Why is it that when bad things happen to them some people are devastated while others pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and snap back – or even thrive?  I’ve been thinking about this question a lot as I observe and respond to my clients’ and friends’ reactions to the current pandemic and economic downturn.  What is it that enables some people to rebound from adversity while others are laid low?

Lots of people are talking about resilience these days – the process of adapting well to life-changing situations and stress, to tragedy and adversity.  Where does it come from?  Is it innate or can it be developed?  And if it can be developed, how might we become more resilient and/or help our children and those whom we love to do so as well?

Photo by Magne Træland on Unsplash

While there is a great deal of controversy about the extent to which resilience is innate or learned, there is widespread agreement that people can increase their resilience and learn to handle stress and adversity (and even grow from the experience).  The benefit of developing resilience is clear:  we all face setbacks and defeats (if not actual traumas or tragedies) in our lives, and we all must adapt to change.  As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “The one thing that is constant is change,” so adapting is necessary to survive and to thrive.

Over the past four decades developmental psychologists have sought to understand what it is that enables some people to be characterized as resilient while others, in similar circumstances, are not.  Norman Garmezy at the University of Minnesota and Emmy Werner at the University of California, Davis were among the first to study factors in children’s backgrounds or personalities that enabled them to succeed despite severe challenges.  They found that the elements that predicted resilience included environmental factors (such as supportive parents or mentors) as well as how they responded to the environment.  According to Werner, the most important determinant was whether they had an “internal locus of control” or the perspective that they controlled their own fate rather than being the victims of their circumstances.

Werner also found that resilience could change over time depending on the amount of stress being experienced, which led to further research on the role of perception on resilience.  George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Teachers College, posited that how people conceptualize events is a key to resilience.  According to Bonanno, “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.”  People vary in how they perceive and interpret challenging circumstances, which determines how they feel and react.  For example, one person may see losing a job as “the end of the world” while another (although sad or disappointed) may see it as a growth opportunity.  While one mourner may be devastated by the loss of a dear one, another may focus on gratitude for the time they had with their beloved.

Current research in Positive Psychology indicates that character strengths such as gratitude, kindness, hope, and courage help people adapt positively and cope with difficulties by acting as “protective factors.”  Empirical research shows that they can also be excellent predictors of resilience.

These research findings suggest a number of strategies to build resilience and to REBOUND from challenges and adversity.

Reframe.  Perception is the key to resilience.  How one sees and talks about an event to oneself and to others plays a huge role in how one reacts.  Reframing adversity as a challenge or an opportunity to grow allows us to become more flexible and able to deal with it.  Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, found that training people to adopt positive perceptions enabled them put their experience into perspective and move forward and grow.   For example, one might take the view: “This is one occurrence, not a totally life shattering experience” or “This is awful but here are some silver linings”   or “This is really devastating, but here are the many other things for which I am so grateful.”  Watch the language!  The words you use to describe your situation affect how you and others view your situation.  Think of the different connotations of “I was fired” vs “I was laid off.”  So, control the narrative!  [For more about how to reframe please see my blog on How We Tell Our Stories]

Envision what worked in the past.  Think about how you have overcome other setbacks in the past.  What lessons can you take from past successes in overcoming stress and adversity?  What or who was helpful in previous times of distress?  How can you apply and adapt those strategies to the present?  Not only will you remind yourself of potential strategies, but you will also reinforce your self-confidence and remember “You’ve got this!”

Bond.  Draw on connections with people who can provide social support including family, mentors, friends, and colleagues.   Connecting with empathic and understanding people can remind you that you are not alone.  Rather than isolating yourself (which can drag you down), join with others who can provide social support and give you a sense of purpose and value.  Remember that you are not alone:  If you think it will help, reach out to a coach, therapist, or spiritual advisor.

Own your fate.  Focus on the areas in which you have control and cultivate an internal locus of control. By raising your awareness of your power, you will be empowered to take charge of your life, rather than allowing events to control you.

Upkeep.  Take care of yourself!  Self-care, including mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual practices, are essential for building resilience.  Good nutrition, adequate sleep and hydration, and regular exercise are essential ways to build strength and withstand the negative effects of stress.  Practicing mindfulness, meditation and other spiritual practices calms the soul and restores hope and positivity.  Adopt a mantra that sustains you.

Name goals.  Remind yourself of your life’s purpose (your “why” in the words of Simon Sinek).  Think about the things that make your soul soar and that you’d like to accomplish.

Do something.  Take decisive action.  Develop some realistic goals and do something (even if it is only a small accomplishment) that advances you toward your goals.  Rather than setting huge ambitious goals, choose smaller objectives that move you in the direction that you want to go.  And keep moving!

The important thing to remember is that the capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age.  It is never to late to build resilience, and adults who model and reinforce resilience can contribute to the resilience of the next generation.