Resilience: Psychology And Importance In Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated March 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It seems that “resilience” has become the pop culture word of the day—or even word of the year. Perhaps you’ve read news posts about building your resilience, or listened to psychologists pitch it as a crucial component to managing life’s challenges.

Life has a way of giving us challenges that may seem impossible to overcome at times. When we face such a difficulty, it tends to go one of two ways – we conquer the challenge and move on, or we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and potentially wanting to give up.

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is defined by the ability to adapt to and recover from periods of adversity. If you find yourself shrinking away from challenges or struggling to “bounce back,” it may be helpful to learn to build skills and social resources that can aid you.

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What is resilience?

Psychological resilience is a person’s ability to adapt when faced with adversity and stress. It is characterized by successfully adapting to challenges and returning to equilibrium afterward. 

Your resilience can be tested by any number of challenging life experiences or situations – trauma, tragedy, natural disaster, health issues, relationship issues, and problems at work or school. If someone is resilient, it doesn't mean they don't face adversity; rather they are skilled at being able to adapt to the circumstances, obtain personal growth, and continue moving forward.

If we think of our minds as a ball of elastic material, then resilience is the ability of our ball to return to its original shape after being smashed. The greater resilience, the quicker the ball returns to the original shape. The ability to adapt and move forward from adversity may require a unique combination of behaviors, thoughts, and actions, all of which can be learned. This means that even if you currently find yourself lacking resilience or wish you had more of it, with a little bit of effort, you can improve your ability to adapt and overcome difficulties and find remarkable resilience.

What you need to know about resilience

Nothing in the definition of resilience states that it is inherent or unchangeable—in fact, resilience is a skill that can be learned. All of us have the basics—or at least the building blocks—to be resilient in the face of adversity; it is simply a matter of knowing how to use these skills effectively to bounce back and move forward. One of the first steps is to understand the meaning of resilience—one of the next steps is to recognize what influences it.

Resilience theory

Resilience theory is a set of concepts related to the impact of challenging events on an individual and how well the individual adapts to psychological distress. Traumatic events will very likely put an individual under significant stress, but while some may feel broken or defeated under the pressure, others may come out even stronger. Understanding what determines whether an individual will “break” or overcome adversity is the topic of much of the research focusing on resilience. 

So far, research has defined six significant predictors of resilience in human nature:

  • Stressors
  • External Environmental Context
  • Person-Environment Interactional Processes
  • Internal Self Characteristics
  • Resilience Processes
  • Positive Outcomes

Resilience: Process or event?

The consensus among scientists is that resilience is a process, not an event. While a single event can be traumatic and spur you to change your thoughts, behaviors, and actions, resilience is the long-term process of making these changes. It is believed that resilience is not necessarily an individual trait but is something that can be learned or developed at any time. For many people, though, this skill is most widely developed as young adults. This is because many life changes happen all at one time for many young adults as they are released into the world. Overall, as the research implies, resilience is a “mental construct.”

Does resilience change over time?

Although certain factors are set early in your life or even before you're born, resilience can change over time. There are so many determinants that affect how resilient you are, some of which are bound to change as you move through life. Your genetic code won't change, but you can learn behaviors and thoughts that can make you more resilient in the face of adversity.

Does resilience vary in different modes of life?

Researchers are interested in whether there's a carryover of resilience in one aspect of life into other aspects. For example, does someone who shows resilience in close relationships also show resilience when faced with a difficult work situation? 

So far, the answer seems to be that while there may be a certain amount of carryover, an individual's resilience will likely vary based on the situation and the specific factors that surround it, for example, first responders may be highly resilient at work, but may struggle with resilience in their relationships at home.

What determines resiliency?

Psychologists call the factors that determine resiliency "resilience determinants." Resilience determinants typically work together to increase your ability to adapt to difficult circumstances. The more factors in your favor, the easier it will be for you to regain equilibrium in your life and rise above adversity.

Biological factors

Some researchers have pointed out that certain genes and biological conditions may contribute to your ability to adapt to adversity. However, since resilience is a process, it stands to reason that these biological conditions also may be in a state of change. 

One study assessed people with PTSD before and after treatment to determine whether genetic changes happen during the process. While the study concluded that the way the genes are expressed could change and be passed on to future generations, there is debate about whether that conclusion is accurate.  Still, it's a subject that may deserve more research.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors are usually referred to as "physical determinants." Physical determinants can include:

  • Your natural environment, including plants and weather.
  • Your manufactured environment, including buildings and transportation.
  • Your housing and neighborhood.
  • Exposure to toxic substances.
  • Physical barriers that keep you from utilizing resources, such as reachability issues for people with disabilities.
  • Aesthetic features like adequate lighting and pleasant places to rest.

Inner factors

Everyone has their own unique inner resources that may help them manage adversity. High self-esteem and confidence are positive factors adding to resilience. Perseverance and the determination to keep fighting to overcome difficulties can have a profound effect on your ability to adapt. Behavioral flexibility or being able to adapt in response to changes or challenges is a key part of building resilience. Being more concerned about the future than the past can get you through difficult times because it emphasizes the potential hope in the situation and encourages you to look forward rather than backward.

Close relationship factors

One of the most influential factors in determining resilience is the caregiver bond you had as a child. Your parents can provide a foundation of positivity and flexibility that can add to your resilience throughout your life. This factor doesn't rule your ability to adapt, but it can increase your resilience.

Other close relationships can also help determine how well you adapt. These relationships can include your parents, spouse, children, and close friends. They can often lend their support and encourage you to keep going. They can offer alternate perspectives and may help you reframe the situation more positively.

Cultural factors

Cultural factors may also have a bearing on your resiliency. Some of these factors include:

  • The ability to meet your daily needs with resources like living wages.
  • Social attitudes like discrimination.
  • Exposure to crime.
  • Community support.
  • Mass media input.
  • Helpful uses of technology.
  • Adequate schools and education.

What does resilience mean for people with mental health conditions?

Would you like to know how resilient you are? The Connor Davidson resilience scale is a test that can measure how well you can withstand or how fast you can recover from difficulties. More resilient people may be able to focus on minimizing the effects of mental conditions like anxiety and depression. Also, by working on resilience, a person may be able to improve symptoms of mental conditions.  If you have a mental condition that was brought on by severe adversity, developing resilience may be a challenge, but it can reap many benefits. What's more, resilience may help prevent mental illness in the first place.

Ways to increase your resilience

Research and clinical experience suggest that resilience can be learned. Here are several coping strategies and ways to increase your resilience when faced with trying times.

Work on your self-esteem

Having confidence in your own abilities can drastically amp up your resilience as it plays a major role in coping with stress. To build resilience, it may be beneficial to find ways to boost your self-esteem such as using positive affirmations, practicing self-compassion, and reducing self-criticism.

Discover your purpose

Living your life with a sense of purpose can give you the motivation to move forward, even though you may be facing extreme difficulties. This is because a sense of purpose offers a psychological buffer that may make it easier for you to pick yourself up and keep pushing forward toward achieving your purpose.

Build a strong social network

Having a strong social network means you have people in your circle you trust to talk to when you find yourself struggling with a challenge. Talking with others won't necessarily remove the challenge, but it allows you to talk it out, receive empathy, get positive feedback, and discuss possible solutions.

Be optimistic

Being optimistic means working to keep a positive attitude even in the face of adversity. Focusing on positive outcomes may help you recognize the challenges you face as only temporary and acknowledges that you may have the skills to overcome them, or that you can learn the skills to overcome them.

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Practice gratitude

Studies have found that practicing gratitude regularly may help individuals remain resilient. Some ways to practice gratitude include practicing mindfulness, keeping a gratitude journal, giving a thank you note to someone that makes your life easier, or meditating.

Engage in self-care

Practicing self-care means doing the things necessary to keep your mind and body in working order so you are ready to take on challenges as they arise. Self-care is different for everyone and may include finding ways to manage stress, exercising, taking a break from social media, pampering yourself, spending time with loved ones, or getting healthy sleep.

Get support from a therapist

Resilience is something that can be taught and learned, but sometimes we may need a little help and guidance. While we can look to others we know who have high resilience, another option is to talk to a licensed counselor. A counselor may be able to help you evaluate your own behaviors and thought patterns and guide you to make the necessary changes and adjustments to increase your resilience. Resilience-training programs often use discussions, role plays, and practical exercises to reinforce and build resilience.  

While there's always the option of finding a therapist's office, juggling your schedule to fit in an available appointment and commuting to a therapist’s office may not be suitable for everyone. BetterHelp eliminates these stressors involved in traditional counseling by offering professional counseling services online. This means you can talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own space, at a time that is convenient for you, without worrying about commuting or being put on a waiting list.

The counselors at BetterHelp are licensed and certified and have worked with countless others to improve their resilience in the face of adversity. Read what others have to say about BetterHelp counselors below.

Counselor reviews

"I feel safe knowing my problems are in the hands of someone who has the expertise to help me. She re-assured me and helped me remain positive through discussing my issues, and I did not feel like I was "wrong", but instead gently realized the things I need to work on. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I got out of even one video session. I have been using June's truths as reminders for myself when I feel myself falling back into old patterns. I feel confident that if I have other problems, I can talk to her about them."

"Dr. Julie is great! I went through one of the lowest points in my personal life but she kept my perspective focused on the right areas, had enough warmth and empathy to make me feel better about myself and also gave some solid insights into my mental constructs. I do believe she has the right approach and the right insights to help me get through a difficult time and have resilience. Thanks!"

Takeaway

You have the power to increase your resilience by proactively working on the behaviors, thoughts, and actions that lead to high resilience. This can help you bounce back from adversity and put you on the path to success in today's ever-changing environment.
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