Resilience—that human ability to bounce back emotionally after adversity or trauma—has long been viewed as a noble quality in science and literature. We admire and reward survivors of injustice and tragedy; we uphold suffering as a necessary means to achieve enlightenment. Bouncing back to a healthy state of mind after major trauma is considered a fact of life, and the ability to do so is seen as an innate, hard-wired trait in human beings—perhaps a biological strategy for survival.
But is resilience really an innate quality? Recently, psychologists have looked at the claim up-close and arrived at a different conclusion: Most people actually aren’t born resilient, at least not in the way we define it. (Resilience isn't to be confused with "grit," defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as “perseverance plus the exclusive pursuit of a single passion.”)
Much of what we know about resilience comes from decades-old research done on children. Back in the 1970s, researchers noticed that children experiencing major life adversities could show an unexpected ability to adapt and thrive. But how could they have learned this positive attitude, especially given their unstable, less-than-ideal environment? Were they just exhibiting a natural human behavior? Were they born resilient? These questions sparked numerous research studies to understand how people react to adversity.
However, what we know from studies in children doesn’t smoothly translate to adults, who face very different kinds of stressors and challenges in life. Moreover, resilience has a somewhat vague definition. The existing research has presumed that there exists a baseline of resilience, suggesting that soon after an event of adversity, most people’s natural inclination is to return to healthy functioning. But how long after the event? A week, a month, a year? There is no agreed-upon measure of time.
Curious about these long-held assumptions about resilience, psychologists Frank Infurna and Suniya Luthar of Arizona State University re-analyzed a large, publicly available longitudinal data set from Germany, the G-SOEP study, which ran from 1984 to 2011 and included 11,000 people. Focusing only on spousal loss, unemployment, and divorce as their variables, the researchers found that "most people will show a trajectory defined by decline after adversity, and over a period of several years, they would rebound to where they were,” says Infurna. These results contradict previous analysis of the G-SOEP data, which found a high incidence of resilience.
RESILIENCE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Infurna’s research, published recently in Perspectives on Psychological Science, suggests that people on their way to recovery after trauma may need more help (professional or otherwise) than previously thought. The findings also suggest that there may be distinct types of resilience: the person who bounces back quickly after adversity, and the person who needs several years in order to do so. In contrast to a person who only declines, both are resilient but with distinctly different flavors.
This view fits with that of Kristen Costa, lead faculty in behavioral science at Northeastern University, who “lives and breathes resilience” as a focus of her research. She tells mental_floss, “It would be irresponsible to say, ‘We are just born resilient,’ thus if something traumatic or negative happens, we can just sit back, since we will eventually rebound. Instead, my work has shown me that deliberate, intentional effort to cultivate resilience can bolster our inclinations for it. When we think of it that way, we can understand that there are specific habits, behaviors, and mindsets that help us foster it.”
Costa feels it’s helpful to see adults as having developmental stages just like children do; such stages don’t end the moment one leaves adolescence behind. “If we look at [resilience] from a developmental model of human behavior, we can understand we’re all just at different points in our development," she says. "In those points, sometimes we just don’t have the skills we need for emotional regulation or stress tolerance. In general, our threshold for coping can vary a lot, according to a lot of variables. Even missing a night’s sleep, or not being nourished, or cranking at work with a lot on your plate can press upon us and affect our resilience at a point in time."
Infurna, who studies older adults, points out that age is another factor that can certainly have an effect on one’s resilience, particularly if the life event seems “too soon” for the person, such as a spouse's death at a relatively young age. “We did a study where individuals younger at the time of their spousal losses—say 40s and 50s—showed more substantial decline than those in their 70s or 80s,” he notes.
HOW TO BECOME RESILIENT
Costa says that everyone has a different capacity to grow and heal, and that given the right support and education at the right time, a person can become more resilient. She says,“Regardless of perceptions of baseline resilience, [I’d advocate] we work to integrate resilience-bolstering strategies and self-care in our day-to-day lives,” and increase self-care when intense stressors take place.
A big component of how resilient people are, she says, is how they make meaning of phenomena. “If we have a belief that we have these fixed traits, or don’t, it will influence our emotions and behaviors, and dominate our thinking process, so it’s important to not lock down on assumptions or bias that makes us think there’s no room for growth,” she says. (To this point, a recent study found that people who believe their character traits are fixed had more difficulty moving on after a breakup than those who believe characteristics are more malleable.)
As adults, there are things you can do to cultivate your own resilience, which Costa calls “deliberate and intentional lifestyle medicine.” They include "sleep, set limits for using technology, get exercise and good nutrition, and hydration. If we aren’t physically resilient and taking care of our bodies, it will be harder to take care of our brain and higher-order psychological processes we need to be well.”
One of her biggest findings, from a recent study she led with her own graduate students as participants, was that speaking up about adversity and trauma played a huge part in becoming more resilient. In fact, she found that the more her students could talk about their own trauma, the more likely they were to want to help others get through their traumas, too.
Infurna’s continuing research has also found two key variables present in people “who are able to show resilience when they encounter variable life adversities,” he says. The first is having strong social relationships, and “in particular whether the individual is able to participate or knows they have people to go to and lean on in times of stress.” A hallmark 2015 study, done in collaboration with Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, also found this to be the single common factor among children with traumatic upbringings who went on to become adults who thrived. Second, of equal importance, is a person’s ability continue to engage in one’s everyday roles at the same level of functioning, which helps them preserve a sense of identity and purpose.
Though resilience definitions and research remain in flux, Costa shares a metaphor that sums up her ideal version. “Resilience is like this breed of hardy palm trees," she says. "When a storm comes, they look like they’ll break, but they bend and restore, and their root systems actually strengthen. I think that’s a great example for us.”