a new perspective. I think an effective way to develop your own strategies, habits and style of resilience – even more than reading self-help books – is adapting a positive philosophy and going through life with courage and creativity.”

Many thanks to Raffael Kalisch for being generous with his time and insights. Dr. Kalisch is the group leader at The Mainz Resilience Project (www.marp-studie.de), a Professor of Human Neuroimaging at Johannes Gutenberg University Medical Center Mainz, Germany, where he heads the Neuroimaging Center, and is the deputy spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center CRC1193 “Neurobiology of Resilience,” funded by the German Research Foundation.

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