23 Aug Cultivating Resilience
What Is Resilience?
I have been fascinated with the concept of resilience since entering this field. My master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation both investigated the relationship between attachment and resilience in different populations. My work in the areas of trauma and sport/performance have only furthered my passion to understand what allows us to be resilient. Given how often the word resilience and other related concepts are thrown around, it’s helpful for us to try and define and differentiate it. Other related concepts that you likely hear about are hardiness, grit, and mental toughness.
Resilience: The term resilience comes from the Latin word for rebounding or recoiling. Within the research literature, the concept of resilience does not have an agreed-upon definition. There are often three forms discussed, all of which involve
- A concept of a baseline, or one’s typical level of functioning in some domain
- The presence of a stressor or adversity
- The response from baseline due to the stressor
One version of the concept is the ability to be unperturbed by the adversity, though most often there is an acknowledgement that we are usually initially impacted by the adversity. The latter two definitions differ in whether it’s about returning to baseline, or actually growing from the adversity.
Hardiness: Hardiness was initially about the ability to manage stress while avoiding illness. It includes three interrelated concepts known as the three Cs: commitment, control, and challenge.
Grit: The term grit has been made most well-known by the research of Angela Duckworth, who defines it as passion and perseverance for a long-term goal. (Duckworth, 2007)
Mental Toughness: This term evolved out of the sport psychology field of research and is about what allows an athlete to overcome adversity and perform at a high level.
Grit and mental toughness both contain the concept of resilience within them but are also about a capacity to persevere towards a goal and perform, whereas resilience is broader and more global. Hardiness, grit, and mental toughness also tend to be focused on the individual, whereas resilience can apply to the group or ecosystem (more on this later!). Lastly, some think about and research these concepts as fixed states, while others approach them as dynamic processes. I’ll be talking about resilience as a dynamic process in which an individual or group possesses the ability to experience adversity and to recover, and even grow, from it.
A Basic Resilience Model
Despite all the complexity in the literature on resilience and related terms, I prefer something basic as a foundational way to understand it. This basic model is founded on the concept of homeostasis or allostasis (which you might recognize from my previous blog series on well-being, discussed most directly in Part III, found here). Resilience is one aspect of the larger concept of well-being. I find it helpful to think about demands (or stressors) and resources. Demands and resources can be both internal and external to the individual. I might experience something stressful in my external life (i.e., a job loss, divorce, death), or I could face internal stressors (i.e., heighted emotional arousal, worrisome thoughts, physical illness). Likewise, my resources to face these demands can be external (i.e., a supportive friend, partner, job, community, or medication) or internal (i.e., strong emotional and cognitive regulation skills, physical health, and well-being). I want to be very clear that stress and adversity are not the problem. Growth and adaptation don’t occur without adversity. Cortisol and adrenaline are not our enemy, despite what you might hear regularly. We wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning or survive a short run, for safety or exercise, without them. As they say, the dose makes the poison. In other words, it’s not stress but the length (chronicity) or intensity that is harmful. This is in direct relation to our ability to be resourced enough to meet the demands.
A Resilience Analogy
I like analogies, so I’ll use a physical training one for this discussion. When we train our bodies physically, we place them under a demand, a stressor, in order to obtain an adaptation. I could be training for strength or endurance as two examples, though there are others. The key is the balance between the stress and resources. If I don’t challenge myself with either the right amount of weight or the length of time/distance, then there will be no fatigue or difficulty and thus no adaptation. If I load too much weight or go too far/long, then the demands outstrip the resources, and damage or injury might result. There is a window in which I challenge myself just beyond my current capacity. In the physical training world, this is called “progressive overload.” In the emotional and psychological space, we refer to concepts such as a “window of tolerance.” I will be acutely fatigued and might experience some soreness the next day or two, but then my body rebounds and adaptation takes place. Now, this analogy does contain more of the goal directedness of concepts like grit and mental toughness, but it illustrates the point. We do need the challenge, but getting the intensity and duration right is what leads to healthy capacity to face the demand. This is about a dynamic process that succeeds or fails based on attunement and responsiveness.
This analogy also illustrates something else that I think the literature on resilience often misses—that it’s not necessarily global. I could be very strong and have no endurance. Or, I could be able to run a marathon but not have strength. We can be psychologically resilient to some things and have vulnerabilities to others. It’s not singular and categorical; it’s multiple and dimensional. In that way, we might be better off considering a resilience profile that considers the subfactors of resilience and across multiple areas of our psychological functioning. Additionally, it highlights the dynamic nature of resilience. If I have under slept, am under nourished, have over trained, and am in a conflict with others, I will not be able to physically perform at the same level, and thus the same demand could be overwhelming and potentially harmful. If I’m well slept, well nourished, physically rested, and feel supported by others (maybe even having a spotter or running partner), I am going to be capable of handling a stronger stressor without breakdown. Our psychological resilience works the same way. The data strongly backs this up.
