One of the most baffling things about our species is how diversely we respond to adversity. While some people fall apart at the seams when there’s a crisis at hand, others seem to cope with it calmly. No two people respond to the same situation in the same way, and that’s okay. We have different thresholds, pasts, beliefs, traits, genes, experiences and mental, physical and social resources. While humans may be different, human life is alike in more ways that we realise. One thing that’s true for all of us is this: everyone faces difficulties, stress, loss, and tragedy. This means that resilience is something that matters to everyone.
What is resilience?
According to the APA (American Psychological Association), resilience is the ability to ‘adapt well in the face of adversity trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.’ Now, that’s rather vague, isn’t it? What does ‘adapting well’ mean in this context?
Let’s take an example – say you drive a car, and end up in a traumatic road accident. You hit a biker, and left them gravely injured. The biker had to undergo surgery and was bed-ridden for six months. That’s a lot to deal with for someone who hit the biker! How would you deal with it? Would you stop driving? Or would you learn to be more careful? Or would you accept that accidents are, well, accidents?
While resilience is about coping well with a traumatic incident, it is also dynamic and complex. It means different things in different situations.
Another example – say you are madly in love with someone. You centre your whole life around this person, and make their happiness your number one priority. You’ve been with them for a few years, and slowly, your relationship starts turning sour. There are lies said, harsh words spoken, trust broken. After fighting tooth and nail, you decide it’s time to let go. What do you do after that? Do you give up on love and relationships altogether? Or, do you take your time to heal, and then move on?
The important thing to remember about resilience is that it drives us back to a sense of mental equilibrium. While resilience is about adapting well, it is also about learning and growing from adversity.
Is there a resilience gene?
In his book, The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive, Thomas Boyce explains that some children are born with an inherent resilience. We tend to think of young children as fragile, in need of protection. But, in his research, Boyce discovered that a majority of children are tolerant of adversity and are able to adapt and evolve. These children are called Dandelions, named after the delicate but sturdy flower. Only one in five children have a difficult time coping. These kids are called Orchids.
So yes, as the book reveals, there is a resilience gene. But our genetics don’t always determine our fate.
Boyce’s research also revealed that socialisation plays a huge role in how the resilience gene plays out. This means – if someone has a dandelion gene, but they are mollycoddled and overprotected, it may suppress gene expression, making them less resilient than they could have been. On the other hand, an Orchid can learn to be resilient with the right upbringing and life experiences.
What are the traits of a resilient person?
Resilient people have some traits in common. And here’s the good news: all of these traits can be cultivated. It’s hard work, but it’s not impossible. Below are a few things that are common between most people who are resilient:
- Staying optimistic
- Cultivating self-awareness and strong boundaries
- Regulating one’s emotions
- An attitude of acceptance is important for resilience
- Evaluating situations from a balanced perspective
- Understanding that one can’t control external factors, but one can control one’s own response
- Cultivating an innovative approach to problem-solving
Does trauma make us more resilient?
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’. This may have been true for Nietzsche, but it’s certainly not true for everyone. Trauma doesn’t necessarily make us more resilient. Some people develop develop dysfunctional ways of coping with trauma. Many survivors of abuse, for instance, become abusers themselves. This is their way of reclaiming power and control. Not the healthiest way of coping. Another example of this substance abuse, which is common among communities that have faced violence or bias.
But, like dandelions and orchids, most people do become more resilient in face of adversity. In this interview Jamie Aten explains that in cases of complex trauma, resilience is in simple, every day acts like getting through the day, eating well, not falling back into dysfunctional ways of coping.
How can you build resilience?
According to human development expert Dr Ginsburg, there are 7 C’s of resilience. These are:
- Competence in handing stressful situations.
- Confidence in one’s own abilities.
- Connection and close ties with family, friends and community.
- Character, which includes a caring attitude, a strong sense of right and wrong, being true to one’s values, high self-esteem, and empathy.
- Contribution to the world and a sense of responsibility toward making a positive impact.
- Coping skills, stress-reduction skills and social skills.
- Control over one’s decisions and actions.
A close investigation of this list tells us that all of the 7 C’s of resilience can be cultivated. We can learn important skills required to handle stressful situations. We can develop close social connections that will provide us a psychological buffer from stress. And certainly, we can create a sense of responsibility toward the world we inhabit.
We would add another ‘C’ to this list: Challenge
Challenging yourself in your daily life is another great way of building resilience. Athletes use the principle of ‘Progressive Overload’ in strength training. They gradually increase the weight they lift, and over time, the lighter weights they started with seem like feather. They overcome the initial challenge which may have felt colossal at the time, and become stronger in the process.
Ultimately, this is what resilience means. To overcome. And to come out stronger.
If you’re looking to build resilience, here are five things you could try:
Exercise: In Yoga philosophy, they say, the way you approach your practice on the mat becomes the way you approach life’s challenges off the mat. Having a regular and challenging physical regime will build your confidence, and ultimately, psychological resilience.
Introspect: Resilience is an act of courage and clarity. Self-awareness will help you understand your strengths and skills. Once you know what your strongest suits are, you can always iron them out.
Embrace failure and mistakes as lessons: No failure is final, and no mistake is futile. These are opportunities for improvement. So, begin treating them like that.
Shift your locus of control: Your actions and behaviour are in your control. What happens around you isn’t. Others’ actions and behaviours aren’t either. Reorienting your locus of control to this will help you put things in perspective during difficult times.
Read: Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. Read anything and everything that would help you broaden your horizons.
Once a resilient person, always a resilient person?
Well, yes and no. We’re human beings, not rolling stones. We evolve. We change. Sometimes we get stronger. Sometimes we get weaker. Sometimes we get exhausted.
While yes, if resilience is a core trait, it will remain so, this doesn’t mean that a resilient person will show up with a flex in every adverse situation throughout their life. Nor does it mean that every difficult life situation will be a lesson or an opportunity for growth. Some things do break parts of us in permanent ways. ‘Parts of us’ being the operative term here.
Resilience is like the weather. It’s always there, but it has its seasons.
I write. I read. I do yoga. I hula hoop. I love cats and dogs in equal measure. I'd say the same for wine. My zen motto: "Eat kale for the body, cake for the soul." Find me on IG: @prachigangwani87