How Can We Build Resilience?

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The concept of resilience is well known in psychology. The definition of resilience (Masten & Powell, 2003) involves two key features: “doing okay” in life, and there is (or has been) “significant risk or adversity” to deal with. The first criterion, “doing okay”, reflects competence and connects to developmental tasks appropriate for the age, social context and historical time of the individual. Resilience is not suitable for a holistic description of a person. It is not able to define an important aspect of our life in every moment. We do not require resilience all the time and no one can be described as constantly resilient.


Resilience is “ordinary magic”

Risk and adversity rarely appear as a single event. Risk often piles up in life and multiple risk factors can be apparent. The most common and important risk factors would make a very long list indeed. They depend on a particular life situation, individual characteristics, and development and social context. Resilience is the process and ability of successful adaptation, despite challenges or adverse circumstances in life. According to Masten and Powell (2003), human development and adaptational systems can be seen in a more positive light if we believe in the idea of “ordinary magic”. Resilience is reachable in most cases and can help to steer the life of individuals, families, and groups in better directions.


What counters adversity?

As resilience makes no sense without risk, there must be something which helps to counter the effects of adversity.

Protective factors are usually categorized in three distinctive groups, such as:

  • Individual attributes
  • Family characteristics
  • Supportive systems outside the family

Resilience is a form of resistance – one that acts like a shield, which protects individuals against the effects of stress. When encountering stress, the person can find a way of successful coping, which can be used in similar situations later. However, finding the optimal solution is, in most cases, dependant not only on the decision of the individual, but also requires the balancing effect of protective factors and resources. The more risks and adversities one has to face, the more protective factors are required to maintain healthy development and functioning.

The most damaging risks affect key adaptive systems, such as family relations or the development of the central nervous system. As stated earlier, risk factors are often cumulative. According to research results, the presence of one risk factor does not increase the occurrence of negative outcomes compared to no risk at all. However, the presence of multiple risk factors simultaneously significantly increases the chance of negative outcomes.


Individual attributes that are associated with resilience

Masten and Powell summarize the most important attributes of individuals and their context associated with resilience.

Factors within the individual include good level of cognitive abilities, such as high IQ scores, good attention or executive functioning. Resilient individuals have high self-esteem and feelings of self-efficacy, along with confidence and competence. Their temperament and personality is sociable and adaptive. They show good self-regulation skills, are able to control their impulses, affective instincts and arousal. Resilient people have a positive perspective; they are optimistic, hopeful and believe in the meaning of life.


Family factors and social influences in the context of resilience

Individual characteristics are not enough in the majority of cases to tackle the adverse effects of risk factors. Intra and extra-familial relationships and social context play a very important role in overcoming difficulties and barriers.

Family factors include the quality of parenting (in the case of children/youth); positive, caring and loving relationships within the family; the supportive role of extended family; pro-social and rule-abiding behaviours; healthy structure and expectations.

The protective factors of the community or society can be various. The affiliation with organizations, which have a pro-social and positive orientation, such as clubs or religious groups can represent a very positive move toward resilience. Religion, spirituality, or faith has a strong protective force. Although these can be viewed as individual characteristics, their expression is rather social and communal. The quality of schools, social services and health care are all important indicators of possible resilience. These institutions can offer invaluable help and create a sense of belonging. The quality of neighbourhood is an important question; public safety, recreational opportunities, opportunities for obtaining knowledge and collective supervision can be contributing factors to the development of resilience.


What distinguishes resilient and maladaptive people?

The presence of available resources and protective factors does not guarantee resilience. The effective use of these assets is an important feature of resilient individuals. Another critical distinguishing factor between resilient and maladaptive people is the ability to locate and create their own protective factors. Those who are less able to adapt successfully to stress and adversities often create difficult situations for themselves. They get into trouble as the consequence of their own actions and react badly to stress. Resilient individuals may not have better competencies when compared to their maladaptive peers. However, many of them, over time, were able to turn their lives around and become resilient. Interestingly, reaching adulthood can bring a very important change in their attitudes and fortunes. Some of them went back to school; married fortunately, joined the army, moved away from their disadvantaged home or found spirituality.


Is there a price to pay for resilience?

One might be successful in dealing with stress and coping with adverse life conditions, but their damaging effect does not vanish without a trace. According to research results, resilient persons are characterized by higher levels of anxiety and depression; they might experience unexplainable sadness, might be unbalanced sometimes or have difficulties concentrating. This price is relatively low, compared to the outcomes of maladaptive individuals.


Resilience can help to overcome adverse conditions and life events, deal with stress, overcome barriers of our development and fight our own demons. It can be fostered and taught. Luckily, it is not an ‘either you have it or you have it not’ situation. The individual, the family and community all have important roles to play in the fostering of individual resilience. Providing support, resources, discovering strengths and weaknesses, offering help and knowledge in the localization and appropriate use of resources and existing talents, can all be very much done. Resilience helps people to live a purposeful life as valuable members of their community, not just being derailed individuals who are unable to do something with their lives.


Reference: Masten, A. S., Powell, J. L: (2003): A Resilience Framework for Research, Policy and Practice, IN: Luthar, S. S. (Ed.): Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities, New York, Cambridge University Press

If you are looking for help, whether for yourself or for a loved one, our psychologists can assist in exploring underlying issues through therapy. Please visit our practitioners’ page to find out more, or call (03) 9820-5577 for an appointment or to make enquiries.


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