Psychological Resilience

Resilience is described as a person’s or a community’s ability to absorb shock and bounce back after experiencing a critical or traumatic event. Resilience does not mean that people do not experience distress from the events in their lives, but rather that they are able to cope with and recover from them using their resources.

Source: Psychosocial Support for Youth in Post-Conflict Situations. Trainer’s Handbook.

Discovering how to develop resilience, empathy and self-esteem will support the teachers in guiding youth to overcome life difficulties and access personal and professional resources, to lead a healthy lifestyle and to stay safe. When increasing the understanding among trainers, related to the different backgrounds and cultures of the students, they will be able offer even more support as tutors.

In order to know yourself on a deeper level, it is necessary to allow all emotions to reach surface awareness, to understand these emotions and to enable them to mature. For the greatest part of the time, there is a big resistance in letting this happen and there are a lot of difficulties in order to overcome the resistance. Some of us recognize the signs of our own resistance and consciously battle against it, we recognize the escape-mechanism at work. But some of us are still so involved in the resistance itself that we are unaware of the obstructions we put in the way of our own growth.

Human beings who function harmoniously have developed the physical, mental, and emotional sides of their nature. These three spheres are supposed to function harmoniously with one another, each helping the other, rather than one subduing the other. If one function is underdeveloped, it causes a disharmony in the human structure, and also cripples the entire personality. Most human beings look mainly after the physical self. A part of us cultivates the mental side as well, but human beings particularly neglect, repress, and cripple the growth of their emotional nature.

Why the emotional nature is generally neglected? In the world of feeling you experience the good and the bad, the happy and the unhappy, pleasure and pain. Contrary to just registering such impressions mentally, emotional experience really touches you. Since your struggle is primarily for happiness, and since immature emotions lead to unhappiness, your secondary aim becomes the avoidance of unhappiness. This creates the early, mostly unconscious conclusion: “If I do not feel, then I will not be unhappy.” In other words, instead of taking the courageous and appropriate step to live through negative, immature emotions in order to afford them the opportunity to grow and thus become mature and constructive, the childish emotions are suppressed, put out of awareness and buried, so that they remain inadequate and destructive, even though the person is unaware of their existence.

Unhappy circumstances exist in every child’s life; pain and disappointment are common. If such pains and disappointments are not experienced consciously, they are allowed to stagnate in a vague, dull climate you cannot even name but take for granted. Then the danger is that an unconscious resolution will be formed saying, “I must not allow myself to feel if I wish to prevent the pain and the experience of unhappiness.”

Although we can supress our emotions by anaesthetize ourselves, in the long run we cannot avoid the unhappiness that will get to us in a different and much more painful, but indirect way. Feeling and emotional expression can be mature and constructive or immature and destructive. As a child, we possessed an immature body and mind and therefore, quite naturally, an immature emotional structure. Most of us gave our body and mind a chance to grow out of the immaturity and to reach a certain physical and mental maturity. Yet this is not done with our emotional self.

Yet, either mature or immature from an emotional point of view, all of us go through life and do our best in order to overcome difficult times and situations: the death of a loved one, loss of a job, serious illness, terrorist attacks and other traumatic events that can change in an instant our lives. Many people react to such circumstances with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty.

Yet people generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and stressful conditions. What enables them to do so? It involves resilience, an ongoing process that requires time and effort and engages people in taking a number of steps.

Resilience is 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 school/workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Renowned French neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik’s parents were deported to a concentration camp during the Second World War. They never returned. This early personal trauma at the age of five led Cyrulnik to his life’s work helping individuals and countries come to terms with their pasts and forge ahead to create positive futures. It is his firm belief that trauma does not equal destiny-that, rather, we can find strength in the face of pain.

Drawing on years of experience working around the globe with children who have been abused, orphaned, fought in wars and escaped genocide. Cyrulnik tells many amazing and moving stories of individuals whose experiences prove that suffering, however appalling, can be the making of somebody rather than their destruction. His inspiring books teach us that we can not only survive in the shadow of adversity-we can thrive.

Research has shown that resilience is an ordinary, not an extraordinary trait. People commonly demonstrate resilience. In fact, you can’t say there are people who lack totally resilience. Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

Factors in Resilience

A combination of factors contributes to resilience. Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.

Several additional factors are associated with resilience, including:

Capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out

Positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities

Skills in communication and problem solving

Capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

All of these are factors that people can develop in themselves

Strategies for Building Resilience

Developing resilience is a personal journey. People do not all react the same to traumatic and stressful life events. An approach to building resilience that works for one person might not work for another. People use varying strategies. 

Some variation may reflect cultural differences. A person’s culture might have an impact on how he or she communicates feelings and deals with adversity — for example, whether and how a person connects with significant others, including extended family members and community resources. With growing cultural diversity, the public has greater access to a number of different approaches to building resilience. 

Stefan Vanistendael, a Belgian sociologist and a specialist in demography, tried to illustrate the elements that build our resilience using the metaphor of a house. If you take the time to fill in the blanks each “room” of this house with elements from your life helps you better understand your resources to surpass difficult times in your life. 

Focusing on past experiences and sources of personal strength can help you learn about what strategies for building resilience might work for you. By exploring answers to the following questions about yourself and your reactions to challenging life events, you may discover how you can respond effectively to difficult situations in your life.

Consider the following:

  • What kinds of events have been most stressful for me?
  • How have those events typically affected me?
  • Have I found it helpful to think of important people in my life when I am distressed?
  • To whom have I reached out for support in working through a traumatic or stressful experience?
  • What have I learned about myself and my interactions with others during difficult times?
  • Has it been helpful for me to assist someone else going through a similar experience?
  • Have I been able to overcome obstacles, and if so, how?
  • What has helped make me feel more hopeful about the future?

Resilience involves maintaining flexibility and balance in your life as you deal with stressful circumstances and traumatic events.

This happens in several ways, including:

  • Letting yourself experience strong emotions, and also realizing when you may need to avoid experiencing them at times in order to continue functioning.
  • Stepping forward and taking action to deal with your problems and meet the demands of daily living, and also stepping back to rest and reenergize yourself.
  • Spending time with loved ones to gain support and encouragement, and also nurturing yourself.
  • Relying on others, and also relying on yourself.
  • Getting help when you need it is crucial in building your resilience.

Beyond caring family members and friends, people often find it helpful to turn to:

  • Self-help and support groups. Such community groups can aid people struggling with hardships such as the death of a loved one. By sharing information, ideas and emotions, group participants can assist one another and find comfort in knowing that they are not alone in experiencing difficulty.
  • Books and other publications by people who have successfully managed adverse situations such as surviving cancer. These stories can motivate readers to find a strategy that might work for them personally.
  • Online resources. Information on the web can be a helpful source of ideas, though the quality of information varies among sources.

For many people, using their own resources and the kinds of help listed above may be sufficient for building resilience. At times, however, an individual might get stuck or have difficulty making progress on the road to resilience, and here comes the moment to turn to specialists in order to get professional help.

However, in developing your personal strategy, you can consider some of the following ways to build resilience:

Make connections

Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.

Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems

You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.

Accept that change is a part of living

Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly – even if it seems like a small accomplishment – that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”

Take decisive actions

Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.

Look for opportunities for self-discovery

People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and heightened appreciation for life.

Nurture a positive view of yourself

Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.

Keep things in perspective

Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

Maintain an optimistic and hopeful outlook

An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.

Take care of yourself

Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful

For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope. Drawing, playing an instrument, composing, and, in general, all creative activities are therapeutic in themselves, because they let you express your emotions in the purest way possible.


ROBIN training, CSC,