Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Feeling Overwhelmed by Adversity?

Two powerful keys to resilience for today.

Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

It’s easy to lose heart with all today’s challenges--Covid-19, racial injustice, economic insecurity, political strife, darkness, despair, and violence in our world. Yet research on resilience has shown that despite external challenges, each of us has tremendous potential to flourish.

Researchers Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith’s classic longitudinal study has identified two key resilience factors that enabled at-risk youth to overcome negative circumstances and lead successful, meaningful lives.

  1. External: Support from One Significant Person. For over three decades, Werner and Smith studied the lives of 505 young people born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Many came from dysfunctional families, compromised by chronic poverty and unstable home environments with divorce, discord, abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness. Yet some of these young people still managed to flourish, overcoming their obstacles because of one significant person in their lives—an aunt, uncle, or grandparent, teacher, minister, coach, or neighbor. This person saw them, encouraged them, and helped them see beyond their current circumstances to believe in themselves and their future (Werner & Smith, 1992).
  2. Internal: Faith That Life Makes Sense. Werner and Smith also found that the resilient youth had “a faith that life made sense, that the odds could be overcome” (1992, p. 177). Whatever their faith—Catholic, Protestant, or Buddhist—they participated in an organized religion or meditation practice that helped them see life in perspective, believing in something larger than themselves.

History is filled with shining stories of resilience. Here are two examples.

A young girl had an emotionally abusive mother and an alcoholic father she adored. Both parents died when she was a child, leaving her orphaned, raised by a strict and emotionally distant grandmother. This girl felt fearful and worthless until one remarkable teacher, Mademoiselle Souvestre, saw her and recognized her potential. Acknowledging her inquiring mind and strength of compassion, this woman taught her about world history and helped her believe in herself (Roosevelt, 1992). Eleanor Roosevelt grew up to become a champion of the oppressed, working with her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to steer this country through the Depression and World War II. After his death she worked in the United Nations to draft the International Declaration of Human Rights. Years later, at her memorial, Adlai Stevenson said that “she would rather light candles than curse the darkness and her glow had warmed the world” (Stevenson, 1962).

A young boy grew up in poverty in the desert town of Lancaster, California. His father was an alcoholic, with recurrent episodes of violence and job loss. His chronically depressed mother made repeated suicide attempts. Jim grew up in an atmosphere of family conflict, frequent evictions and no food in the house—hardly a promising beginning. Yet one summer when he was twelve, he wandered into a magic shop in the local strip mall. There he met Ruth, a wise and compassionate woman who taught him the “magic” of mindfulness meditation, compassion, and visualization that would change his life (Doty, 2016). James Doty, MD, is now a Stanford neurosurgeon and founder of CCARE, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, supported by the Dalai Lama. Sharing the lessons of mindfulness and compassion he learned so long ago, he now works to heal our troubled world.

Resilience—the light that helps us transcend the darkness to see new possibilities. How can you develop your own resources for resilience?

1. External: Support from One Significant Person.

Is there someone in your life who has supported you, helping you see the light of your own potential? If you met that person long ago, can you pause and give thanks in a moment of gratitude? Do you have a friend or mentor who offers you this kind of support today? If so, can you offer that person your love and gratitude? And now, can you pass on their vital gift by becoming a supportive person for someone else, reaching out with encouraging words to offer hope to someone you know?

2. Internal: Faith That Life Makes Sense.

What sustains your faith in life? Where do you find your own source of inspiration—in nature; religious services; reading history, literature, or biography; or a daily meditation practice? How can you bring more inspiration into your life? And can you find a way to help others find their own source of inspiration?

What can you do today to build greater resilience and bring more light into the world?


This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


Doty, J. R. (2016). Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. New York, NY: Penguin Random House. For guided meditations on these practices, visit

Roosevelt, E. (1992). The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York, NY: DaCapo. Originally published in 1961.

Stevenson, A. (9 November 1962). Memorial Address for Eleanor Roosevelt. Delivered to the United Nations General Assembly.

Werner, E. E. & Smith, R. S. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.