Home All Resilience in the Face of Adversity

Resilience in the Face of Adversity

written by Kathryn Britton 7 December 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Crocuses in the Snow

Crocuses in the Snow

This Thanksgiving, I’ve had many things to be thankful for, but I’ve also been surrounded by people facing new adversities, such as:

  • Getting laid off and looking for work in a shrinking industry. How much will great recommendations help?
  • Experiencing high levels of tension at work because customers do not have money to spend in the normally busy December. Will working extra hard be enough to keep jobs from being eliminated or shipped overseas?
  • Struggling to find the best way to help a parent following a serious stroke. What’s the best life situation available?
  • Adjusting to a major but inexplicable health change that makes what seemed easy yesterday seem very hard today. What new habits and patterns are needed?

What helps in times of adversity?

First, we can build better personal strategies for dealing with moments of panic, self-blame, or anger if we understand the physiology of our responses to threat.

Second, resilence research reminds us not to let our minds be totally filled with thoughts of ameliorating the adversity. We also have ordinary competencies, resources, and protective processes that we can draw on.

The great surprise of resilience research is the ordinariness of the phenomena. Resilience appears to be a common phenomenon that results in most cases from the operation of basic human adaptational systems. If those systems are protected and in good working order, development is robust even in the face of severe adversity… Ann Masten, 2001, p. 227

When in the Throes of Panic or Anger

When you wake up in the middle of the night in a state of panic, there’s little point trying to think your way out of it. Your amygdala has been aroused — the center in your brain that registers fear and anger and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare to flee or fight. It is very hard to override an aroused amygdala just by thinking.

Calming Self

Calming Self

I saw this first hand recently when I was hooked up to the Resilience Builder, a biofeedback sensor and software that measures heart-rate variability which serves as an indicator of sympathetic nervous system arousal (Jencke, 2008). I was trying to talk myself out of the bad feelings that followed a negative event. No matter how many ways I tried to reshape my thinking away from self-blame, I was getting nowhere bringing my heart-rate variability into the resilient range. So I stopped trying to think better thoughts and instead focused on breathing slowly and regularly. Within 5 minutes, my measurements on the machine were back in the range of excellent resiliency. Wayne Jencke uses this mechanism to teach resilience along with the following three steps for dealing with intense negative emotions:

  1. Calm down your amygdala, for example with deep breathing or meditation.
  2. Once you are calm, think of something that gives you a positive emotion – about something you are grateful for, about a time you were appreciated, about a very pleasant experience. (Fredrickson, 2009)
  3. Then try to shift your thinking about the challenge that started the response.

It can be easier to carry out this strategy if you are prepared.  People who practice meditation tend to be able to calm down more quickly. Practicing deep breathing when you are not stressed makes it easier to do when you are stressed.

When it comes to having positive emotions, having a prepared set of cues can make it much easier. One friend has a scrapbook of appreciative emails she has received from people she has helped. Another has a collection of poetry that she reads to remind her of all the things she has to be grateful for.

Taking Inventory of Competencies and Assets

A lot of resilence research has focused on understanding why some young people do very well in very difficult circumstances while others with the same or milder adversities do not. At first, the idea was that the resilient youngsters had extraordinary qualities that made them invulnerable to harm.

Much-used hands

Much-used hands

More recent research has indicated that resilience comes out of ordinary adaptive resources and systems. Yates and Masten (2004, p. 525) have a table of assets and protective factors that promote positive development including safe neighborhoods, connections to prosocial organizations such as libraries, close relationships with care-givers, positive sibling relationships, connections to competent and caring adult models, a positive view of self, good problem-solving skills, and appealing personality.

Their view of resilience as ordinary magic has led them to suggest that interventions for increasing resiliency focus not only on ameliorating problems but also on promoting competencies, enhancing assets, and developing protective resources.

So while you think about the adversity, make space in your thoughts for the resources and competencies you have accumulated. You may be taking some of the ones listed above for granted. The questions below may suggest other possibilities. Nobody will have them all. What is your particular collection?

  • Have you shown self-regulation in the past by saving money that you can use during lean times?
  • Have you built a community of friends and family who are ready to support you?
  • Have  you helped other people who may be eager to return the favor?
  • Have you dealt well with serious adversity in the past? If so, what were the skills and thought patterns that you brought to bear?
  • Do you have good problem-solving skills, or perhaps a friend with good problem-solving skills?
  • Do you have experience grieving from losses and then being able to let them go?
  • Do you have a rich store of positive memories that you can spend time reliving?

