Resilience is not common

Resilience is a concept that helps individuals maintain positive adaptation after facing significant life challenges. Initial research focused on children who surprisingly showed positive adjustment in the face of most adversities, but more recent research examined how adults rebound after significant stressors.

The “85% resilient” claim

Some findings show high rates of resilience —up to 85% in some cases—, leading to some psychologists and policymakers arguing against widespread interventions for individuals exposed to trauma. Some claimed that interventions aimed at promoting resilience could also backfire: people may overestimate their abilities or underestimate the stress they might experience in response to extreme stressors, such as combat.

Are we really resilient?

The idea that resilience is a common response to potentially traumatic events has been largely shaped by statistical methods. Studies have shown that people after spousal loss, divorce, and unemployment show high rates of resilience (58.7%, 71.8%, and 69.0%, respectively).

However, a newer study found that, by reanalysing the same dataset, the rates of resilience are actually much lower – 47% for spousal loss (compared to the previous 59%), 36% for divorce (compared to the previous 72%), and 48% for unemployment (compared to the previous 69%).

People face and recover from stressors differently

One of the key differences the new study highlighted was the idea that even before stressors a person’s life satisfaction might already be dropping. For instance, the couple is likely already struggling before the divorce, and the company might have already talked about layoff before losing the job. This means that the rebound after the stressor needs to be defined as returning to baseline well before the stressor – their usual life satisfaction, not just exactly what happened before the stressor.

resilience recovery rebound years
Life satisfaction drops even before the stressful event – recovery is measured to the norms before the drop

The other key difference is how we split the groups – is the recovery path the same for everyone who is going through a divorce? Can we really average everyone in that group? In reality, no. Some people rebound really well and some struggle for many years, and a single reilience number does not capture this well.

Resilience as life satisfaction, negative feelings, and positive feelings

One key challenge with these statistical findings is defining what resilience is. Is this a simple “thing” that goes between 0-100? Or is it a complex measurement that can be broken down into many factors? Recent research suggests that two to four components might contribute to our overall resilience, depending on the stressors we face.

Rebound is challenging to define – is it just life satisfaction, or the lack of negative feelings? Or perhaps the amount of positive emotions we have? In fact, measuring all these is important, as they are all part of resilience, but they do not show the same rate of rebound.

For instance, after losing a job, life satisfaction may rebound quickly (61%), but negative feelings disappear slowly (48%), and positive feelings return even slower (20%).

Put simply, resilience and recovery could be the same thing, in which case resilience rates are much lower than the frequently quoted 85%.

Resilient in one area, but struggling in others

Resilience might mean, especially for children who face substantial stressors, that the person may keep excelling in some areas while struggling in others. This underlines the importance of thinking of resilience as a multi-domain concept.

For example, children after stressors might be perceived as functioning well by friends and teachers, while still experiencing high levels of depressive or anxiety symptoms. This highlights the complexity of individual responses to stressors, where outward indicators of adjustment may not capture the full picture of an individual’s well-being.

Similarly, in the case of adult bereavement, people may return to earlier levels of global life satisfaction, attending work and socialising regulary, but still struggle with other problems like symptoms of depression, substance use, or physical health problems. Overall, a simple label of “resilience” cannot capture the diversity of these chalenges.

Unhelpful policy decisions about mental health and resilience

Social policies are often guided by research, and previous findings suggested that resilience is “typical”, leading to suggestions that interventions aimed at building resilience may be ineffective or even harmful. Such misinterpretations of resilience may then lead to the withholding of resources for individuals who genuinely suffer in the aftermath of serious stressors, such as natural disasters or community violence.

Given that resilience is more complex than a simple “rebound” measurement and the potential implications on the policy of research findings, it is important to draw conclusions about resilience very carefully.

rebound is lengthy, help is needed

While it is true that after major stressors most people rebound over extended periods (up to 10 years) even without help, this does not mean that they do so without enduring considerable suffering. In other words, while divorced or bereaved individuals may eventually return to their own lifetime levels of life satisfaction over many years (or decades), they do so while showing significant and diverse problems in many areas of everyday functioning, impacting their lives. With intervention, their suffering would not only be shorter, but more tolerable as well.

3 tips to manage resilience and rebound

  1. Social Support Networks: People often withdraw from their social networks after stressful events, but reaching out is the best you can do. Social support is a key factor in resilience and recovery from stress. Friends, family, and other groups, such as team sports, can provide emotional support, practical assistance, and a sense of belonging. In some cases, support networks can also provide a safety net and resources for escaping an abusive environment.
  2. Cognitive-Behavioural Strategies: Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques are very effective in helping individuals reframe negative thought patterns that arise from stressful life events. For instance, cognitive restructuring, a CBT technique, helps individuals review and challenge some of their unhelpful beliefs, which can be particularly useful after a job loss or divorce (“I will never have another job again”). Mindfulness can also mitigate the physiological and psychological stress response, although some clients do not find mindfulness particularly helpful.
  3. Self-Care and Routine: Maintaining or starting new routines that include self-care are extremely important after stressors. After big and stressful events, routines are often skipped, but this is the time to hold on to them. Keeping that regular exercise routine, getting enough sleep, eating regularly, and cutting back on alcohol will improve mood and increase resilience. (Re)starting new activities such as hobbies or volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment, which are important for self-esteem and recovery from stressful events.

Please note that this blog post by Personal Psychology is not intended to provide professional advice. If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health difficulties, it is important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.