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Resilience

Sarah Horrocks
by Sarah Horrocks Published on 14 February 2008
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How do people who have suffered traumatic life events such as grief, illness and violence cope with and overcome their experiences? How do they reconstruct their lives without suffering from depression? The ability to do this is called resilience.

Resilience is defined as a capacity to overcome stress and trauma. In physics, resilience is the ability of a body of matter to resist shocks and return to its initial structure. Adapted for use in psychology, it defines the capacity of an individual to overcome painful moments and to develop in spite of adversity. Resilience consists of taking the traumatic event (grief, abandonment, incest, abuse, violence, illness, war) and learning to live with it, bouncing back and changing perspective as well as freeing oneself from a poisonous past, and emerging from the ordeal more mature.

Development of the concept
First introduced in the 1940s by American psychologists, then to Europe at the beginning of the 1980s by the paediatrician and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, the concept of resilience was popularised by the ethnologist, neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik. Through different successful works, he introduced resilience to the public as a carrier of hope. Starting from his own experience and observation of different groups of individuals (concentration camp survivors and Bolivian street children) he demonstrated that it was possible to address psychology and psychiatry in a more positive way and advocated that unhappiness should be considered a step that can be overcome.

The processes
According to specialists, a resilient attitude is dynamic and passes through several phases of defence to counter negative events.
- A resilient person goes through a sort of rebellion, refusing to be condemned by unhappiness.
- Then comes the dream and the challenge, which is the desire to overcome a traumatic event by having an objective to aim for.
- Next there is denial, which consists of creating an image of a strong person in order to protect oneself from pity from friends and family, although an internal fragilty remains.
- Finally, humour: a resilient person tends to develop a form of self-mockery in the face of trauma. It's a way of not dwelling on the misery and stopping being seen as a victim.
Many resilent people enter into a phase of creative expression (writing, drawing) to exorcise their unhappiness.

Nature vs nurture
Certain genetic determiners need to be taken into account. Individuals do not produce the same levels of dopamine or serotonin (happiness substances). At birth, some children are more ‘active’ and psychologically more stable than others. Other factors such as the character/personality of the child (adaptable, confident etc), a nurturing family environment (harmony, security, stable parentage, strong maternal attachment) early on in life, and then later on in life, a network of successful external relationships (whether supportive or not), are not inborn and are features of one’s environment. Statistically, a child who has these factors from a young age is better equipped to face difficulties without apparent distress.

Can resilience be learned?
After a shock or a painful ordeal, an individual of any age is more or less forced to create a process of resilience. The individual needs to accept the shock, control it and transform it in order to live normally.

Criticism
Although the concept is well accepted in the USA, it seems more difficult to accept it in Europe. One reason for this is that there is a focus on the symptoms and not their causes, and some psychiatrists in Europe are concerned by this. Nevertheless, resilience gives people a positive, optimistic and anti-fatalist message and a real sense of hope.

by Sarah Horrocks

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