Policy Pub: Bouncing Back: What the Science of Resilience Can Teach Us

This post is based on a webinar sponsored by Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.

Resilience is defined by aspects, such as self-reliance, perseverance, and flexibility in difficult situations. While resilience is often thought of as being a psychological characteristic, or something innate, research tells us there are things that can be done to foster internal traits of resilience, as well as external factors that can affect resilience, as well. Additional resources, such as financial stability and social networks help to account for aspects of resilience. Moreover, friends and family and financial stability can be imperative to fostering both the internalized characteristics that makeup resilience, but also the external factors that drive resilience, as well. These internal and external factors encompass two important factors that make a resilient person.

Due to the importance of resilience in different fields of study, it is often defined between fields in different ways. Some researchers focus on the characteristics of resilient people and other researchers study the traumas resilient people have gone through. However, in recent years, researchers have reached a point academically where these different fields and definitions are starting to be studied and discussed in tandem. The common theme between these different definitions of resilience is the ability of an individual to adapt and navigate adversity in positive ways that support wellbeing. These three aspects make up resilience, but it is difficult to study all three aspects at once, so different fields of research carve out their nitches in what they believe is most important to study.

Those who research resilience have found that some people fare better than others and there are specific reasons for this. Much of the research regarding resilience is centered on early life. Resilience in children is fostered through strong connections with a loving caregiver. Through this, children are better able to navigate more challenging situations.

Dr. Taylor’s research, however, focuses mainly on factors that influence resilience in later life. Some aspects of resilience are fostered in later life by maintaining and cultivating internal characteristics that we hopefully developed in our young lives. Moreover, resilience in later life is also connected to one’s ability to maintain external resources, as well, especially social connections. Moreover, research also indicates that prior experiences with difficult situations allow people to better navigate similar experiences in later life. Studying resilience in later life is important because as we age, we have more experiences to draw on that hopefully positively affect our ability to navigate them. Another reason why it is important to study resilience in later life in certain situations become more common as we age. Universal experiences, such as grief and bereavement, or even health setbacks tend to be more common in later life.

Current takeaways on resilience:

Resilience is an extremely potent resource. Internal characteristics of resilient individuals are highly connected to health and wellbeing in later life. Dr. Taylor and her colleagues studied a number of different psychological resources to see which were most connected to health and wellbeing. Psychological resilience is much stronger as a protective factor than other resources scientists have been studying for years.

Moreover, it has been shown that resilience is a strong, lifelong protective resource. While resilience is mostly studied through older adults and children, it is universally important to all age groups. If one is able to maintain high levels of resilience, it will help them later in life.

Lastly, research tells us that resilience is fairly stable and harder to erode than we might think. Shown below is a bar graph illustrating the resilience of Americans pre- and post-pandemic. Once built up, people are able to maintain resilience fairly well.

Can we learn to be resilient? Research indicates, yes! There have been emerging studies on the connection between resilience and emotional regulation. Moreover, there are programs in certain branches of the military focused chiefly on resilience training. Not only that, but as scientists learn more about resilience, they are finding that it may be more of a purposeful process and an aspect of identity, rather than something more innate.

How do we foster resilience in 2021? It is important to keep leaning into social relationships. We need to take care of ourselves and others as best we can. This extends to both physically and emotionally: getting enough sleep, exercise, as well as facilitating ways to continue to foster meaning in our own lives. Whether this be spiritual practices, ways to give to others, altruism, feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves. Moreover, how we appraise and view certain situations is an important factor in resilience. Resilient individuals try to look at positive aspects in challenging situations. Resilient people tend to continually appraise and re-appraise situations to get the most meaning and most feedback.

Further, it is important to promote resilience through policy, as well. Some institutional ways to promote resilience could include more access to mental health resources. Research has found that mental health and resilience have a circular relationship. Meaning, low-level of mental health erode resilience and low resilience does not cultivate good mental health. Moreover, support can further be implemented at state and federal levels. For example, research is showing that in the last year, during the pandemic, financial hardships have been a large reason for the erosion of resilience over time. Policy shaped around financial hardships, specifically, unemployment, would help promote further resilience.

Q: What does resilience training look like?
A: It’s currently in flux. It’s being used in the armed forces and right now, from what I understand, the type of resilience training they are engaging in currently is classes on boosting the characteristic most commonly found in tandem with resilience. So, these classes are focused on positive thinking, and fostering coping skills, self-talk, cultivating resources, etc.

Q: You talked about fostering relationships with other people and financial resources, but are there other ways to build resilience?
A: Those are larger ideas and more over-arching ways to build resiliency. The thing is, though, what works for the individual might not work for everyone. For example, one thing I do to make meaning, which is important for fostering resilience, is I volunteer a lot. However, volunteering is difficult to do during Covid, so I’ve had to turn to other things to keep reappraising and cultivating that meaning.

Q: Do children who have resilient parents have more resilience? Is there a genetic factor that could possibly contribute to resilience?
A: My guess is that if you have a resilient parent, that’s typically someone who is also resourceful, and my thought is that it’s more likely that those children will fare pretty well. We do know that genetics plays a part in personality but we also know that these characteristics are fostered and valuable true in early life and it seems to be that but some of those early life experiences in social situations and circumstances seem to be very important another thing.

Dr. Taylor is a professor of sociology and faculty associate at the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Taylor’s research here.

This post is based on a webinar sponsored by Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. You can watch the full webinar here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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