What Is… Psychological Resilience

Insights into Psychology: Resilience: the ability to adapt in the face of stress and adversity

In this series, I will dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is resilience.

In its most basic sense, resilience means rebounding or springing back. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes it as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.”

The Resilience Research Centre offers a definition that also encompasses cultural elements: “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.” It can relate to individuals or to communities and social systems.

When faced with a stressful situation, resilience can lead to recovery (i.e. returning to the way things were prior to the stressor), adaptation (changing in a way that allows for growth in spite of the stressor), or system transformation.

Being more resilient has been linked to a number of positive outcomes, including academic achievement, decreased risky behaviours, and improved physical health. It facilitates personal growth and can improve problem-solving, decrease depressive symptoms, and enhance well-being in the context of aging. It may also boost immune system functioning.

Mental toughness is a psychological construct that’s related to resilience, but not the same thing. It’s a personality trait that helps people take things in stride so that stress is less likely to set them back. Being resilient isn’t about not having setbacks; it’s about being able to manage them when they do happen.

Grit refers to being able to stick with pursuing a long-term goal despite short-term setbacks. Resilience doesn’t have that focus on persistence with goals; you can be resilient and say screw the dumb goal.

Mental endurance comes from a sense of inner mental strength, and while that can certainly help with resilience, being resilient isn’t just about turning inward; it also involves being able to reach outward for support and to manage one’s environment.

The role of childhood environment

Some children are able to develop resilience even in the presence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The main factor that contributes to resilient children is a stable relationship with a supportive parent or other adult; this helps to buffer them from stressors and allows them to develop skills to self-regulate and adapt to adversity.

For children who face significant ACEs, a combination of biological predisposition to being resilient and a supportive relationship is necessary to be able to build resilience. It also helps when children are able to develop a sense of self-efficacy and internal locus of control, and when they are grounded by faith or cultural traditions.

Cultural beliefs and practices can play an important role in building resilience in marginalized communities, whether that be helping Indigenous youth connect with traditional cultural practices or supporting LGBTQ+ youth in connecting with others within that community. Nurturing strong identities and a sense of meaning and belonging is good for kids regardless of what cultural group(s) they belong to.

Helicopter parenting can make it more difficult for children to develop the skills to deal with manageable stressors. Having exposure to manageable stress and being given the power and control to find their own ways to cope with it is important for growth and developing resilience.

While childhood is an influential time, even if someone wasn’t able to build resilience at that stage in their life, it’s still possible to do in adulthood.

Improving resilience

The APA offers several suggestions to become more resilient:

  • prioritize validating, supportive relationships
  • self-care, both physical and mental
  • help others
  • be proactive in addressing problems in your life
  • develop and pursue reasonable goals
  • find opportunities for self-discovery in the challenges you face
  • recognize distorted patterns of thinking
  • acceptance rather than resistance
  • seek help

The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania identifies six key skill areas that contribute to resilience:

  • self-awareness
  • self-regulation: emotion regulation is also an important concept in dialectical behaviour therapy
  • mental agility: being able to look at a situation from multiple perspectives
  • building on one’s own character strengths and aligning life with values
  • connection: establishing and maintaining strong, trusting relationships
  • optimism: taking action based on the things you can control in order to create positive change

A sense of autonomy is also correlated with resilience. Humour, compassion, and a sense of curiosity can help too. Maintaining balance in the different areas of one’s life, including fitting in things that you want to do rather than just things that you feel like you have to, also supports adaptive coping.

Getting personal

Depression has definitely done a number on my resilience. It’s not so much a lack of skills as a lack of energy in the mental battery to draw on those skills that I do have.

As my illness has progressed, my level of available mental resources has totally tanked. To draw on fork theory, fork pokes from external stressors cause bleeding of internal resources. It doesn’t matter that I have the ability to handle the stressor, because that doesn’t accomplish anything when the battery is low. Because my illness dictates capacity, what I’m left to work with is what I allow into my life, so I’m very strict when it comes to that.

How would you describe your own level of resilience, and what are some of the major factors that have influenced it?



The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

23 thoughts on “What Is… Psychological Resilience”

  1. Thank you so much! Excellent post! My challenge with resilience is associated with chronic anxiety associated with bipolar. I like what you say about resilience not being what happens to you but how you respond to something adverse when it does happen.

  2. I used to think I had little resilience, but now I think I must have more to have got this far. Nowadays it’s mostly burnout that knocks me out, rather than other stresses. Burnout just drains my internal resources for a period and that makes it hard to be resilient, like you say.

  3. Looking back, I must conclude I’m tough and resilient, otherwise I wouldn’t be OK right now. I’ve been through a lot of hard things, and almost completely alone at that, though of course my daughters always helped. But at the time, I didn’t feel tough. I felt shattered and merely going on because there was no choice. I did realize though that after my last crashed relationship I am not tough enough to do any of that again…

  4. Capacity. Yes! That’s what I am about too. I have the tools in the toolkit, but because of my illness, I encounter significant challenges. It’s not for a lack of education on the illness nor is it because I don’t want to feel better. I’d love to be and feel optimal. But, that’s rarely in the cards for me. Thus, I focus most on doing what I can. And, some days that’s not much.

  5. I would reckon my resilience has got better in life. But I can easily go backward with that if I am having my moments where I am really tired, or just had enough, as well as however my mood may be.

  6. As always, your post is full of solid information. I always appreciate this. I do think a large part of being resilient in knowing your own limits and boundaries and protecting these heartily with your own permission to do so. I appreciate your candor in writing about depression. It is widely misunderstood and your writing (in particular Managing The Depression Puzzle) brings needed information and understanding. Sending you lots of care for a good week ahead. 💗💗

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