What Is Resilience, and Can It Help Us Bounce Back From This?

We’re all going through some intense stress and anxiety right now, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic affecting how we live, work, socialize, and move through the world. And experts say that, unsurprisingly, the pandemic could have a major effect on mental health long after it’s over, leading many of us to wonder how we can try to protect ourselves from the potential mental health fallout of living through this global health crisis.

“There’s a lot of grief because people are dying, and you can also have grief over identity lost,” George Bonanno, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers College and director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab, tells SELF. “It’s a very stressful, anxiety-filled time.”

The idea of moving on from and even thriving after extremely difficult or traumatic circumstances may seem unfathomable, but it is possible. The process can be summed up in one word: resilience. When it comes to COVID-19 specifically, researchers say it’s somewhat difficult to predict who will be resilient after pandemic-related trauma and who won’t. As you may have heard time and time again, the situation is unprecedented, so we can’t yet know how every aspect of it—including resilience—will unfold.

“What we need, particularly in this time, when we don’t know how long it will last or how long people will be struggling with it, is more research,” Adam McGuire, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and stress researcher at the VISN 17 Center of Excellence and the University of Texas at Tyler, tells SELF. Research into the mental health effects of the pandemic can help experts identify what kinds of support and strategies might be most likely to help people heal in the aftermath.

The good news is that even though we don’t have all the answers to the questions this pandemic raises, there’s a wealth of knowledge about resilience in general that we can draw on in the meantime. What is the definition of resilience? What makes someone resilient to begin with, and can you develop resilience over time? Here’s what the science has to say.

Defining resilience

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience is “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.”

That very neat and tidy definition provides a good overall framework for understanding resilience, but as explained in this 2011 Social and Personality Psychology Compass review, the field of psychology has long grappled with the nuances of what exactly resilience is.

Some scholars view resilience as being able to keep functioning as usual after a stressful or traumatic event.

“We define it as a stable trajectory of healthy functioning,” Bonanno says. “When someone has been through something, and they’re able to maintain stable health in response to something, that’s resilience.” Bonanno explains that, in a scientific sense, resilience can be measured by tracking someone over time after a stressful or traumatic event and measuring their mental health and functioning.

This definition raises some questions about how mental health conditions do and don’t factor into resilience. By some psychological definitions, developing or exacerbating a mental health condition in response to a stressor—and then bouncing back from that—would be classified as recovery, not resilience.

Other schools of thought view recovery as part of resilience. As a 2010 Research in Human Development article explains, resilience might involve three separate elements. The first is recovery, or bouncing back to the baseline functioning you had before the stressful or traumatic event. Then there’s sustainability, which is described as continued interest in leading a meaningful life. Finally, there’s growth, which can manifest in a number of ways—finding more purpose in life than before the event, creating stronger relationships, etc. (This is sometimes called post-traumatic growth.)

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