Home All Crisis: Opportunity or Threat

Crisis: Opportunity or Threat

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 May 2009

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

“Never waste a good crisis.”
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, March 2009

Reactions to stress:  Resilience 1, PTSD 0

As many of the Positive Psychology News Daily contributors have pointed out (Aren Cohen and Eleanor Chin for example), resilience is very much in demand. With house prices falling, people losing their jobs and their homes, and businesses turning in record losses and even going under, it’s no wonder we focus is on how to protect ourselves and cope better with stress.

Resilience is sometimes seen as a characteristic demonstrated only by  exceptional people in the face of unimaginable distress. Trauma-sufferers are commonly expected to experience post-traumatic stress disorder rather than resilience. Consequently, resilience is understood to be something remarkable or uncommon, a quality that only the lucky few possess and which the rest of us cannot acquire.

Some people argue that the mental health profession has expanded the scope of PTSD such that even common-place (such as bereavement) or relatively common-place (such as sudden disability through accident) pain and suffering are defined as extra-ordinary adversities, inevitably leading to post-traumatic stress, and in need of psychological intervention. In the UK, Essex school children were offered counseling after a fellow pupil died from meningitis. At what point do “ordinary” adversities lead to pathological — as opposed to normal — distress? Do Positive Psychologists have a role to play in making clear that – as Laura L.C. Johnson writesordinary people not only have the capacity to demonstrate resilience in trying circumstances , but that they do so more often than fold under the weight of PTSD?

Resilience: Ordinary Magic suit-of-armor.jpg

It may be that resilience isn’t an extraordinary quality at all — that we all have the capacity to bounce back. Masten (2001)  calls resilience "ordinary magic." Not only do we have the capacity to bounce back, many can grow as a result of adversity.

Tugade and Fredrickson (2004) define resilience as follows: "Psychological resilience refers to effective coping and adaptation although faced with loss, hardship, or adversity. Resilience to certain events has been likened to elasticity in metals…. For example, cast iron is hard, brittle, and breaks easily (not resilient), whereas wrought iron is soft, malleable, and bends without breaking (resilient)."

My colleague John Buckley used to think of resilience as a suit of armour. Within the armour you feel invincible, safe in the knowledge that nothing can penetrate your defense system.

As parents, we do our best to act as the armour for our children, protecting them from setbacks at home and at school. But in reality, total protection isn’t always the best option. Like vaccination, resistance to disease is properly developed by exposure to the virus we want to overcome. In day-to-day life, we have to experience some failure, disappointment and sadness in order to build our resilience. As Nietsche said, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

playign-cards.jpg “It’s not the hand you’re dealt, but the way you play it”

One of the fundamental characteristics of resilience is flexibility: cognitive, emotional and behavioral. The problem with thinking of resilience as a suit of armour is that a suit of armour is rigid; it doesn’t allow for change, growth or development.

Coping with adversity can act as a spring-board to something better, something we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve, and serve as a "bridge towards further development (Leipold & Greve, 2009) ."

Rather than live in fear of what the current economic crisis will mean for us and our families ("is your suit of armour strong enough to protect you?"), why not forge on living the best life we are able to, knowing that we can and will adapt, and in all probability, emerge feeling stronger, happier and more resilient than before.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t have met my wife.  I don’t feel unlucky
to have had to go through this. I learned a lot and grew tremendously…”

Lance Armstrong



Bracken, P., Giller, J. and Summerfield, D. (1995) Psychological responses to war and atrocity: the limitations of current concepts. Social Science and Medicine, 40(8), 1073-1082. p1076

Kienzler, H. (2008). Debating war-trauma and post traumatic stress disorder in an interdisciplinary arena. Social Science and Medicine, 30, 1-10

Leipold, B. & Greve, W. (2009). Resilience: A conceptual bridge between coping and development. European Psychologist. 14(1), 40-50.

Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic. Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227–238.

McHugh, P.R. & Treisman, G. (2007). PTSD: A problematic diagnostic category. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, 211-222.

Skinner, E., & Edge, K. (1998). Reflections on coping and development across the lifespan. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22, 357–366.

Tugade, M.M. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320-333.

Suit of armour
courtesy of marfis75
Pack of cards
courtesy of Ccarlstead

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Pixie Stevenson 26 May 2009 - 11:53 am

I agree with the view that some mental health professionals have expanded the scope of PTSD. The scope of grief has been expanded to almost any other form of loss and more importantly, CHANGE. It is resistance to change or resistance to “what is” that creates the negative emotion that retards resilience.

Steps to resilience include acceptance, reframing our perspective and choosing to use whatever adversity we may be facing as a spring board for growth.

Senia 29 May 2009 - 8:31 am

Bridget, intriguing idea of growing within the suit of armour. Especially that you can still stay in the suit, but use that to grow. You’re not suggesting that people take off the suit of armour that protects them, but you’re saying we can try groeing within in. I like that visual a lot. It makes things simpler for me. S.

Nora 8 June 2009 - 12:44 pm

Bridget, A dear friend of mine recently commited suicide. Through the discussions I have had with our other friends and his sister, we all agree that he viewed every change in life as a loss. To protect himself he became solitary and very lonely. He never recovered from any of it and pushed anyone who tried to get in, away. I feel that more people in this world are resilient than give themselves credit for. We recover from setbacks and disappointments everyday! We only need to see it and see that we are empowering ourselves and teaching our children how good it is to pick ourselves up and go on. We never know what the future holds but it is always better to find out. Thanks for some inspiring words.

Val 20 November 2009 - 1:53 pm

Ms. Grenville-Cleave,
In you article you stated that resiliency can be built by facing hardships. Does building resiliency only require that we face obstacles and try to overcome them, or do we also have to change the we think? Are there certain character strengths that lead to higher resiliency?


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