Prosilience #1: Resilience is a Verb

It's not a personality characteristic!

As a long-time student of resilience, I began my exploration in a time when researchers were just beginning to understand what made some people better able to deal with adversity than others. This early work tended to frame resilience as a unitary quality or trait that people possess.

The next step in the evolution of our shared thinking was to recognize that there are multiple attributes that contribute to an individual’s resilience; this work has built on research and assessment of personality, and identified such things as optimism, self-esteem, and extroversion as ingredients of resilience.

Over time, perspectives such as Carol Dweck’s work on “fixed” vs “growth” mindsets, and research on the brain’s ability to develop new connections (neuroplasticity) have helped us recognize the ways humans can use life experiences as a catalyst for development and change, and to see ourselves and others as capable of intentionally increasing our effectiveness at dealing with adversity and challenge. This has led to a number of programs to help people use tools such as mindfulness training, therapeutic intervention, and games such as Shadows Edge to systematically learn and practice new ways of thinking and being during times of challenge.

A further advance in understanding resilience comes from research on body-brain connections, and the impacts that early childhood adversity, neurological differences, and traumatic experiences can have on how people experience the world around them. This helps us see how the very same situation may present a much larger resilience challenge for some individuals than for others. In This allows us to recognize ways we can shape situations and environments to reduce the level of potential threat and disruption they present.

My most recent “aha” on this topic came from a scholarly article[1] whose authors view resilience through a very different lens. They describe the process by which one form of response to a stressor (for example, a physiological reaction) can lead to another symptom (for example, an emotional response), and then to another (for example, an ineffective or awkward interaction or a feeling of hopelessness). They describe how these connections can become so automatic and tightly linked that they can become self-sustaining—creating spirals of negative outcomes that persist over time. From their perspective, resilience is about reducing, or damping down, these reverberations. Any strategies and resources that people use to do this for themselves (such as taking a deep breath, applying a “reframing” strategy to view a problem as an opportunity, or drawing on social support) or for others (providing a calming presence, shifting the environment) are active ingredients in the resilience process.

This has led me to a reconceptualization of my own perspective on resilience. I am focusing much more of my attention on resilience as something we do than on resilience as something we are. Here are some of the insights that have emerged as I focus on resilience as a verb:

1.        In addition to reducing the negative symptom spirals, we can do things to tip things in a positive direction, where a healthy outcome in one area (such as experiencing emotional calm) leads to another (such as engaging in a healthy behavior), and to another (such as communicating effectively with another person), and to another (such as feeling hopeful). As the connections between these become stronger, we are able to replenish and strengthen our energy for future challenges.

2.        Resilience is about much more than bouncing back. Sometimes the best outcome we can achieve in a given situation is to limit damage or minimize harm. Sometimes we are able to keep moving or get back on track toward our objectives. And sometimes we are able to use the challenges we face as a catalyst for growth.

3.        Humans are “resiliencing” all the time. We are continually operating in ways that increase or reduce the challenges we face; anticipating or responding to new situations; and moving into and out of more/less effective ways of feeling, thinking, and acting.

4.        We can build muscles and gather tools that help us “resilience” better. For example, learning the skill of positive reappraisal, practicing emotional self-regulation, building a network of social support, and increasing our physical health all are likely to increase our effectiveness at reducing negative spirals and achieving better outcomes.

5.        Energy is the currency of resilience. We use physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy in dealing with life’s difficulties and challenges. When our energy is depleted, it’s harder to use our muscles very effectively. As a result, a really important part of the process is knowing how to recharge our batteries when they are run down.

6.        We can use small, everyday challenges as places to intentionally practice resilience: noticing how our thoughts and actions move us into negative, neutral, or positive spirals; trying out new responses and resources; building our capabilities step by step. We can even go looking for challenges that feel “just right”—not too easy, not too hard—as places to flex our muscles and build our skills.

7.        Very small positive actions (I sometimes think of them as “micro-boosts”) can potentially have a huge impact. These can include things we do for ourselves (taking a moment to notice something beautiful), things others do for us (smiling, calling us by name), or things we do for others (taking time to pay a compliment).

Perhaps the most important outcome of viewing resilience as a verb is that it moves us away from labeling and judging ourselves and others, and toward recognizing that we all have moments—and sometimes days, weeks, or months—when we’re not resiliencing very well. We can acknowledge and celebrate the “lift” we feel when we, and those we are supporting and helping, turn a negative spiral into a positive one, and capture those moments, and those insights, to help us continue the journey through life with hope and possibility.


[1] Kalisch et al. (2019) Deconstructing and reconstructing resilience: A dynamic network approach. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol 14(5) 765-777.