What is Psychological Resilience?

James Neill
Last updated:
16 Apr 2006

What is Psychological Resilience?

Psychological resilience refers to an individual's capacity to withstand stressors and not manifest psychology dysfunction, such as mental illness or persistent negative mood.  This is the mainstream psychological view of resilience, that is, resilience is defined in terms a person's capacity to avoid psychopathology despite difficult circumstances. 

Psychological stressors or "risk factors" are often considered to be experiences of major acute or chronic stress such as death of someone else, chronic illness, sexual, physical or emotional abuse, fear, unemployment and community violence.

The central process involved in building resilience is the training and development of adaptive coping skills. The basic flow model (called the transactional model) of stress and coping is: A stressor (i.e. a potential source of stress) occurs and cognitive appraisal takes place (deciding whether or not the stressor represents something that can be readily dealt with or is a source of stress because it may be beyond one's coping resources).  If a stressor is consider to be a danger, coping responses are triggered. Coping strategies are generally either be outwardly focused on the problem (problem-solving), inwardly focused on emotions (emotion-focused) or socially focused, such as emotional support from others.

In humanistic psychology, resilience refers to an individual's capacity to thrive and fulfill potential despite or perhaps even because of such stressors.  Resilient individuals and communities are more inclined to see problems as opportunities for growth.  In other words, resilient individuals seem not only to cope well with unusual strains and stressors but actually to experience such challenges as learning and development opportunities.

Whilst some individuals may seem to prove themselves to be more resilient than others, it should be recognized that resilience is a dynamic quality, not a permanent capacity.  In other words, resilient individuals demonstrate dynamic self-renewal, whereas less resilient individuals find themselves worn down and negatively impacted by life stressors.

John Dewey (1859-1952), the renowned 20th century American educational philosopher, describes this sense of continuance through dynamic self-renewal:

A stone when struck resists.  If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered.  While the living thing may easily be crushed by a superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existences...  It is the very nature of life to strive to continue in being.  Since this continuance can be secured only by constant renewals, life is a self-renewing process.

Ultimately it seems to me resilience is some kind dynamic quality that is very private.  If rooted firmly in the inner sanctum, resilience can hibernate but remain alive during times of difficulty and oppression, then flower when circumstances become more favorable.   It is the inner voice that is most prevalent in the human psyche; the inner voice is constantly chattering away. Human psychological experience is fundamentally shaped by what happens in the inner sanctum or core beliefs.  When events become overwhelming, when adrenalin surges, when things go wrong, resilience emerges as the  capacity to still find the wherewithal, determination and reason to cope with situation, regardless, despite all odds and more often than not, to find ways through.

Everybody would secretly love to discover themselves as a heroic adventurer and the human capacity for innovative survival has proven itself quite extraordinarily. Living by will alone though is not enough, it takes a lifelong and daily commitment to concentrate and exercise one’s deepest capacities of resilience in order to genuinely consider oneself resilient to a wide variety of human challenges.  And it should be noted that resilience does not guarantee one’s survival – we all die sooner or later and many of the most resilient people in the world are being cut down in their midst. In the process of living and dying, we get to ride the waves.

Closely Related Terms for Psychological Resilience

Relevant psychological literature on resilience hasn't always used the term 'resilience' or 'psychological resilience'.  Consider searching for material using synonyms or closely related keywords, such as (major terms in bold):

  • Adaptive Coping
  • Adversity Quotient
  • Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman)
  • Hardiness
  • Learned Optimism (Martin Seligman)
  • Learned Resourcefulness (Rosenbaum)
  • Life Orientation
  • Resourcefulness
  • Self-esteem, Self-concept, Self-confidence, Self-efficacy
  • Self-healing personality (Howard Friedman)
  • Sense of Coherence (Aaron Antonovsky)
  • Sense of Meaning (Viktor Frankl)
  • Thriving (Al Siebert - Thrivenet)

What are the Characteristics of Resilient People?

  • Ability to "bounce back" and "recover from almost anything"
  • Have a "where there's a will, there's a way" attitude
  • Tendency to see problems as opportunities
  • Ability to "hang tough" which things are difficult
  • Capacity for seeing small windows of opportunity and making the most of them
  • Have deep-rooted faith in a system of meaning
  • Have a healthy social support network
  • Has the wherewithal to competently handle most different kinds of situations
  • Has a wide comfort zone
  • Able to recover from experiences in the panic zone or of a traumatic nature

Examples of Resilient People

Who can you think of as examples of resilient people?  I’m thinking here of people such as

  • Helen Keller
    (blind and deaf from birth, demonstrated remarkable resilience in learning how to communicate and live with passion)
  • Nelson Mandela
    (jailed for decades in South Africa during apartheid, then later leader of the country)
  • Aung San Suu Kyi
    (Pro-democracy advocate in Myanmar whose father who lived under threat and house arrest for many years)
  • Anne Frank
    (Jewish girl who kept famous diary and notes whilst hiding from Nazis, then later died in a concentration camp)

Most resilient people, however, are not famous.  Their lives are nevertheless characterized by actions, events and experiences which collectively embody the qualities that enable one not only to overcome what others may experience as disasters but to utilize such experiences to reach even further into the marrow of life and ride higher than ever.

"Resilient" people are not necessarily "good" people.  We may revere and "hero-ize" many people for their resilience, but that doesn't make all resilient people "good" or morally superior.  Resilient people can be found in all walks of life, the good, the bad and the ugly.  The concept of psychological resilience has no direct relationship with morality.  The notion of resilience in this sense is value-free, much as intelligence has no direct relationship with morality -- it all depends on how resilience or intelligence is applied. 

A controversial example of a resilient person is Rubin Carter (google search).  Carter was a famous boxer who demonstrated considerable resilience in eventually getting himself released from jail after being convicted of a triple murder.  Carter attracted considerable publicity through his book, media, and then an inspirational movie "Hurricane" about his life, time in jail, and court proceedings, etc.  However, if you look through various web pages on Rubin Carter, you will find considerable claims and evidence suggesting Rubin is not as innocent as he or the movie wished to portray.

Enhancing Psychological Resilience
(Can We Teach/Train Resilience?)

Resilience it not a fluke; it generally emerges in people who’ve trained hard, have particular attitudes, cognitive and emotional skills and a deep determination to overcome serious challenges.

Building the psychological resilience of at-risk populations has become an increasingly popular target of community intervention, youth work, social work and personal development programs during the latter 20th century.  For example, resilience is a key theme in the well-known 40 developmental assets (Search Institute). 

Community efforts to enhance resilience through intervention programs have been increasingly seen as pro-active, preventative, potentially cost-saving, and positive approaches to minimizing psychological dysfunction.  Enhancing psychological resilience seems to be an underlying theme in both clinical and humanistic or positive psychological work, as well as in challenge-based personal development programs such as Outward Bound.

A simple formula worth remembering for how to foster someone’s growth and development of resilience is:

growth = challenge + support

Any level of challenge can be provided if the support is corresponding. But even a small amount of challenge may be too much and lead to traumatic experience if the person isn’t well supported.

Psychological Resilience Books