What is resilience?
We all face pressures, stresses and challenges in our lives, and resilience can help us react and adapt to these in a positive or productive way.
Resilience is having the mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility and ability to adjust to and to recover from both internal and external stresses.
It means that when we encounter stressful circumstances in our lives, we’re able to endure them, get through them, and even bounce back, without falling apart. Resilience is sometimes described as ‘having the potential to transform toxic stress into tolerable stress’.
In this article, we explore resilience in a little more detail:
- Trendy topic or serious phenomenon?
- The physical and mental health benefits of resilience
- Brain health and development
- Health at work
If you have not yet read our other article on resilience, follow this link to find out more about building resilience.
Trendy topic or serious phenomenon?
There have been many articles on the subject of resilience in the past few years. Most researchers agree on the idea of resilience and its benefits, although many acknowledge that there are gaps in the scientific evidence. These gaps exist because resilience is difficult to measure in any direct way. For example, how do you know that someone is resilient if they haven’t experienced stress? Or how do you compare one person’s resilience in one kind of stressful situation with the way a different person has reacted to a different type of stress? That’s why resilience is sometimes best considered as a dynamic and interactive process which reflects an individual's relationships both with other individuals as well as with the world they live in.
Instead of providing ‘recipes’ for resilience that can be applicable to everyone, scientific research tends to focus on particular groups of people (such as children, teens or people with illnesses), particular types of stressful events (such as disasters or illnesses), or particular types of resilience-building interventions (such as cognitive-behavioural therapies).
This means that studies of resilience cannot be compared head-to-head with each other to absolutely define causes and benefits for everyone. A range of different scales for measuring resilience in different situations has been developed, but there isn’t yet an internationally agreed ‘gold standard’ scale.
Hence, the recent critique in one 2019 review of published research that diverse definitions of resilience have been applied, as well as a variety of interventions used, making like-for-like comparison difficult.
The physical and mental health benefits of resilience
Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.
Seneca 4 BC—AD 65)
Despite the difficulties of defining resilience and comparing its effects, current studies point to many positive health benefits, both physical and mental.
Physical health and wellbeing
According to a study published in 2020, resilience helps to prevent the onset of disease, to provide good health, to facilitate and accelerate healing, and to provide a productive life and a sense of wellbeing despite chronic illness.
While a study published in 2019 noted that that resilience and physical health symptoms were negatively associated (i.e., improved resilience was associated with decreases in physical health symptoms)
This fits with a study of over 70,000 older American women, which found that, irrespective of race or ethnicity, high resilience was associated with CVD (cardio vascular disease) protective health behaviours.
Mental health and wellbeing
Resilience-focused interventions were found to reduce general psychological distress, as well as symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, anxiety, and disruptive behaviour for children and teenagers. That was the verdict of a systematic review of all relevant evidence, published in 2016.
Brain health and development
As a 2017 study identified, the brain is the central organ of stress and adaptation to stress because it perceives and determines what is threatening. The brain also determines our behavioural and physiological responses to stressors.
Fortunately, as a 2018 study identified, psychological resilience has a protective effect for the brain.
This is important because, for children in particular, excessive stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain.
Health at work
Resilience helps employees adapt, cope, gain resources, and respond positively to stressors in the workplace, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). The Institute publishes an interesting and practical guide to employee resilience on its website.
For example, a number of studies with nurses, including one published in 2021, have found that resilience training has beneficial effects, such as reducing stress, depression and burnout.
While a 2017 study noted that resilience had a protective effect in relation to stress, sleep, and burnout
The Harvard Business Review, however, adds a caveat. It observes that too much resilience could make people overly tolerant of adversity, including putting up with boring or demoralising jobs — and particularly putting up with bad bosses — for longer than is necessary.
- There are challenges when it comes to researching resilience, because the challenges we each face and the way we respond can vary significantly.
- However, research so far suggests that resilience seems to help improve both our physical and mental health.
- Resilience can help people bounce back from adversity without falling into depression and anxiety, and can also help negate the physical reactions that tend to manifest as a result of stress.
For information on how to maintain and develop resilience, see Building our Resilience
Jennifer Jamieson and Michael Baber, July 2022. Next review date, June 2026.
Other relevant articles on the Age Watch website: