Building Reslience in a Turbulent World

By Tova Kreps, LCSW, Wellspring Counseling President & Co Founder

This last year has been challenging for all of us, and some may be struggling to bounce back after a season filled with stress, fear, or sorrow. Psychologists define resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” [1]

Resilience does not mean someone is adversity-proof. It means that despite experiencing pain and distress, you are able to adapt and move forward with life, sometimes with personal growth from having done so. Actually, resilience research reveals that resilience is common, not extraordinary,[2]  and that what helps someone to be resilient is a combination of many specific strengths. The more of these skills that we have, the more likely we are to bounce back from adversity. [3]

So, what are these strengths, and how can we acquire them? The Resilience Portfolio Model,[4] proposed by John Grych of Marquette University, combines the many traits of resilience into three categories:[5]

  1. Self-regulation. This broad category includes the ability to be self-aware. The ability to notice both what is happening to us and also how we are responding to the situation with thoughts, feelings and actions helps us navigate challenges well. This dual awareness is a skill that can be learned. For instance, if you recognize that you are emotionally reactive, or in a crisis survival mode and unable to think clearly, then you can tell yourself to delay decision-making and avoid reactive statements. If you have also developed skills to calm your body down when feeling upset, such as deep breathing techniques or meditative practices, then you have an even greater ability to self-regulate as needed. Self-regulation also includes personality traits such as grit and developed skills such as patience and learning to delay gratification.
  2. Interpersonal relationships. Social support is a protective factor for overcoming hardships, and resilient people often have well-established networks of friends, family, and religious or professional supporters prior to their life challenges. The capacity to make and keep relationships, includes many smaller skills and opportunities. An emotional vocabulary, social and communication skills, the ability to give and receive care and other relationship skills can be learned and developed over time. But having emotionally healthy family members or communities are resources not available to everyone. Those who lack healthy humans around them, are overly isolated, or lack social skills may need to proactively seek professional support during times of crisis.
  3. Meaning-making. This is the ability to make sense of and to talk about distressing events. Some people have a spiritual or religious world-view that adds purpose and meaning to their experiences. Others find meaning through growth and learning, optimistic views of opportunities found in challenges, or the value of human connections. Others have overcome prior challenges with post-traumatic growth, and thus find their resilience to actually be a confidence builder and meaningful identity.

The hopeful part of resilience research is that skills in all three of these categories can be intentionally built. Self-regulation skills can be learned through a variety of means; body awareness can be developed through athletics or yoga and mindfulness practices can be learned. Therapy can help you become more self-aware, heal and build relationships, as well as to help you discover and express the meaning of your stories. It takes effort to build resilience, but there is no better time to practice than in the middle of adversity. The wisest among us, circle back after our adversity passes to revisit all aspects of our stories so we can learn and grow our resilience muscles to their fullest. This process builds confidence that we can face the next challenges with strength and success.