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Psychological resilience may be defined as the psychological ability of an individual to withstand the various challenges and trauma of life in such a way as to prevent oneself from developing an illness. In the event of suffering an illness, the person is able to recover quickly without developing any further psychological complications. In brief, it refers to a person’s ability to cope with the various stresses of life and to “bounce back” after experiencing a trauma. It is not synonymous with self-esteem which refers to the views we have of ourselves, and the respect, values and the worth that we place upon ourselves. However, psychological resilience is related to self-esteem in that people with a healthy self-esteem tend to be individuals with a robust psychological resilience.

The concept of psychological resilience

To understand the concept of psychological resilience, one must first of all comprehend two other related concepts. They are:

  • Stressor
  • Vulnerability

Stressor is a life experience which engenders a significant stress response that may be disruptive to one’s normal functioning and detrimental to one’s health. Life experience may be positive or negative. For example, a positive life experience may be a job promotion, getting married or raising a family. A negative life experience may be failing an examination, getting sacked from a job or suffering from a serious illness. Whether a life experience is positive or negative depends on the expectation, value and belief of the person. Thus, a job promotion may be a negative life experience for a person who feels that the work is too difficult. Life experience requires a person to adjust and adapt one’s life to deal with the psychological demands and stress.

Vulnerability includes those personal factors which predispose a person to succumb to the stressors of life and suffer ill health physically or psychologically. For example, a person whose parents suffer from depression is more at risk of developing a depressive illness under stress. A person with a Type A personality is more likely to develop stress related illnesses such as a coronary artery disease or an anxiety disorder. Our vulnerability is determined by our genetic makeup, early childhood experiences and our personality traits. We can alter our vulnerability by dealing with our negative early childhood experiences and undesirable personality traits. However, there is little that one can do about one’s genetic makeup.

What influences positive adaptation to stress?

There are a number of factors which impinge on the psychological resilience of an individual. These factors determine the outcome of our adaptation to stress. They include:

  1. The nature of the stressor
  2. The person’s own resources
  3. The nature of the person’s relationships
  4. The availability of community support
  5. The person’s developmental stage 

The nature of the stressor

Generally, people are able to cope with a stressor that has a low to moderate severity. Most people tend to decompensate when there are cumulative stressors or when the stressor is extremely severe. Stressors of extreme severity are often traumatic for the individuals. Examples of trauma include earthquake, being held up in an armed robbery or a terrorist attack such as the September 11 incident at New York, Bali bombing or the recent bombing of Madrid commuter trains in Spain. The effects of a trauma are determined by the following three factors:

  • The proximity of the person to the trauma
  • The closeness of the person to the victim of the trauma
  • The degree of emotional suffering associated with the trauma

People who are in close proximity to the trauma such as being the victims or eyewitnesses of the trauma are generally more affected than others. These days, modern technologies make it possible for many people to be “eyewitnesses” without being present at the scene of the trauma. For example, the repeated screening of the September 11 terrorist attack and the blow by blow commentary on the television affected many people, especially children, in such a negative way that they suffered psychological problems similar to those who were present at the scene.

When we have a significant relationship with the victim of a trauma, we are more likely to be affected and succumb to the stress. Besides, traumas that elicit a great deal of negative emotions in us such as fear, panic, feelings of annihilation and impending death tend to leave an indelible mark on our psyche. Such traumatic experiences are likely to develop into a post traumatic stress disorder which may take a long time to treat.

The person’s own resources

People who are more resilient to the various vicissitudes, challenges and traumas of life are more like to have the following characteristics:

Optimism—the person is usually confident, positive, cheerful and enthusiastic about the future. The person tends to look at setbacks and problems as temporary and specific anomalies of life. In other words, the person does not make a mountain out of molehill and thinks that one swallow makes a summer.

Motivation—the person does not see life as a random array of forces with no control. The person sets goals for life and then follows a structured plan to achieve the predetermined objectives. The more difficult life is, the more motivated is the person to overcome the problems.

Adaptability—the person feels comfortable with changes and believes that other people may have a different perception of life. The person welcomes differences and is able to make compromises.

Persistence—the person is not easily thwarted but works on something until its completion. Failure is not seen as final as the person stays committed to achieve a task and remains enthusiastic that success is possible.

Willingness to accept novel situations—the person accepts unfamiliar experiences as positive and growth promoting. New places, new people and new activities are seen as interesting and challenging.

Good problem solving skills—novel events and unexpected problems do not catch the person by surprise. The person is able to draw from prior experiences and utilize creativity to deal with a range of different problems.

