- The concept of psychological body armor suggests that we can prepare ourselves to cope more effectively with the hard things in life.
- People may cultivate and build their psychological body armor to prepare for adversity, trauma, and life’s challenges.
- Effective psychological body armor sets the occasion for an adaptive response to adversity rather than a pathological response.
“Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to French scientist Jean Baptiste Le Roy in November of 1789.1
This still rings true, some 234 years later. I would add a third inevitable feature of life. In addition to death and taxes, everyone faces personal adversity and significant challenges at various points in their lives. The sad truth is one cannot escape death. But the other two life certainties may be mitigated, at least to an extent.
Smart investments and handling of income and wealth can minimize the tax burden. The psychological and emotional toll of adversity, trauma, and challenge may also be mitigated. In a recent book, psychologist Patrick Sweeney and colleagues describe the concept of psychological body armor.2 Psychological body armor comprises those personal skills and attributes that allow us to deal effectively with daily struggles and significant life challenges. Just as soldiers wear helmets and protective gear to protect against physical injury, the concept of psychological body armor suggests that we can prepare ourselves to cope more effectively with the hard things in life.
While adversity may be inevitable, how we respond to it depends on many factors. Psychologists have identified four trajectories in response to adversity. These are disorder, invulnerability, resilience, and growth. Disorder is defined as a decrease in functioning following adversity. Invulnerability occurs when functioning does not change because of adversity. Resilience refers to a temporary decrease in functioning followed by a return to baseline. And growth occurs when, following a temporary decrease in functioning, the person recovers not just to baseline but experiences an improvement in overall adjustment and well-being.3
Which of these four trajectories follow trauma and adversity depends very much on what Sweeney and his colleagues call psychological body armor. Psychological body armor consists of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that enable a person to react in an adaptive way to adversity. A good example is the psychological trait of hardiness. Hardiness is a psychological attribute associated with adaptive responses to stress, trauma, and adversity. Hardiness has three components, commonly referred to as the three C's—challenge, commitment, and control.
Challenge refers to how a person frames adversity. Instead of viewing it as a threat to personal well-being, they see it as a chance to demonstrate personal competence and learn new skills while overcoming that threat. Commitment refers to the ability to stick to one’s goals and ambitions regardless of current circumstances, not giving up easily, and persisting with high effort despite setbacks. Finally, control refers to the person's sense of agency in dealing with life events.
People who believe that their actions determine the outcome of events fare better psychologically than those who believe they have no control over their lives. Over 40 years of research have demonstrated that high hardiness is associated with various positive life outcomes.4
Another piece of psychological body armor is grit. Grit refers to the passionate pursuit of long-term goals. Early grit research focused on its relationship to achieving success in difficult tasks. For example, West Point cadets high in grit are more likely to complete cadet basic training, make higher academic grades, perform better physically and in military training, and graduate from West Point four years after entering than their less gritty counterparts.5
Emerging evidence suggests that grit may also play a key role in resilience and adaptability. Gritty people push through setbacks, do not give up easily, and therefore position themselves to achieve important and valued goals. Achieving important goals provides and reinforces self-esteem and confidence. This cycles back and fuels efforts to achieve new goals and objectives. This “virtuous cycle” builds meaning and purpose in a person’s life. Meaning and purpose are associated with positive life outcomes and adaptations.6
Identifying your unique character strengths and learning how to apply them to achieve difficult goals or to remain resilient also contributes to which of the four trajectories may ensue following adversity, trauma, or challenge. Peterson and Seligman identified 24 distinct character strengths, which they classify into one of six moral virtues—wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence. Everyone has a unique hierarchy of character strengths, ranging from their strongest to their weakest. Identifying one’s highest five or six character strengths and then learning to use them to deal with life challenges intentionally has been associated with lower depression and higher well-being.7
Effective psychological body armor includes the ability to match specific character strengths to specific situations. This is analogous to a toolbox. A toolbox contains a variety of implements necessary to complete diverse types of tasks. A toolbox containing only a hammer would be of little use. Similarly, people who learn to view the 24 character strengths as different tools appropriate to different situations respond more adaptively to whatever challenge may present itself. While many people may rely primarily on their five or six highest character strengths, there may be circumstances in life where strengths that are lower on one’s hierarchy rise in importance.
For example, a scientist might rely on character strengths of curiosity, love of learning, and perspective in their work. At home, this same scientist might learn to focus more on the strengths of humanity and temperance. And in response to existential crises, strengths from the moral virtue of transcendence, such as spirituality, may dominate. Thus, the person who learns to employ their full range of character strengths rather than relying on just one or two is poised to respond with an adaptive trajectory following adversity.
I do not mean to imply that people who experience pathology in response to adversity are weak or responsible for their fate. Sometimes, the circumstances are too daunting in life, and the challenges appear insurmountable. Following significant adversity or trauma, people who experience the pathology trajectory should seek psychological assistance. But well-being is more than the absence of pathology. Therefore, in addition to traditional therapy, training on enhancing psychological body armor may help the person return to baseline functioning and, perhaps, provide an opportunity for personal growth.
Those who lead others in dangerous situations where adversity is common have a responsibility to provide training programs to build psychological body armor among their followers. They can do this through formal training programs, mentoring, and modeling hardiness, grit, and character strengths. They should also build and maintain a positive organizational climate. Moreover, leaders should encourage and enable good physical fitness, adequate sleep, and good nutritional habits to build overall well-being. Combined with psychological body armor, these attributes may help prepare members of the organization to respond with an adaptive trajectory to adversity.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
1. National Constitution Center (November 13, 2022; blog post), Benjamin Franklin’s last great quote and the Constitution. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/benjamin-franklins-last-great-quote…
2. Sweeney, P. J., Matthews, M. D., Lester, P. B., Hannah, S., & Reed, B. (Eds). (2022). Leadership in dangerous situations: A handbook for the armed forces, emergency services, and first responders (2nd ed). Naval Institute Press.
3. Caslen, R. L., Jr., & Matthews, M. D. (2020). The character edge: Leading and winning with integrity. St. Martin's Press, p. 219.
4. Stein, S. J., & Bartone, P. T. (2020). Hardiness: Making stress work for you to achieve your life goals. Wiley.
5. Duckworth, A. L., Quirk, A., Gallop, R., Hoyle, R. H., Kelly, D. R., & Matthews, M. D. (2019). Cognitive and noncognitive predictors of success. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(47), 23499–23504. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910510116
6. Erbe, R, Fredrick, R., Kalkstein, Y., Matthews, M. D., Strauchler, O., & Wetzler, E. (forthcoming). The role of grit in achievement and resilience: A comprehensive review in R. M. Lerner & M. D. Matthews (Eds.), Multidisciplinary Handbook of Character Development (Vol 2). Routledge.
7. Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410