“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 writes – ordinary 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?
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.”
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…”
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.