Good social skills—the person is able to make friends easily and enjoys relationships. When help is needed, the person does not feel embarrassed to ask for it. The person is able to utilize social network in a positive manner.

High self-esteem—the person has a good self-worth and self-respect. Life is generally seen as positive and enjoyable. 

The nature of the person’s relationships

Good relationships are vital to one’s psychological health. Research shows that a person tends to fare and cope better in life in the presence of good and meaningful relationships. Indeed, for many people, the nature of their relationships is the determining factor if they will survive a certain stress or trauma in life.

In our modern and urbanized society, most people tend to draw from the resources of their own immediate families first and then the wider relational network. In the case of an adult, the availability and help from another adult such as a partner, close relative or a good friend are important. In the case of a child, the nature of the parent-child plays a vital role in determining the status of child’s health. For many children, the parental figure may not be the biological parent. It may be an older sibling, another older relative or a significant adult such as a teacher or a scout leader.

A good relationship provides the following benefits:

  • An avenue for the person to share any negative emotional experiences
  • A good sounding board for the person to ventilate feelings and to bounce off ideas
  • A source of advices and ideas to deal with the various challenges of life
  • Encouragement and comfort
  • Practical help and support such as financial help or other tangible aids

The availability of community support

The availability of social, spiritual and recreational activities is important in nurturing and fostering psychological resilience in people and the families. The objective of such activities and programs is to provide a broad-based foundation upon which people can utilize to build up their psychological strength from babyhood to adulthood. These may include:

  • A good public health program to promote healthy pregnancies in order to reduce the number of children born into high risk situations
  • A good antenatal program to identify babies who are psychologically at risk
  • A community awareness program to promote positive parenting
  • Education which promotes self-esteem among young people
  • School curriculum which promotes psychological awareness among the students
  • Good higher educational institutions and vocational training centers which prepare people for independent and positive living
  • A comprehensive community service where the individuals can access resources quickly to deal with a range of psychological and psychiatric problems

The person’s developmental stage

A person’s psychological resilience and susceptibility to trauma is closely linked to one’s developmental stage. Thus, the way that an individual reacts to a stressor and the factors which facilitate recovery is dependent on the individual’s developmental stage.

From birth to the age of 5

The role of the family, especially the psychological health of the significant adults to whom the child is attached, is important in determining the status of the psychological resilience of the child. When a child’s resilience is challenged, the attachment pattern may be disrupted. The child may lose a sense of security and become more fearful, develop a separation anxiety disorder and display restriction in play behaviour. The child may reenact the trauma through play so that healing can occur and a sense of mastery is once again reestablished.

From the age of 6 to 12

Children in this age group are able to use language to talk about traumatic experiences and explore the negative emotions that are engendered. They are also able to ask for help directly and access the support of adults in their life such as parents, teachers and older siblings. Some may be able o use positive self-talk to combat their stress. Their school grades may show a downward spiral when their resilience is significantly compromised.  They may also manifest psychosomatic problems, anxiety and depression. 

The adolescents

Adolescence is a time of establishing one’s independence, identity and autonomy. The adolescent moves away from the family and gravitates towards the peers. It is a time of separation from the parents towards self-reliance. There is a maturation of abstract and philosophical thinking. As such, the adolescent is able to reflect on the nature of the stressor and talk about their feelings at a greater depth. They are able to consider the views of others and assimilate the diverse viewpoints in their recovery from a trauma. Lack of resolution may disrupt their ability to establish their identity and autonomy. Depression and anxiety are common among this age group.

The adults

Psychologically resilient adults are more able to enjoy their relationships, find fulfillment in their work and launch the next generation through positive mentoring and guidance. When an adult succumbs under a trauma and decompensates under stress, the negative impacts may be felt in the relational and career fronts. The person’s spousal, family and social relationships may be compromised. Work performance may be so affected that the person may lose a promotion or even the job itself. The person may suffer physical illnesses of psychological etiologies or psychiatric disorders.


We are living at an age of uncertainty and discontinuity. What happens today is no prediction that the same will happen again tomorrow. There is a gradual and steady breakdown in human relationship such as the family structure, uncertainty about one’s employment, increasing competitiveness for educational and career advancement and increase in perceived threat to one’s safety because of terrorism. It is important for us to increase our understanding on psychological resilience. It is also vital for us to understand the link between psychological resilience and psychological disorders, and how the former can ameliorate the latter. Furthermore, we need to learn the skills of nurturing and raising psychologically resilient children. Child rearing and parenting in the new millennium is about bringing up healthy and resilient offspring who have the capacity to face the diverse challenges of life.

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