Resiliency describes our ability to cope with difficult situations — but you don’t have to be resilient in the face of adversity and trauma.
Resilience is a common psychological term that seemingly everyone uses to describe what it takes to overcome stress — but resilience isn’t necessarily a state to strive for or something to work toward.
Resiliency can be seen both positively and negatively. The degree to which a person may be resilient varies greatly depending on their unique circumstances and the challenges they face.
Resilience does not exist in a vacuum. Since we all respond to stress differently, the message that we “should be” resilient can be harmful when there’s an expectation to be resilient in the face of adversity or trauma.
You cannot address resilience without factoring in social determinants like systemic racism, socioeconomic status, and of course, mental and physical health.
Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that most people exhibit resilience after experiencing a traumatic event. Plus, there are ways to foster resilient behaviors that can help you adapt to and recover from stressful events.
Resilience can mean different things to different people, so your definition may not match someone else’s.
The same goes for scientific evidence. Resilience is a prominent research topic, discussed in seemingly countless studies. Yet, there are often competing theories.
The definition of resilience has evolved throughout the years. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”
Older research from 2004 states that resilience “in the face of loss or potential trauma is more common than is often believed, and that there are multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience.”
A 2009 research article defines resilience as a process and describes the term as the “development of competence despite severe or pervasive adversity.”
More recently in 2018, research recognized that resilience, as it relates to trauma and coping, is not well-defined and that its applications should vary based on the individual.
Keep in mind that some of these definitions may be outdated. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be resilient in the face of trauma.
Resilience happens out of necessity, not necessarily because someone has worked hard to achieve it. As a 2011 research article notes, there’s a dynamic nature to resilience across the lifespan.
“A key ingredient to resilience is recognizing that what you’ve been through is… significant, and recognizing the importance of seeing how it has impacted you and that you’re different than you were prior to the event,” says Kendra Kubala, PsyD, a psychologist working with trauma survivors in Pennsylvania and New York.
According to Kubala, resilience should be examined longitudinally (aka across time or across a chunk of someone’s life). If you’ve experienced trauma as a kid and then experience another traumatic event in adulthood from which you recover — either on your own or with the help of a mental health professional — that may be considered resilience.
You may have some degree of resilience if you exhibit any of the following behaviors:
- You recognize the impermanence of difficulties.
- You see setbacks as opportunities for growth.
- You have tools to manage your stress and emotions.
- You recognize that many things are out of your control.
- You have a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.
Outside factors such as social and community support may also play an important role in helping people develop or maintain resilience.
A key factor to resilience is vulnerability, or in other words, allowing ourselves to feel our emotions.
“What we see as numbness can be erroneously titled resilience,” Kubala says. “How do we know someone is not just numbing themselves to pain?”
Resilience can be measured by looking at a singular event. Everyone has a different capacity to be able to work through difficult events, which can vary drastically from person to person. The severity of the event and the impact on the individual will also determine the outcome.
“It’s hard to group trauma survivors,” Kubala says, adding that not everyone who goes through trauma will develop chronic or complex trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Resilience is not a choice, since we all adapt differently and process trauma differently. No one should be blamed for not being resilient according to a particular standard.
In the field of psychology, there’s no clear definition of what resilience is not. Even still, resilience should not be seen as something to strive for.
Resilience is not numbing, ignoring, or being in denial of something. It’s separate from unhelpful or maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance or coping mechanisms like alcohol or substance misuse.
Resilience is about being able to process and understand your response to stress and difficulties and actively work through it, instead of shutting down and going numb.
Why the push for resilience can be harmful
No one should have to feel like they should be resilient in the face of trauma, systemic racism, or other adversities. In instances like these, the expectation of having to be resilient minimizes the struggles of People of Color and marginalized communities. These groups have had to navigate a culture built on white supremacy which has created standards for what is “acceptable” or “normal.”
Resilience cannot be considered on its own without considering other factors.
It’s not always possible to “build resilience” to compensate for social determinants, and yet, you can’t really consider resilience without factoring in these determinants.
A common narrative among those who have endured a lot of trauma is that they’ve “got to keep fighting.”
While resilience is important, resilience should not be a reason for “staying strong” by sweeping an issue under the rug.
Nicole Washington, DO, MPH, a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer of Elocin Psychiatric Services, says that as a society, we may have to rethink our definition of trauma, particularly racial trauma and the trauma of watching tragic and wrongful events like the murder of George Floyd.
“Why is it that two people can undergo the same trauma and one is affected and the other is not?” Washington asks.
For instance, many People of Color and other marginalized groups are resilient because they have to be. They do not necessarily have the luxury to decide.
“In the Black community, sometimes the concept of resilience is being used to say we don’t have to address some of the systemic issues because we are so resilient,” says Washington. “There are things that maybe we wouldn’t have to be resilient for if things were better — we can’t ignore the social determinants of health that need to be addressed.”
Resilience can be developed through a strong sense of self-efficacy, self-trust, and self-esteem.
Some people may be more resilient than others due to
“A lot of people have a good amount of resilience that they don’t realize,” says Washington. “I really like to home in on what’s already there.”
While it may seem like “building resilience” is up to the individual, it’s important to keep in mind that social and community support, as well as connection with others, may help people build resilience as well.
People and organizations you may consider reaching out to include:
- family members
- teachers and mentors
- religious community members
- community support groups
- mental health professionals
Another thing to remember is that when facing stress or difficulties, there’s a difference between the event itself and the outcome that follows.
In some cases, post-traumatic growth can occur following a traumatic event. Even when terrible things happen, some individuals may learn that they have the capacity to endure difficulties or gain new clarity about what matters to them, such as helping others.
“Resilience is about how you respond to things and your environment,” says Matthew Boland, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Reno, Nevada. Boland says that psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help teach people how to respond to difficult situations.
Whether you feel sad, angry, depressed, heartbroken, or traumatized, there are ways to recognize your responses to the event and work through your emotions to help inform how you want to move forward from your experience.
Try asking yourself, “What did I have to do to make it through?” Focus on the helpful things you did to adapt versus the unhelpful.
Resilience tends to be more of the norm than the exception — and resilient behaviors are generally praised in our society.
Yet people from marginalized communities or those with mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, or anxiety, shouldn’t feel like they have to be resilient.
Building resilience is important for helping others overcome difficulties, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Focusing on cultivating healthy attachments and a strong sense of community can be a good place for anyone to start. Connecting with family members, coaches, teachers, or therapists can help you navigate conflict and remind you that you’re not alone.
“Not being a resilient person is not a disability,” Kubala says. “It doesn’t necessarily place you in a vulnerable state.”