How do we cultivate resilience? We need acceptance, reappraisal, humour - and each other
Recently we saw resilience clearly demonstrated (and broadcasted world wide). It was on display with the 13 young trapped Thai footballers. Despite the trauma and stress they had been through in the cave and on the journey to safety, they were able to retain hope and return to their family healthy and happy.
On Psychology Today resilience is defined as the "ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever."
Though it seems unlikely to be a character trait only reserved for some - surely it's a quality we can all cultivate? With what component qualities do we strengthen and build our resilience?
Authors of "Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges" Steven Southwick & Dennis Charney recently shared a summary of the thinking represented in their book, on aeon.com.
Here's an extract:
An important component of cognitive flexibility is accepting the reality of our situation, even if that situation is frightening or painful. To remain effectively engaged in problem-oriented and goal-directed coping, we must keep our eyes ‘wide open’, and acknowledge, rather than ignore, potential roadblocks.
Avoidance and denial are generally counterproductive mechanisms that can help people for a while, but ultimately stand in the way of growth, interfering with the ability to actively solve problems.
In the scientific literature, acceptance has been cited as a key ingredient in the ability to tolerate highly stressful situations. This has been cited among survivors of extreme environmental hardship and threats to life, among highly successful learning-disabled adults, and among individuals with a variety of medical and mental disorders.
In a survey of individuals shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, researchers found reduced levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who accepted the situation. In a study of mothers whose children had life-threatening cancer and were undergoing bone transplants, those who accepted the situation reported fewer symptoms of depression.
Another ingredient of resilience is the ability to reappraise a situation – a skill called cognitive reappraisal. Several years ago, while conducting a study on the psychological and neurobiological consequences of the Holocaust, a colleague asked an elderly survivor of the Nazi concentration camps if she had ever dreamed about her experience.
‘Oh yes,’ the woman replied. ‘I’ve never stopped dreaming about those times. I just had a dream the other night.’
Our colleague replied: ‘My goodness, it must be horrible to still have those nightmares after all those years.’
‘Oh no,’ the woman said. ‘It’s OK. It’s OK because when I awaken, I know that I’m here and not there.’
Positive reappraisal requires us to find alternative positive meaning for neutral or negative events, situations and/or beliefs. In reviewing an extensive scientific literature on cognitive strategies to regulate emotion, the psychologists Allison Troy and Iris Mauss at the University of Denver propose that positive cognitive reappraisal fosters resilience through its effect on negative emotions.
More specifically, reappraising the meaning of a stressful event as less negative or more positive changes emotional reactions to the event and results in a more adaptive and resilient response.
We can take cues from those around us to help us interpret (or reinterpret) our own experiences in a more positive light. For example, in the workplace, a manager or supervisor might point out the positive aspects of an adverse situation or event, providing employees with cognitive and emotional tools to view the adversity as a challenge.
Resilience demands the emotional stability to handle failure, what the late US Navy vice-admiral James Stockdale referred to as the ‘ability to meet personal defeat with neither the defect of emotional paralysis and withdrawal, nor the excess lashing-out at scapegoats or inventing escapist solutions’.
In our experience, people who are resilient generally meet failure head-on and use it as an opportunity to learn and to self-correct.
Recent research on coping has shown that successful adaptation depends less on which specific strategies people adopt than on whether they are applying coping strategies flexibly depending on the nature of the stressor. Sometimes it is wise to accept and tolerate a situation, while at other times it is best to change it.
Similarly, emotion theorists argue that expression of emotion is not necessarily better than suppression. What helps people to cope is having the ability to express or suppress emotions in accordance with the demands of a given situation.
Humour helps, too. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), Viktor Frankl refers to humour as ‘another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well-known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.’
Like other positive emotions, humour tends to broaden one’s focus of attention and thereby foster exploration, creativity and flexibility in thinking. Humour can also serve as a tool to help us face our fears. It provides distance and perspective, but does so without denying pain or fear. It manages to present the positive and negative wrapped into one package.
As the Frankl scholar Ann Graber puts it, humour combines ‘optimism with a realistic look at the tragic’. Without Pollyanna-like optimism, humour can actively confront, proactively reframe, and at times transform the tragic.
In sum, people who are resilient tend to be flexible; they know when to accept that which cannot be changed and how to positively reframe life’s challenges and failures; they use humour to reframe the tragic and that which is frightening; and they regulate their emotions, sometimes suppressing feelings and at other times expressing them.
Resilience requires creativity and flexibility: the creativity to explore multiple viewpoints and the flexibility to embrace a positive but realistic assessment – or reassessment – of a challenging situation.
We've heard about how the young footballers showed flexibility, acceptance (helped along by the meditation techniques taught by their coach) and also humour. At their first public appearance, they joked about staying in the cave to eat the snacks the Navy SEAL had brought them.
It is also clear that the boys and their coach are a great team. They have trained in sticking together and supporting each other - and because of this they were able to be, and stay, resilient.
Could we claim that collaboration is a key component of resilience? Or perhaps community?
When we can't find humour in a stressful situations ourselves those around us might be able to make us laugh. Or help us reappraise the situation. Can we even be resilient on our own?
We would love to hear more stories of the resilience of communities? If you've got one email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.