What Makes Us Resilient?

New research explores the psychology of resilience

Posted Apr 10, 2018

Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive. —Jamais Cascio

What is does it mean to be resilient?

Mental health professionals working with trauma victims have long recognized that many people exposed to horrific experiences often seem able to cope successfully and even thrive afterward. Whether those experiences occur due to an abusive childhood, dealing with the traumatic aftermath of physical or sexual assault, or recovering from a disaster (man-made or natural), many survivors are still able to move on with the lives without developing the mental health problems often faced by others.

This ability to cope with adversity, often referred to as psychological resilience, has been examined in hundreds of research studies though we still have a limited understanding of what makes some people more resilient than others. Even identifying resilient people can be a problem since they often don’t develop the mental health problems that might otherwise bring them to the attention of health professionals. But is there more to resilience than simply not developing mental health problems? What about the people who are able to grow and flourish because of their ability to cope effectively with what they have experienced?    

According to the resilience portfolio model proposed by John Grych of Marquette University, resilience has three primary components:

  • Self-regulation, or the ability to control impulses, manage difficult emotions, and being able to carry on despite setbacks. As one example of this, research looking at children with a history of domestic violence has shown better outcomes in children depending on their capacity for emotional self-regulation. Self-regulation also seems related to personality factors such as perseverance or grit.
  • Interpersonal relationships, particularly the supportive relationships that can come from family or friends. This also includes those qualities that help people maintain these relationships, even during times of personal crisis. Social support has long been recognized as an important protective factor for people dealing with traumatic life events or emotional distress. For people without this kind of support, loneliness can often contribute to the emotional aftermath of trauma and make recovery that much more difficult. Interpersonal support can also come from being part of a caring community.
  • Meaning-making, or the ability to understand and to explain what someone is experiencing, no matter how traumatic. For people who are spiritual or religious, the meaning they find often reflects their beliefs about religion or a higher power but can also involve finding new purpose or hope as part of the process of recovery.

In the same way that a traumatic event is not going to affect everyone equally, people are going to differ in terms of the qualities that make them resilient. According to the resilience portfolio model, people need a range of different strengths to survive and prosper after adversity. Referred to by researchers as poly-strengths, it is the total number of different strengths in anyone's resilience portfolio that makes survival possible. This is in contrast to "poly-victimizations" or the number of different adverse experiences a person might have which can make them increasingly vulnerable to psychological problems.   

But what are the kind of poly-strengths that can protect against traumatic experiences? And why do similar traumas affect people in different ways? A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Violence explores these questions through a unique test of the resilience portfolio model. 

A team of researchers led by Sherry Hamby of the Life Paths Appalachian Research Center in Monteagle, Tennessee recruited 2565 participants from the Appalachian region of three U.S. states to take part in the study. The participants had an average age of 30 (65.3 percent female) and included adolescents aged twelve or older. They were recruited through mass advertising and at local community events such as country fairs. This allowed the researchers to bring in people who might not ordinarily participate in psychological studies. Along with providing demographic information, all participants completed questionnaires asking about their history of adversity, their individual strengths as reflected by the resilience portfolio model, their current psychological functioning, and how effectively they were able to cope with their experiences. Posttraumatic growth, mental health, and psychological endurance were measured using standardized inventories.  

Given that the participants were recruited from one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the country, it's hardly surprising that over 98 percent of the participants in the study reported at least one form of adversity. This included physical intimidation or abuse, exposure to family violence or emotional abuse, neglect, or bullying. Other stressful events that were reported included unemployment, poverty, natural disasters, or the death of a family member. Many participants reported multiple traumatic experiences in their lives. Despite this history of adversity, however, most participants endorsed items such as "I discovered that I am stronger than I thought I was” and “I changed my priorities about what is important in life." Less than half of the participants in the sample reported mental health problems resulting from what they experienced.   

Overall, individuals reporting a strong sense of purpose reported greater subjective well-being, posttraumatic growth, and fewer mental health symptoms. Other protective factors that contributed to positive outcomes included optimism, emotional regulation and awareness, and psychological endurance. As the resilience portfolio model predicted, the more of these individual protective factors an individual had, the more successful they were at coping with adversity. This suggests that it is the total number of poly-strengths that is important in resilience rather than individual factors alone.  

So, what can be learned from this research? Even though more research is needed,  these results do highlight the importance of a strengths-based approach in helping people recover from trauma and learn to move on with their lives. While there are already treatment programs aimed at helping trauma victims, they are usually aimed at people already dealing with posttraumatic symptoms rather than helping people become more resilient. Programs teaching conflict negotiation and emotional learning are also available though they tend to ignore other sources of strength such as optimism or meaning-making.

Unfortunately, for most people, the only way to build up resilience is to experience trauma and loss for themselves. To quote Elizabeth Hardwicke, "Adversity is a great teacher, but this teacher makes us pay dearly for its instruction; and often the profit we derive, is not worth the price we paid."   While it might be possible someday to develop programs that can teach the different strengths which promote resilience, we don't seem to be there yet. 

Still, the lessons learned from people able to grow and prosper following trauma may provide vital clues that can help others do the same.

References

Hamby, S., Grych, J., & Banyard, V. (2018). Resilience portfolios and poly-strengths: Identifying protective factors associated with thriving after adversity. Psychology of Violence, 8(2), 172-183.

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