I don’t believe that we’re born resilient, that your early experience creates a static level of resilience, or that it’s only an individual trait. There do appear to be genetic and biological contributions; early life experiences certainly do affect how resilient you are; and individual capacities do matter, but that’s not the whole story. When we find ourselves lacking resilience in certain areas or more globally, there is hope. Going back to our physical training analogy, we know that we can train in a way to obtain the adaptation we are wanting, so why would we believe the same isn’t true for our psychological resilience? It’s wonderful if we’ve had the loving and supportive childhood, adolescence, and adulthood that produces resilience in an automatic and implicit way, not unlike if we happen to do jobs or activities that develop strength or endurance, but it might require more focused and intentional development if we’re not so fortunate. The goal is always to get the psychological functioning to an implicit place where it happens automatically, but this often requires first bringing the area of focus into consciousness, reworking, and then being able to automatize it. This is the same as physical training in which I’m attempting to learn a new skill or relearn an old skill. I first have to expend a lot of energy thinking about how to do it well, and with time, it becomes overlearned and automatic so that it doesn’t require conscious thought.
Old School versus New School Toughness
Steve Magness in his wonderful book Do Hard Things makes the distinction between “old school” toughness and a new way of understanding toughness. He masterfully reviews the psychological literature in both clinical and performance domains to demonstrate why the old model doesn’t work and the new model is needed. The old model, though he doesn’t describe it as such, is referred to as an attrition model. Another way of describing this is the “sink-or-swim” approach. Throw people in the deep end and some will figure it out. Of course, when dealing with people, we should consider those that don’t swim but rather sink. If you throw enough eggs against the wall, you’ll find a few that don’t break, but in doing so, we break people. We’ve been breaking people for too long. If on the other hand, you teach people to swim, then you can help them swim further and longer. This is the developmental model. To be clear, this is still about toughness and resilience. It doesn’t mean not asking someone to swim, it means helping them obtain the resources and skills in order to do so. We find similar models in both parenting and leadership research. In the parenting literature, this is referred to as authoritative parenting and involves high demands accompanied by warmth and understanding. In Unleashed, by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, the authors describe an organizational model of leadership that involves combining psychological safety and accountability to produce high-performing individuals and teams. Think of how many more incredible swimmers you might discover if you had an environment that taught everyone to swim?
The old model also glorifies the individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps image. Magness again does a wonderful job of showing how the data proves this to be false. At best, people learn to disconnect from themselves in order to persevere under overwhelming demands. While this might initially appear as toughness, it’s often pathological dissociation rather than psychological health. The old school model leads to a motivational system of fear and avoidance as opposed to approach and confidence. He makes the convincing case that we are at our strongest when we stay in contact with ourselves, both emotionally and somatically, and can make reflective choices about how we want to manage the adversity. I couldn’t agree more. If we can be present with our adversity and manage it, then we slowly increase our sense of confidence and competence to cope. We can learn something about our current resources, how we might impact them, and what it means about what we can handle in any given moment. We begin to see adversity as a challenge rather than a threat. Lastly, we tend to feel more optimistic about a return to our typical ability and the capacity to grow. One of the most well-known researchers in the field of resilience is George Bonnano, and he’s developed a “flexibility mindset” that contains these same three factors (optimism, challenge mindset, and confidence in our ability to cope).
But What about Trauma?
I have largely been discussing an ideal situation in which we have control over the demands and resources, but the reality of life is that we often don’t. Life can deal us demands that far exceed our resources, or the environment is severely deficient in resources, and trauma is the result. In this case, we don’t “bounce back” but rather remain in states of suffering. We all have a breaking point, and it’s not just an individual trait but rather a dynamic relationship to our environment. No matter how strong or well-conditioned a person might be, there is a weight or distance that will break them. While we might not have had any agency over the initial trauma, we can intentionally work to heal the wound and develop increased capacities in the aftermath. I tend to think of this as resilience on a much longer time scale. It’s also the case that many of the individuals that I work with who have experienced significant amounts of trauma in their lives also have extremely high levels of grit and resilience in certain areas of their lives, while having vulnerabilities in others.
Lastly, resilience is not just at the individual level; it’s also at the group level. It’s time for us to take this seriously and work to develop resilient ecosystems, cultures, and societies. We are all stronger together, and whether we’re focused on well-being or some performance outcome, we should harness the power of the resilient group.
One thing we can count on is that life will involve adversity, so our ability to withstand the adversity and even potentially grow from it is crucial. We now have a variety of research lines that help us understand what factors contribute to psychological resilience. With this knowledge, we don’t have to leave resilience to chance; rather, we can develop and train it. Therapy is one space in which this development can take place. If you’d like help finding the right therapist to help you in this process, or if we can answer questions for you, please reach out to us.
Bonanno, G. A. (2021). The end of trauma: How the new science of resilience is changing how we think about PTSD. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087–1101.
Frei, Frances X., and Anne Morriss. Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.
Magness, S. (2022). Do hard things: Why we get resilience wrong and the surprising science of real toughness. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.