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Learning to be Resilient

Does surviving traumatic situations make people stronger?

Does surviving traumatic situations make people stronger? A recent research study investigating suicide rates following the L’Aquila earthquake that struck central Italy in 2009 actually showed a lower number of suicides in the years that followed. Though most people are going to encounter a major traumatic experience at least once in their lives and we are all bombarded by daily “hassles” on a regular basis, how we respond to stress can vary widely. Even in extremely negative situations involving poverty, physical and verbal abuse, and parental mental illness, there are still going to be children who somehow manage to cope and even thrive successfully. Early research looking at protective factors that allow some people to cope better than others have identified a key quality in these cases that has been labeled psychological resilience.

While researchers have agreed on a common label, the various definitions of resilience have been very different. A review of resilience research published recently in European Psychologist lists as many as nine different definitions given by researchers looking at resilience including: “The process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances’’, “The personal qualities that enables one to thrive in the face of adversity’’, and “The capacity of individuals to cope successfully with significant change, adversity or risk’’.

According to the review authors, David Fletcher of Loxborough University and Mustafa Sarkar of Middlesex University, the different definitions of resilience have caused problems for researchers since they makes it difficult to tell whether they are measuring the same thing. Most definitions view resilience as a positive adaptation to adversity, whether it affects individuals, organizations, or entire communities. Adversity itself is hard to define since it can include any kind of hardship or suffering, or just the daily stress we all experience. Even happy situations such as the birth of a child can call for resilience due to the stress involved in adapting to the new role as a parent and coping with the added demands involved.

Along defining resilience, there is also debate over whether it involves specific personality traits or as a process people use to overcome stressful situations. Some traits linked to resilience include good self-esteem, good planning skills, easy temperament, a strong support network inside and outside the family, and mental flexibility. All of these traits define a core personality that has been labelled “ego resilience”. People with high ego resilience can be identified by their optimism, curiosity and the ability to conceptualize problems.

The factors associated with resilience are usually classified as protective factors that help insulate people from adverse situations and promotive factors that actually make people better able to cope with adverse situations in future. There are different levels of resilience and it is best seen as something that can develop over time based on level of exposure to traumatic situations.

Along with identifying the personality traits associated with being resilient, researchers have also started looking at the process by which resilience developments and the different coping strategies used to handle stress. For many people, dealing with stress often requires a certain amount of trial and error with different ways of coping to handing the mental agitation resulting from extremely stressful situations.

A theoretical model of resilience developed by review author David Fletcher is the meta-model of stress, emotions and performance. Essentially, the model views stressors as being part of the environment a person operates in which is then mediated by how people perceive, appraise and cope with stress. How people respond to stress can be either positive or negative in terms of emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Moderating factors that can how we respond are all associated with resilience and can act at different stages in the process. Not only does resilience help people regard stress in a positive way, it can also affect how they appraise the level of risk involved, decide on the proper way of responding, and cope effectively afterward.

Researchers have long established that successful coping strategies are essential in surviving traumatic experiences. In one study of female survivors of childhood sexual abuse, various coping strategies such as self-talk and writing about stressful experiences can help recovery. But Fletcher and his colleagues argue that successful coping is not the same as resilience. Though the distinction is controversial, resilience acts to protect people from developing the traumatic symptoms that can result from extremely dangerous experiences. So resilience affects how a traumatic event is appraised and the way people respond while coping deals only with what happens after the traumatic event occurs.

Fletcher suggests that resilient people can view a stressful situation as a positive learning experience which can make them stronger in the long run. Though not all experiences can be viewed this way, positive appraisal can be important in shaping how extreme stress can affect the mind and body. It’s also important to remember that resilience is not absolute; it can grow and change over time. People can become more or less vulnerable to stress depending on their changing life circumstances.

For that reason, coming up with a single theory of resilience that fits people of all shapes and sizes has been difficult. One popular theory, developed by Glenn Richardson and his colleagues at the University of Utah, combines theoretical ideas from psychology, medicine and physics. Along with recognizing the importance of protective factors and positive coping strategies, Richardson’s model identifies a specific “comfort zone” in which people are most productive. Because of homeostasis, people in their comfort zone are in balance with themselves and their environment. Once that balance is disrupted, restoring that balance often depends on the cognitive resources people have available (and the protective factors that control the extent of the imbalance). The process of restoring balance can lead to four possible outcomes:

  • Resilient reintegration – where disruption leads to stronger protective factors and individuals being more well-balanced than ever
  • Homeostatic reintegration- where individuals “just get over” the disruption with no real change in protective factors or balance
  • Reintegration with loss – where individuals regain their balance but with reduced protective factors and greater vulnerability to further imbalance
  • Dysfunctional reintegration - remaining imbalanced and relying on destructive coping strategies such as substance abuse to deal with the stress of imbalance

Though this model is likely limited in terms of how people handle multiple stressors (often at the same time), it has been useful in health and sport psychology to predict how people deal with stress. Also, the model tends to focus more on successful coping rather than the protective factors that can influence the process of being resilient.

While studying psychological resilience has important implications for health policies and developing new treatment approaches for people recovering from trauma, there is still a lot that we still need to learn about how resilience develops. One of the most important things to remember about resilience is how unexpected it can be. Trauma researchers looking at people raised in extremely negative environments, whether disaster victims or victims of childhood abuse, often expect trauma to have only a negative effect. Their actual findings however, have often shown the opposite with victims of abuse emerging even stronger than people with no similar history of trauma. Models of stress inoculation suggest that moderate levels of adversity can force people to draw on inner resources, form social support networks and prepare themselves to deal with future stressful events successfully.

Can people be trained to develop psychological resilience? Community-based health programs focusing on public education, stress inoculation, and skill development can help vulnerable members of the community develop the protective and promotive factors that can make them more resilient in crises. The American Psychological Association’s resilience education initiative has focused on the key role that psychologists can play in encouraging resilience in their own communities. That can include training workshops to teach cognitive appraisal and stress management techniques such as defusing catastrophic thinking, dealing with counterproductive beliefs, cognitive problem solving, developing social support networks, and enhanced coping strategies.

Though no amount of preparation can ensure you can survive any adverse situation that comes your way, learning to be more resilient can represent one of the best ways to deal with potential disasters that you or your family can face. Think of it as an investment in the future…

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