Living the Story

Fat Cow

Fat Cow

Remember the story of Pharoah’s dream about the 7 fat cows followed by the 7 lean cows? Joseph interpreted the dream as 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. Pharoah appointed Joseph to set aside food during the 7 years of plenty so that the people could survive the seven years of famine.

Adversity is part of the human condition. What competencies have you developed or resources have you acquired in good times to help you face adversity well?

Editor’s note: An edited version of this article appears in the book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.



Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

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

Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Yates, J. & Masten, A. S. (2004). Fostering the future: Resilience theory and the practice of positive psychology. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice, pp. 521-539. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


Crocuses in the snow drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves
At the feet of the great master courtesy of premasagar
Resilience (Well-used hand) courtesy of ???
The fattest cow in the world courtesy of Muddy Funkster

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Jeff 7 December 2008 - 8:31 pm

The bulleted list of questions to ask yourself is so practical that I think these bullets should be part of most PP articles. They should be things you can do both short- and long-term that are chunks or building blocks to greater resilience (hope, charity, chastity whatever virtue you are writing about). I find the photos anchor my thinking about the abstract concepts handsomely. Good work KB!

A second idea I had was that certain authors tend to have a favorite strength. This makes sense because they probably exhibit that strength as one of their top five, maybe their highest strength. Perhaps they could do a mini-series on that strength and go deeper rather than trying to widely cover a lot of separate ideas. Stated differently, maybe an author with perseverance as their pet strength could tie together most of their articles by explicitly showing how widely dispersed ideas all actually relate to perseverance.

Jeff 7 December 2008 - 8:33 pm

I hit submit too soon! Kathryn, I see resilience as a strength of yours that keeps cropping up. Even in the articles that maybe aren’t focused on resilience, its hiding in the background part of the orchestra. Maybe that’s inescapable as it is so much a part of who you are. If you could simply speak about that theme explicitly in all of your articles, I think we could rehearse some key concepts without beating the drum too hard. Does that make sense?

Senia Maymin 8 December 2008 - 3:08 am

Thank you, Kathryn – I like it so much when you give concrete steps based on research, like here. And it’s really nice to read more about Masten and Yates’ research to learn more about it.

These are the most gorgeous images ever, including the Pharaoh example and the cow image at the end.

This is the one most important thing I will take away from this article:
“Calm down your amygdala, for example with deep breathing or meditation.”
Actually, just saying these words makes me feel calmer for some reason.

I think what you’ve done here is asked us to take a positive psychology (almost appreciative inquiry) approach to resilience, and to honor the times when we have succeeded in this domain.

Thank you very much,

waynej 8 December 2008 - 4:45 am

Kathryn, the order of the technique is important.

Not only does the breathing/meditation slow the amygdala – it also makes it easier to recall positive experiences (mood congruent recall). The reason for activating the positive emotion is that it broadens your thinking which makes it easier to shift your thinking. And the interesting thing is that the shift often involves realising that there is not alot that you can do about it.

Kathryn Britton 8 December 2008 - 9:05 am

Thanks for augmenting my description. It’s great when the word constraints of an article can get stretched like this in the comments. You deepen the understanding around your three steps.

I also thought about the comment you made in our conversation that sometimes just putting a name on a negative feeling can reduce its power. Perhaps you’d like to add a comment to explain why that might be.


Kathryn Britton 8 December 2008 - 9:19 am

Thanks for your comment. At 4PM yesterday I just had a lot of words and no pictures — so I am thankful that the photographers of the crocuses in the snow and the hand labeled their pictures ‘Resilience.’

I hadn’t made the connection to Appreciative Inquiry in my thinking — thanks! Yes, I think that honoring the times that we have navigated previous adversities is an important part of looking forward to whatever life brings next. The thought frequently passes through my mind: “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards” (Job 5:7). But there are many different ways to respond to trouble, and the responses shape the people we become.


Kathryn Britton 8 December 2008 - 9:24 am


Thank you for the flowers again.

I’ll have to think about your idea of carrying the theme of resilience through my articles. I usually feel pretty word-constrained getting across whatever I’ve chosen as the core idea. Maybe I need to get back to the image maps and do more theme-based articles to tie things together.

However I’m sure I’ll be thinking of your words the next time I start writing for PPND. So perhaps it will happen on its own.


