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Resilience: how to survive adversity

Some people manage to overcome difficulties and come out stronger on the other side. Others do not manage to recover. Human responses to critical moments in life vary depending on our capacity to consider change as an opportunity to better oneself.


psyche locura religion pixabayLaura Rodriguez

In the same way that certain objects and materials (such as foam balls, rubber, or springs) possess a degree of elasticity which allows them to recuperate their original shape after having been compressed by an external force, the capacity of human adaptation allows people to endure experiences which have had a negative impact on their lives, and to recover their emotional balance after such a change.

These two cases have the same idea in common, internal flexibility, which can be used to characterise the concept of “resilience”.

Originally applied to the field of physics to determine a material’s malleability when subject to a forceful impact, the term “resilience” (from the Latin resilio: to go back, to bounce, to re-emerge) found a new definition.

Effectively, the term was was incorporated by positive psychology as a metaphor that refers to the various attributes and skills which allow individuals to overcome life’s negative experiences and take advantage of them to favour their own personal development.

But what are the human attributes and skills capable of such an extraordinary operation?

One of the pioneering investigations that has managed to give an answer to this question required 40 years of meticulous study of the lives of 700 people.

Kauai’s ugly ducklings

The North American psychologists, Emmy E. Werner and Ruth Smith, studied the development of all children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1995, with the objective of demonstrating a particular determinist theory.

tirania mujer violencia pixabayThe study was of children who came frm poor and dysfunctional homes (with parents who were alcoholics, illiterate or who suffered from mental illness), and children who experienced problems at birth or during pregnancy. It was thought that such children would show higher rates of delinquency, physical and mental problems, and destruction of the family, compared to those who were less exposed to factors that would put their development at risk.

The results, however, surprised analysts. Of a total of 698 individuals, 276 presented these characteristics. However, a third of the children, despite having been subjected to a high level of unfavourable conditions during childhood, developed positively, and grew up to become balanced adults who were competent at both a domestic and professional level.

But what factors allowed this group of children to demonstrate certain levels of resilience, despite having had a difficult childhood?

Werner and Smith discovered a common denominator. The children who had managed to better themselves had been able to rely on the support of at least one other person, a family member or guardian who had accepted them unconditionally. These children had developed a sense of belonging to their school, to a community or to a religion, and had a sense of control and autonomy over their own lives.

These results were instrumental in expanding the vision of the process strengthened to increase the consideration of a person’s environment as a source of potential support, and something that could improve their health and quality of life.

Other writers who have analysed these resilience results have also put emphasis on the importance of bonding, initiative, self-esteem, creativity, morality and a sense of commitment  as factors that soften the impact of unhappy periods.

Locura mental salud pixabayPositive psychology

The cutting edge of positive psychology studies the adaptive value of positive emotions.

Possessing an optimistic vision of the future and maintaining a sense of humour and empathy are considered some of the most effective weapons to battle life’s difficulties and achieving good health.The models of resilience proposed for this particular discipline contrast traditional psychology’s usual techniques.

These models focus on the development of resources and the personal strengths of the individual. It is not sufficient to combat a problem or repair something that has broken, it is more effective to construct a way out through the positive characteristics of the affected person, so that they can find value themselves.

The individual, or patient, therefore becomes the instigator of their internal development through their capacity to modify the environment that surrounds them, instead of being a passive subject, or an impotent victim of the traumas of their childhood.

Fortunately, the contributions of positive psychology, in this sense, have increasingly rejected the idea that if the patient has suffered profound emotional damage, they will be less capable of recovering and will therefore be limited by the negative aspects of their past.

A step forward

In the early days, resilience studies focussed on identifying a posteriori, the collective factors that allowed individuals to overcome adversity. In recent decades the understanding of resilience has been enriched by numerous initiatives of social intervention, which make an effort to promote it.

El murcielago 2 pixabayProof of this is the emergence of a multitude of models, designed both by psychologists and educational professionals. Such models pursue the promotion of resilience through programmes, techniques and strategies of intervention designed to prevent situations of crisis, stimulate positive emotions and contribute to the development of an individual’s capabilities.

The strategy is aimed at members of the public from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Although it could be discovered to be further developed in some subjects than in others, resilience is not a quality exclusive to a handful of chosen people. Each and every individual is resilient.

The opportunity to reinvent yourself

“To hate or to love life is a matter of choice. Events that happen in the present become the cause of future effects, which, according to those who experience them, can be considered positive or negative […] Following a traumatic event, —for example, a woman who has been raped— the victim can feel that her life has been ruined forever, or she can reconstruct herself stronger than ever.”

Vida y muerte Pixabay 6These words of the Chilean artist and writer, Alejandro Jodorowsky, address the freedom of the subject’s self-construction, a liberty that is ever-present, but is amplified during periods of profound crisis.

Destabilising events such as trauma or suffering are a turning point that ruptures  many of the certainties, value systems and general habits that people have within them

But it is precisely through the capacity of traumatic events to shake the foundations of the individual’s world view, that can trigger a fuller existence.

What better moment to change paths  and find a new perspective, than when it’s time to rebuild? Converting the more terrible aspects of life into healing opportunities is a task that requires as much creativity as bravery, but one that at the same time opens up the possibility to build a happier future.

Reinventing yourself means, in this sense, allowing your resilient resources to flourish, a potential of our personality that is so often hidden, but something that allows us to be born again and pave a safer path towards a better future. (May 28, 2012 @ 06:01)

Photos: Pixabay  –  (Translated by Rosa Elswood)

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  1. Please credit the last image in your article Rebirth (c) Gloria Gypsy the artwork is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License which requires attribution when shared. Thank you.

    • Dear Gloria,

      We are happy to credit the image but it’s not clear which one is the one that needs to be credited? There is not article named “Rebirth”, could you please clarify and described the pic?

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