Developing Resilience

Why do some people have a similar experience and one develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the other doesn’t? Part of the difference between the two may have to do with resilience, or the ability to bounce back in difficult situations. But can resilience be learned? Research says yes, but it’s a complicated matter.

Canadian and American researchers define resilience:

Resilience has numerous definitions and meanings. It is more than the absence of symptoms. Resilience generally refers to a pattern of adaptation in the context of risk adversity. Resilience has been characterized as the ability to “bounce back” from adversities, “bend, but not break” under extreme stress, handle setbacks, and persevere in spite of ongoing stresses and even when things go awry. Resilience has been characterized as a set of good outcomes that occur in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development and as specific coping skills that are marshalled when faced with challenging situations.

How is it that we “marshal coping skills” during tremendously difficult times? The same researchers continue:

Research has indicated that resilience develops over time and that its expression may be a slow developmental process. An individual may be resilient with respect to some kinds of stressors but not others; in one context or in one area of life but not in others; at one time in life but not at other times…. Rather, resilience-engendering activities need to be “practiced” and “replenished” on a daily basis, like a set of muscles that has to be exercised regularly, so that such coping responses become automatic and incorporated into one’s repertoire.

Indeed, we see this variability in resilience in many situations. For example, a soldier might show a great deal of resilience when in a war situation, but may develop PTSD when sexually assaulted at home. This could be because his/her resilience was already strained or weakened in the war setting or because the assault at home was different than what was experienced in the war, perhaps more personal. The point is that there really isn’t any way to tell when a person is going to be resilient and when they are going to fall to pressure.

What we do know is that we can improve resilience overall by helping people learn better ways to deal with stress. PTSD develops when an individual cannot deal with the situation at hand. If we know that we are going to be in a difficult setting, such as military personnel going to war, there are things we can do both before and after the situation to improve resilience.

One of these activities is meditation. Meditation can help us focus on stress reduction by being in the present. It helps develop a sense of clarity, purpose and meaning as well as makes positive changes to the brain’s structure and function.

For those who have already experienced a stressful event and are having trouble dealing with it, the American Psychological Association provides a list of resilience building activities that can help you build resilience. In all cases, if you’ve suffered from a traumatic event, seek professional help. There is recovery and purpose for your life.