Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Photo credit: Dreamstime

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it…
— Rabindranath Tagore

Why do some people seem to bounce back from hard times while others falter or even fall apart? Those who deal best with trials and troubles have a quality that neuroscientists, psychologists, and business experts alike call “resilience.”

According to Merriam-Webster, resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Resilient people are able to rebound and maintain a sense of well-being despite adversity, loss, or chaos. In contrast, those who are less resilient tend to feel victimized and overwhelmed by problems, they may rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, and they may even be more likely to develop mental health problems such as clinical depression.

Resilience, or “hardiness” as it is sometimes referred to, has become a buzzword in the media in recent years. In the aftermath of tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and the events of September 11, 2001, Americans have been described as a resilient people. Indeed, our world today is full of misfortune and heartbreak, from terrorism and war to poverty and natural disaster. As a result, understanding the nature of human resilience is more relevant than ever before. It is a particularly important concept for those who face the life-altering challenges of chronic illness on a daily basis.

The body of research on resilience goes back to the 1960s when Norman Garmezy, Ph.D., pioneered the first studies of resilience in the children of mentally ill mothers. Since then resilience has been investigated in a wide variety of contexts, from inner-city youth to Holocaust survivors.

Little scientific research has been conducted on the concept of resilience in people with chronic pain and illness. One study explored how resilience might correlate with other key factors in the experience of people with chronic pain. In the first stage of the study, the researchers identified two groups from a sample of 2407 people with chronic pain, a “resilient” and “non-resilient” group. Comparisons between the two groups revealed that the resilient group fared better in a number of areas, including coping style, perception of control, and level of disability.

While statistically significant, these results don’t seem particularly ground-breaking. It is not surprising that resilience would have a positive impact on many of the aspects of living with chronic pain. Perhaps a more important question is whether resilience is something an individual is born with, or can it be learned?

Is Resilience In the Genes?

Early theories of resilience tend to emphasize genetics and assert that some people are biologically predisposed to be more resilient. Such models often describe resilience as a trait that is inherent in certain people — a combination of body chemistry and personality characteristics that determine individuals’ responses to stress. In fact, scientists suspect that the 5HTT gene, which is reported to influence serotonin function in the brain, may play a role. People with this gene may have a genetic advantage that helps them bounce back better in response to stress and hardship.

Microscopic view of DNA.
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann at Pixabay

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., professor and director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison believes that some people’s brains may actually be wired with the capacity to maintain high levels of well-being in the face of adversity. The difference may involve patterns of activation in the prefrontal cortex, a particular area of the brain often involved in regulating emotions.

However, Davidson cautions that just because biological differences in resilient and non-resilient people can be found, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the distinction is one that is genetically inherited. “Modern neuroscience research teaches us that the brain is an organ built to change in response to experience, probably more than any other organ in the body,” says Davidson, “… so while early differences in these patterns of brain function have been detected, we and others have also found remarkable plasticity or change that can occur.”

In fact, much of the literature suggests that environment also plays a role in the development of resilience. Frederic Flach, M.D., a well-known voice in the field and author of Resilience: Discovering a New Strength at Times of Stress, proposed a two-stage process that involves an extreme change or disruption (usually accompanied by emotional pain) and a reintegration, or “putting the pieces of our world back together but into a new, stronger, wider-based structure.” Flach explains that resilience is the array of personal strengths necessary to meet ongoing cycles of disruption and adaptation throughout our lives. Says Flach, “resilience is a strength most of us can develop with thought and practice.”

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., authors of The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life, have also proposed a process-oriented model of resilience. They argue that resilient people have certain attitudes and beliefs that influence their behaviors and the skills they develop, which in turn reinforce those attitudes and beliefs. The authors term this process a “resilient mindset.”

Building Blocks of Resilience

While there is no consensus in the literature regarding the mechanism of resilience, most theories have a great deal of overlap in the qualities and distinguishing characteristics they identify as being typical of resilient people. Resilience is said to be comprised of a variety of factors, such as:

  • the ability to manage strong emotions
  • an optimistic outlook (along with an acceptance of reality, rather than engaging in denial)
  • positive relationships and the ability to enlist others’ help
  • a sense of personal control and ownership
  • interpersonal and communication skills
  • strong values and beliefs
  • sense of humor
  • flexibility and an ability to be creative in solving problems
  • a strong sense of self and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities
  • the capacity to set realistic goals and take steps to carry them out

Flach points out that a person’s level of resilience will fluctuate over time. He writes, “No one particular resilient attribute is a static ingredient of our personalities. Sometimes, for example, we are more courageous than at others.” Some people may be strong in certain characteristics of resilience while weak on others. Argues Flach, “What is important is to understand our strengths and limitations and work to develop those attributes that are factors in resilience.”

Woman leaning against tree with eyes closed in contemplation.
Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

The Search for Meaning

Most experts agree that one of the most essential components of resilience is the ability to find meaning in life, and often in one’s suffering. We all have encountered people who see themselves as victims of whatever befalls them and seem to find no value in living through difficult times. Resilient people, in contrast, have the ability to find meaning in their suffering, and in so doing they can create a better future.

Victor E. Frankl, an internationally renowned psychiatrist and author of the celebrated book, Man’s Search for Meaning, pioneered a psychotherapy technique called “logotherapy” based on his own experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Logotherapy is literally translated as therapy through meaning and emphasizes human beings’ search for meaning in the face of suffering. Perhaps no one is a better model than Frankl of human resilience and the will to find meaning in even the most unspeakable suffering.

In fact, Frankl’s book is one of the most influential works in the psychology literature, and much of what is called “resilience training” today is based on Frankl’s theory, teaching people to construct meaning in their lives. Frankl recalls the men in the concentration camps “who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” He wrote, “they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…”

Frankl’s work and resilience theory in general teach us that we can find meaning in life even as we confront problems like chronic illness that don’t have ultimate solutions — that is, “when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” Being resilient doesn’t mean that one is hardened against stress or does not experience anguish and despair. Rather, a resilient person learns to bend without breaking and finds the strength to adapt to new challenges.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Diane Coutu called resilience “one of the great puzzles of human nature, like creativity or the religious instinct.” Indeed, a recurring theme in the research literature is that resilience is complex. According to Brooks and Goldstein, it is not something that can be discovered or attained like a “fountain of youth.” They emphasize that the process of building and maintaining the characteristics of resilience requires ongoing dedication. The authors point out, however, that these characteristics are tangible and within reach. “The more you are aware of the features that nurture resilience,” they write, “…the better prepared you will be to promote resilience and stress hardiness in yourself.”

Other experts agree. The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” By learning ways to build resilience, sufferers of chronic illness may be able to improve the quality of our lives.

Joanna Wasmuth, founder of Harmony Coaching Group and a fibromyalgia sufferer, teaches people to thrive in spite of chronic pain. “I have learned the anatomy of a comeback,” she said in an interview, “over and over and over.” Wasmuth emphasized that resilience is something that can be learned. “I think of resilience as a muscle,” she said. “When you go to work out, it hurts the first couple of times and you can’t really do that much with it. But as you work out more and more, it gets stronger and stronger.”

Couto noted that resilient people often don’t seem to have an awareness of this quality in themselves. “Resilience is a reflex,” she writes, “a way of facing and understanding the world that is deeply etched into a person’s mind and soul.”

No matter how resilience is defined or the exact mechanism by which it works, it is probably safe to say that we recognize it when we see it. Perhaps the poet Jane Hirshfield described the concept of resilience in the most eloquent and poignant way of all, in her poem entitled “Optimism”:

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side, it turns in another…

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Writer with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia helping others to survive and thrive with chronic illness. Lifelong learner, dog mom, therapist-to-be.

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Lisa Lorden Myers

Lisa Lorden Myers

Writer with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia helping others to survive and thrive with chronic illness. Lifelong learner, dog mom, therapist-to-be.

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