Although it seems that we all know what it means, it is very hard to define psychological resilience.
A common misperception is that resilient people must have only positive thoughts. This is not necessarily the case. Resilient individuals have negative thoughts and experiences just like anyone else—what is so different is what they do with them or their course of action. Instead of allowing to be pulled into that black hole of strong emotions, they seem to thrive after stressful events. Instead of keeping everything ‘deep inside’ until it blows up, resilient people will share thoughts and emotions, not feeling threatened by opposing views. Their natural openness to life, as it seems, allows them not to be afraid of psychological pain. Further, that is crucial for coping with some major setbacks in a healthy way, approaching them both realistically and optimistically.
In simpler terms, resilience means balancing between negative and positive emotions more effectively. Many stress factors, such as family problems, financial worries or conflicts in a relationship, can significantly challenge our capacities to cope with these adversities. So, developing functional coping mechanisms might be the ‘ultimate solution’ for boosting your psychological resilience.
Maybe one of the best possible ways is to perceive the adverse situation with a sense of humor. Laughter can really be a powerful medicine because it gives a refreshing new perspective on things, which is sometimes called reframing. Reframing is all about changing our important core values and beliefs which we treasure deeply but which can also cause a lot of problems, because we attribute specific meanings to a spectrum of social stimuli based on those core values/beliefs. Just a short laugh could give us much needed fresh perspective on a difficult issue: Marital conflict, poor relationship with the boss at work or struggling with social anxiety and sense of shame. Then we must go back to the drawing desk and try to develop our conceptual framework which fits the facts of life but is much better for our well-being and other people as well.
Psychological resilience could be defined as a capacity of an individual to withstand stressors and not manifest psychological dysfunction. However, resilience might be conceived as so much more—as an inherent capacity of every person to achieve its full potential and to thrive. From this perspective, every stressful situation is potentially a challenge for our personal growth and development, thus it can be approached as a valuable life lesson. Avoiding overthinking and rumination, a resilient person is not someone who is born that way, but more a person focused on overcoming a difficult life situation with a sense of hope, realistic optimism and focusing on positive instead of negative emotions. All these traits are developed during lifetime and not necessarily part of our genetic makeup. Developing our full potential means also stretching ourselves out of our comfort zones—a truly necessary prerequisite for any significant change.
Psychological trauma, caused by a traumatic event which completely overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope, can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. The events that are associated with the disorder might be various—catastrophes/natural disasters like earthquakes or fires, but also prolonged verbal abuse by a family member, bullying or extreme poverty.
In each case, the way we process traumatic event(s) is linked with the evolution of our coping mechanisms to overcome them—in fact, how ‘strong’ our psychological immune system becomes. Just like the physical immune system in our bodies, our system of coping mechanisms is vitally important for our mental survival as fully functional persons. So instead of letting distress take control over, it is of great importance to ‘fight back’, trying to reestablish our personhood in a new and challenging way. Building a positive self-concept, brick by brick, is also a significant part of that inner journey.
How does it look like in a ‘real world’?
People often ‘freeze’ the traumatic or stressful event(s) and the story around that event becomes solidified and monolithic, in so many ways impermeable to change. But working on changing that story, a new outlook on the event and the interpersonal relationships is usually a path to freedom and change. This is also a kind of freedom to become something else, a slightly different person, but preserving the core sense of identity and vitality of the self. A ‘when there is a will, there is a way’ attitude, complemented with a ‘I will survive’ focus, is maybe the best possible life paradigm for many people who find themselves resilient.
Finally, an overall orientation towards personal growth and transformation benefits not only resilient people. It benefits all the people who are connected with them and the community in which they live and thrive. Interacting with a resilient person is truly an inspiration and might help other people in dealing with certain issues, because it provides a good example of how to effectively communicate, how to experience ups and downs in life with fortitude and perseverance. The relationship with a resilient person is a valuable lesson per se on our own voyage through murky waters, stormy weather or deep calm seas, reminding us to live fully each minute with a sense of gratitude.