What is resilience?

In recent years, resilience has emerged as a key concept in discussions related to coping with various challenges in life. The importance of resilience emerges especially in surprising and difficult situations – like the actual Corona crisis – that challenge our familiar patterns of action and thoughts. But what really is resilience?

In short, resilience is the capacity to overcome the challenges life brings you. Resilience refers to a flexible adaptation to the changing demands of stressful experiences (Tugade & Fredrickson 2004). It is a mental capacity by which we are able, often unconsciously, to utilize the resources and strengths that maintain our wellbeing in a variety of situations. In everyday language, this means that resilience prevents us from crushing when we are facing adversity, to recover from stressful situations and continue our life.  

What makes people resilient?

First, it is important to highlight that in this article we'll talk about what we call the primary resilience resources that refer to the pre-established variables in our lives contributing to resilience. These are called primary resilience resources, because they are the variables we start with in life and that to a large extent impact how we feel, reason and react in different situations.  Because our research interest is in the prevention of violent extremism in education, in a following article we will focus on what we call the secondary resilience resources that refer to those variables that can be explicitly developed in and through formal education, especially in terms of strengthening resilience against radicalisation and extremism.

Based on an extensive body of research, it has been shown that resilience is strengthened by both internal and external factors that together form one’s personal resources. Internal factors refer to biological predispositions that provide the basis for our developing abilities, e.g. our temperament, inherited cognitive faculties and the way our body reacts to stress. Internal factors also refer to multiple psychological abilities related to the self – self-awareness, self-efficacy, self-regulation and mental agility – which are central in the prevention of extremism and which we’ll talk about more in a following article. 

External factors refer, first and foremost, to our connections with others. Safe, supportive relationships to our caregivers, family and peers play a key role in fulfilling our basic needs for safety, love and belonging and are central in the formation of our identity. It is also important to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. This might be persons, but it can also be nature, a faith, or a mission or purpose that we feel is critically important and worthy. External factors also include factors that are outside the individual, like institutions and communities. These institutions, such as schools, can help the above-mentioned factors grow – and thus strengthen our resilience – if these factors are valued within the institutions.

Internal and external factors are strongly intertwined. In the best case they are compatible and allow for positive growth. Together these factors form our personal resources. How well these resources match with the expectations and requirements of our environment has a great impact on our wellbeing and resilience. When our personal faculties and resources fit well into the environment in which we grow and live, we are more likely to have positive experiences and evaluate ourselves, our abilities, and the others in a more favourable way – and therefore, be more resilient.

Can resilience be developed?

Resilience is not a fixed feature that we have of don’t have. Resilience can be strengthened throughout life. People who have undergone great difficulties claim to be more resilient thanks to their negative experiences. Nevertheless, resilience can also be enhanced preventively. 

One key factor in the development of resilience is the interaction between the individual and the environment. Research suggests that it is important to seek ways to address and resolve situations where an individual’s resources are in strong conflict with the environment. For example, in the case of children and young people, difficulties in social interaction with family, school or peers are often stressful for both the individual and the environment. Striving for appropriate and functional interaction in such situations is important for the development of resilience. Resolving difficult intra- or interpersonal situations successfully gives the person a positive experience of being able to cope with adversity. Supportive environments that help us use our strengths and develop our weaknesses in face of difficult situations enable the development of resilience better than environments in which we are left alone to cope with adversity, or in which our personal resources are not compatible with the requirements of our environment and we are forced to forge ourselves into the demands of the environment. 

Resilience can also be strengthened proactively, if we are supported to learn about, identify and utilize those resources that maintain our wellbeing and positive identity in different situations. Such views and practices are highlighted especially in the field of positive psychology. The central idea in these is that by recognizing our personal strengths, thinking styles and ways to respond to different situations we can learn to develop them. Through increased self-knowledge and self-understanding we can build a more positive self-image and be better equipped to maintain our self-confidence and independent thinking in the face of adversity. We will delve more into these ideas in the following article What is resilience? Part II.


Main references:

Reivich, Karen. (2002). The Resilience Factor. 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. Three Rivers Press.

Tugade, Michele & Fredrickson, Barbara. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of personality and social psychology. 86. 320-33.