Terms of endearment: resilience and its relationship to thriving
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
My approach to resilience is summed up as follows:
It is more than just "bouncing back" from adversity ie. surviving crisis. It is also about having the energy to rebuild once exhausted, and then continue to grow, and even thrive.
Even if we have not experienced crisis-like adversity, normal stressors can affect our ability to flourish, and the same strengths can still serve us well.
Those strengths, which I would term "mental and emotional fortitude" are not necessarily innate - they can be learned and cultivated in the same way as one can exercise and build physical strength, we can take action to build inner strength.
But, is resilience defined as "...homeostatic return to a prior condition" (Carver, 1998) following adversity - ie. it's not about thriving...?
Having done a PhD which largely focused on the importance of extending concepts, and being influenced by positive psychology which looks at flourishing, I was heartened by the research (including that by Carver, so I know my use of his quote out of context was a little misleading) that thriving can come out of resilience, AND that models of resilience are seeking to include thriving as a component.
Carver, for example, suggests that Resilience and Thriving are two of four possible outcomes of adversity:
- Outcome 1: Succumbing
- Outcome 2: Survival with impairment
- Outcome 3: Resilience (recovery/coping)
- Outcome 4: Thriving
...and from around 1996 onwards, more and more literature began to link resilience with the ability to "bounce back" - but also to "become stronger" (cf: Henderson & Milstein, 1996; Geocaris 2004).
Simultaneously, the literature around "Thriving" was also beginning to link such transformational change (greater than "growth") to challenge (cf. Rubble, 1994), with later research then exploring whether the perceptions and traits of a person made someone more able to perceive a "threat" as a challenge and so thrive (rather than survive if threat was seen just as a threat.) (cf. Aldwin, 1994; Carver et al 1993), and positive reframing is long advocated as a coping skill within therapy. And notably, Brown et al (2020) concede that in some cases "adversity" can be more akin to "stressors" (rather than life changing events).
As such, to presume that "resilience" is only "activated" in a crisis seems short sighted, not least because our perception of said crisis can play a part, and because as well as those for whom crisis hits unexpectedly, there are others who actively seek out adversity in order to better bring about change...how can they be so sure they will be ok to run forward into the fray so fast? And in the case of thriving, while I would certainly advocate (with my positive psychology hat) that it may be able to happen without the need for crisis to "initiate" resilience, why should it not also occur because of it...AND on top of that, what can we learn about the conditions that both crisis and thriving create so we can do both?
Thus, I chose to extend the Nishikawa (2006) model of resilience:
The conditions needed to "thrive"
Resilience can be about the "survival instinct" kicking in, but - and especially when you look at both Nishikawa and Carver's models - that has varying degrees of success. Surely we can improve on what's there outside the point of crisis? And, I'm all about the practical applications (my favourite bit of any psychology paper is the recommendations!) because we can debate semantics thesis after thesis; so I hope you will indulge me in jumping to thinking about the potential applications of the approach that resilience extends beyond the ability to survive, but also includes building the inner conditions for recovery, and thriving.
Research then looked into the conditions for thriving. They include (as well as the ability to reframe a threat as a challenge):
- decreased reactivity to stressors
- gains in skills/knowledge/confidence through "the experience"
- a sense of security in personal relationships
- the availability of positive relationships
- the ability to adapt
- coping strategies
- a sense to know when to fight or go with the flow
- in some cases it was specifically transformational growth in response to trauma
These are among the very conditions that positive psychology identifies as supporting one to thrive. What's more, positive psychology also suggests that we can learn and create those conditions ourselves. Why wait until crisis? Why wait until you are tested, why not build that inner strength, that mental and emotional fortitude now?
Building resilience These ideas are by no means exhaustive, they are simply little ways in which you can build your inner strength daily (that don't cost a lot in time and energy)...and hopefully, you'll never face crisis-type adversity (again...I'm well aware of the year we've been through #globalpandemic), or if you do, you'll have the strength to reframe it as a challenge from which you'll not only learn, but you can thrive. (...and at the very least, regular practice keeps the everyday stressor-wolves from the door!)
- decreased reactivity to stressors: A sense of confidence that you can overcome can help ground you with the thought "I've overcome before, I can do it again". So try this "ABC" tool from Dialectic Behaviour Therapy:
Accumulate positive experiences: eg capture positive memories in an album and look at it often
Build mastery: engage in a skill your confident with, so you know you can do it...because after all, that will have taken you time to learn.
Cope ahead: Have an idea of what to do in a crisis, perhaps a list of people you can call, perhaps a reminder to take a moment to breathe and assess the situation, perhaps just easy access to a cup of tea
- gains in skills/knowledge/confidence through "the experience": Reflect on what you HAVE learned over time. Ask yourself - if I was faced with this situation last year, how might I have responded, and truly recognise your growth.
- a sense of security in personal relationships/- the availability of positive relationships: Build a positive network. Identify the people with whom you feel the most authentic, who champion the you that you want to be - not the you they want you to be, that you enjoy spending time with...and actively seek to spend more time with them!
- the ability to adapt: try a "response audit". Reflect on your habitual response to adverse or uncomfortable situations identifying possible triggers, your resulting behaviours and even the possible consequences. Then outline one different thing you could try instead. (Of course it may not work, but if what you have been doing habitually hasn't worked, trying something different may at least produce a new outcome to consider).
- a sense to know when to fight or go with the flow: Meditation or finding a way to press pause so you can choose a response rather than instinctively react. We need to remember that a stressor will often elicit a negative sensation or emotion - this is simply an evolutionary reaction to a perceived threat as our brain prepares our body to fight or fly. But taking a moment to choose a response may be just what we need to take effective action.
- coping strategies: Recognise what works for you - and for others. Read widely, learn from others - and remember that you are the expert on yourself. If all you need to do is practice saying "no", that's great; if you need to create a "cope ahead" pack (see earlier) - do that by all means.
- optimism: Try the "Losada Ratio" For every criticism you offer, find three things to compliment (in a casual setting - and five things in an intimate relationship). We are quick to complain, but research reveals that venting serves to make us feel worse! I at least try a 1:1 ratio if I have cause to be negative.
- in some cases it was transformational growth in response to trauma
amongst others: Sadly crisis happens. Hopefully resilience - which you can build atop what strength is already there - will see you survive, fully recover or rebuild, and then thrive.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt