Defining Resilience

The text below comes from an article written by Pr. Ilona Boniwell which originally appeared on her Positran consultancy website. Pr. Boniwell is an expert and leading figure in Positive Psychology.

Stress, limitations, challenging situations, loss, significant life changes, like getting older, and even death, are an inevitable part of being human. Although on the surface these issues sound like nemeses of positive psychology, given that they are unavoidable, managing them well can actually contribute to a life well lived.

The concept of resilience was conceived about 40 years ago when researchers noticed that some people adapt well to life despite the presence of high-risk circumstances (such as losing parents young, for example). This indicated a positive divergence from the typical pathological models that assumed that early traumatic experiences would undoubtedly result in negative life consequences. However, little scientific research at the time was devoted to this phenomenon and the field of study was fairly small. It is only in the past 20 years that the investigation of resilience expanded considerably, and a recent review revealed that the usage of the term ‘resilience’ in the academic literature increased by 8-fold in the last two decades.

Resilience can be described as resistance to stress as well as present and future adverse events or conditions (maltreatment, divorce, poverty, etc). In other words, resilience is a capacity to bounce back and to feel in control of the way we feel about and react in challenging circumstances. Those who have this capacity are more active, socially responsive and adapt successfully to the experience of risk factors.

Resilience is actually a multi-faceted construct. It is both a capacity and an active process encompassing a person’s flexibility in response to changing situational demands, and the ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. We can distinguish three facets of resilience: recovery, resistance and reconfiguration. 

  1. Recovery is the facet of resilience which refers to the return to a normal, pre-stressor, level of functioning (health and psychosocial wellbeing).
  2. Resistance as a facet of resilience is said to occur when a person displays minimum or no signs of disturbance (low distress, normal functioning) following a challenging event.
  3. Reconfiguration is said to occur when a person returns to homeostasis in a different formation with key aspects about that individual changing as a result of their experience.

Although resilience is a complex phenomenon, many of its skills can be learned, thanks to the tools offered by coping, post-traumatic growth, cognitive-behavioural therapy, positive psychology, mindfulness etc.

In an upcoming post the areas of research and practice that inform our current understanding of resilience will be explored in detail.

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