Traumatic experiences can shatter one’s world and perspective on life. Even persons with healthy coping skills have areas of vulnerability. When severe adversity intersects with an area of personal vulnerability, the resulting flood of emotion can make it difficult to go on. Normally effective coping mechanisms give way to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress as a once-manageable world disintegrates and a fragmented mind struggles to regain balance. Yet, despite the very real risk of persistent post-trauma challenges, in the majority of cases people do not shatter, lose hope or require psychological interventions. Why is that? One variable is something researchers have called resilience, or the ability to adaptively cope in the face of adversity.
Resilience is a relatively new psychological construct and like with any new concept, understanding develops over time, some ideas gaining traction while others give way to richer, more nuanced conceptualizations. Along the way, resilience has become a popular household term, often used to describe people who come through adversity relatively unscathed. Yet popular understanding has also adopted some ideas that have since been discarded by researchers. This article will explore those misconceptions and then discuss new themes in resilience research, concluding with research-based suggestions for increasing resilience.
Challenging some popular understandings of resilience
Psychological resilience is not a personality trait. There are no resilient people: rather, resilience is a context-specific response to adversity. For example, an individual may show resilience in responding to a natural disaster, but display very little adaptive coping when confronted with the loss of a loved one. Likewise, despite a life-threatening car accident, a child may show positive adaptive coping in school, but experience disabling anxiety following a frightening encounter with an aggressive dog. Context impacts resilience.
Resilience does not imply invulnerability or a lack of suffering. Consider, for example, the loss of a loved one in a house fire. Deep grief, anger, blame and loss of purpose would all be normal responses following such an event. One would expect recovery to be complex and take time, social support and new forms of meaning-making. Resilience is displayed when positive coping leads to healthy adjustment following trauma: it does not mean the absence of suffering.
Properly conceptualized, resilience does not result in self-blame. Some activists claim that self-blame is implicit in the concept of resilience. They argue that highlighting how some people can cope with a traumatic event while others do not implies that the traumatized individual is to blame or is in some way, defective. These activists further contend that focusing on individual coping and recovery depoliticizes the injustice inherent in many traumatic events such as violence against women, accidents resulting from inattention to safety standards or disasters resulting from ecological mismanagement. Instead of focusing on recovery, these activists maintain that energy should be invested in collective action to bring about justice.
While collective action is essential, the concept of resilience, properly understood, does not involve blaming the victim or depoliticizing violence. For example, just as being physically injured in the process of armed robbery might require medical treatment, so too may post-traumatic stress symptoms require psychological intervention. Yet receiving physical or psychological treatment should in no way imply that the victim is to blame or exempt the violent offender from penalty. Responses to shocks and traumas must include recovery for the survivor and action to resolve injustice.
What, then, is psychological resilience?
Psychological resilience is the normal human response to adversity. Resilience is demonstrated when a person’s coping methods, although challenged, help negotiate adversity until stability is regained. Yet, if resilience is normal, why do some people struggle long-term? Everyone has areas of vulnerability, and when a shock or trauma happens to coincide with an area of vulnerability, or stressors occur too rapidly, anyone can find her normal coping mechanisms faltering, while even those who view themselves as strong can find themselves in need of help.
Certainly, there are protective factors that increase the likelihood of resilience, including: the personality traits of optimism, hope and hardiness; the practice of healthy cognitive and self-regulation skills; positive and compassionate views of self; and the belief that one can make a difference. External factors also contribute to resilience, such as: the support of family, friends and community; access to needed material resources; and access to rescue equipment or medical aid. No single factor can predict traumatic stress symptoms or resilience. Rather, the struggle to survive and recover involves a recursive relationship among managing overwhelming emotions, remaining grounded in personal values and beliefs and garnering social support, all the while addressing physical needs.
The more stability and healthy coping practiced in normal life, the more likely the resources to cope with shocks and traumas will be available when needed. Replacing unhealthy coping methods is less problematic during non-traumatic periods of life and may well be lifesaving. Once destabilized by traumatic events, it is difficult to train the brain to start new healthy coping behaviours.
Accessing new forms of healthy coping during shocks and trauma is difficult because of the way the brain functions. During a shock, the amygdala, the part of our brain that leads to fight or flight impulses, takes over, releasing adrenaline and leaving our prefrontal cortex, or our thinking brain, underutilized. That means that during a shock the brain goes into survival mode and the part of the brain needed for complex behaviours and high-level thinking is simply not available. It is only as the brain calms, and starts releasing serotonin, that the pre-frontal cortex returns to normal functioning. As the pre-frontal cortex is reactivated, higher-level thinking and coping mechanisms are once again made available. The more habitual the coping mechanisms are, the more likely they will be activated following shocks and trauma, thus resulting in demonstrations of resilience.
In conclusion, psychological resilience is demonstrated when adaptive coping helps a person negotiate adversity toward a return to stability and recovery. Psychological resilience is context-specific and does not preclude pain and suffering. Individuals can increase the likelihood that they will be able to access resilience following shocks and trauma by incorporating healthy coping practices in daily living.
Dawn Penner is an international trauma consultant specializing in work
with survivors of violence, including war, gender-based violence and
natural disasters. She has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo,
Lebanon and Bangladesh.