Our early life experiences and intimate connections offer valuable perspectives into our ability to handle adversities. Resilience is essentially our aptitude to recover from tough circumstances, adapt, advance, and sometimes even evolve.
Experts studying resilience emphasize that it's a mistake to believe that certain individuals are innately more resilient. This is because almost any characteristic can bear both positive and negative implications depending on the context.
The importance of an individual's personal past cannot be overstated. The most critical element contributing to resilience, underscored consistently in resilience research over the past fifty years, is the strength of our personal relationships, especially those with parents and primary caregivers. Initial parental bonding is crucial to human adaptation throughout life.
"The level of love you experienced during childhood greatly impacts how you navigate challenges in your adult life," states Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatry professor at Boston University School of Medicine and founder of the Trauma Research Foundation. Having studied post-traumatic stress since the 1970s, he suggests that the initial 20 years of life are extremely crucial. "Our early traumas shape our perceptions, interpretations, and expectations; the brain molds itself based on these experiences, as it develops according to usage," he elaborates.
Resilience is best thought of as a skill set, often acquired through learning and exposure to difficult yet surmountable experiences.
"Stress isn't completely detrimental," comments Steven M. Southwick, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, PTSD, and Resilience at Yale University School of Medicine. According to him, resilience emerges from successfully navigating through stressful global events.
Our resilience hinges on the resources we possess. Some people resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, overindulgence in food, gambling, or excessive shopping, which do not foster resilience.
However, those who exhibit resilience often utilize resources such as realistic optimism, moral guidance, religious or spiritual beliefs, cognitive and emotional adaptability, and social connections. The most resilient among us typically minimize the negatives and seek opportunities even in the darkest hours.
Studies indicate that dedication to a worthwhile cause or belief in something greater enhances resilience, as does cognitive flexibility.
"Many resilient individuals have mastered the art of accepting things they cannot change while focusing on those they can," Dr. Southwick notes. On the contrary, fixating on uncontrollable elements can hinder one's ability to cope.
Through his research with former prisoners of war, Dr. Southwick found that, despite intense suffering, many managed to find new growth opportunities and life purposes.
"Identifying our unique challenges and devising ways to overcome them is crucial," advises George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers College. The encouraging part, he adds, is that most of us will fare well. In a review of 67 studies of people exposed to various traumas, Professor Bonanno's lab discovered that two-thirds demonstrated resilience and were able to function efficiently in a short time.
Interviews with numerous highly resilient individuals have revealed shared traits. They typically exhibit a positive, realistic outlook, possess a moral guide, believe in something greater than themselves, practice altruism, accept the unchangeable while focusing on what they can alter, have a sense of purpose, and a solid social support system.