Jeremy McCarthy 8 December 2008 - 9:51 am

Hi Kathryn, This is a wonderful article that not only helps with how to handle adversity in the moment (sadly, there is much adversity in the world in this moment) but also to develop the resources to prepare for adversity in the future.

I work in the spa industry and your and Wayne’s thoughts about calming the mind remind me of where I think much of the value of a spa experience comes from. Spending some time separated from technology in a quiet place can give you the space necessary to let your mind solve problems. I find that thinking things through is a valuable exercise, but the good ideas don’t usually come during the thought session. They come later, when you are in a relaxed state, silent, and not “trying” to think.

What you’ve added to the equation (for me) is the importance of positive emotions in this process. I also agree with the other commenters that the bullet points are excellent, and I plan to forward this article far and wide.

waynej 8 December 2008 - 2:03 pm

Kathryn, the research you asked about goes as follows

Participants in the study viewed pictures of different emotional facial expressions and simultaneously had their brains scanned.

When viewing a negative emotion such as anger, their amygdala (the area of their brain associated with stress) increased in activity. Participants were then asked to name the emotion of each facial expression pictured (e.g. anger or fear) or alternatively choose a gender appropriate name that matched the face (e.g. Kate or Bill).

When the pictures were labeled with an emotion, the amygdala decreased in activity (less stress). There was no reduction in amygdala activity when a name was given to the picture.

Participants were then asked to complete a questionnaire on mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to emotions without judgment or reacting. Those individuals with the highest levels of mindfulness also had the greatest reductions in amygdala activity when labeling the facial expression with an emotion.

Just to clarify – mindfulness is awareness of thinking without judgement.

As an aside you might be interested in this research showing how mindfulness enhances relationships http://www.personal.kent.edu/~dfresco/mindfulness/BT_Carson_MBRE.pdf

This study teaches meditation which is hard work for many people. I prefer to use the software as it is much easier than meditation – they seem to get results quicker.

As I keep mentioning in my PPND posts, I suspect that mindfulness is probably the most powerful PP intervention.

Also another tip on the technique – practice it with an upright posture. Research shows that people in an upright (as opposed to slumped) report more positive emotionality.

Hope this all adds to your comprehensive article

Kathryn Britton 8 December 2008 - 4:08 pm

Once again you’ve enriched my article. Thank you. The one additional thing you could do is include a pointer to the very interesting research you described — who did it, when, etc..

I liked your comment about upright posture. Straightening my spine when I notice I’m slumping is my favorite Baumeister self-regulation muscle builder. It’s so easy to do once I notice it.


Kathryn Britton 8 December 2008 - 4:13 pm


I suspect you are on to something about the spa experience — that the deep relaxation makes new thoughts possible.

I associate spas with massage. I’ve noticed the few times I’ve treated myself to a massage that my spirits are amazingly high for a substantial period of time afterward. I think the word could be “contentment” – to pull in another one of Wayne’s favorite themes.


wayne jencke 8 December 2008 - 4:56 pm

Kathryn – posture change is also a form of mindfulness. While you are focusing on your posture you can’t entertain all those negative thoughts. There is a theory that emotions are encoded in the body as physical sensations. For example if you drop tears on someones face (simulating crying)they report being sadder.

Will chase the research and send to you to add into the comments.

Jeremy McCarthy 8 December 2008 - 6:35 pm

Yes, most people think of just the massage, but I wonder if you could get at least some of the same “uplifting” feeling from simply sitting quietly in a room for an hour. This is a part of the massage experience that most people don’t realize the significance of.

On a separate note, someone just sent me an interesting article on adversity by Malcolm Gladwell, if you haven’t seen it . . . http://www.gladwell.com/2008/2008_11_10_a_adversity.html

Senia Maymin 11 December 2008 - 1:30 pm

Kathryn, Jeremy, and Christine –

Kathryn, I meant to write just abut this: I love that crocus in the snow first image – I think it represents so much of what you’re talking about.

And then I also read the link Jeremy posted. It’s interesting. It’s exactly what Christine’s been talking about for the last year. 80-20. That Gladwell piece is interesting – it has a lot of information in it which is intriguing. There’s also a strange feeling after reading – I’m not quite sure. I wonder if you guys have it too. I didn’t get that from reading Gladwell’s earlier excerpt about the Beatles and Bill Gates, which I thought was really strong.



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com