What is Resilience? - Definition & Perspectives

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why do some people seem to thrive under stress while others feel overwhelmed by it? In this lesson, we'll look at resilience, including what it is, how it influences a person's response to stress, and some major scientific perspectives on it.

Stress & Resilience

Joey just lost his job and is very stressed out. What should he do now that he's been laid off?

Joey is facing a lot of stress, or something that taxes your psychological or physical system. Stress is an opportunity for growth, but it's often seen as a threat.

How can Joey deal with stress? Resilience is the ability to adapt and thrive in stressful situations. To help Joey out, let's look closer at some of the ways that psychologists think about resilience.

Risk & Protective Factors

Joey's facing a huge stressor: losing his job. But if he can be resilient, it could do him a lot of good in the future. But what, exactly, is resilience?

Some psychologists think of resilience in terms of risk and protective factors. Risk factors are things that exacerbate stressful situations. Poverty, illness, mental disorders, and relationship problems are just a few examples of risk factors. To understand how risk factors impact stress and resilience, think about Joey. If he's poor, sick, or in a bad relationship, it can make losing his job much more devastating to him.

In contrast, protective factors are things that boost resilience to stress, such as wealth, health, social support, and academic success. If Joey has money, is healthy and active, and has positive relationships in his life, it can make losing his job less bad for him.

When thinking about resilience, psychologists view it sort of like a balance sheet. Everyone has some risk factors and some protective factors, but the most resilient people have more protective factors than risk factors.

Biological Factors

Thinking about resilience as a balance sheet isn't the only way to conceptualize it, though. Some psychologists focus on the biological factors that contribute to resilience.

Perhaps the best example of a biological factor that contributes to resilience is the hormone oxytocin. This neurotransmitter has been nicknamed the 'cuddle hormone' because it's released when you're around someone you love. When a mother looks into her baby's eyes, her brain and body is flooded with oxytocin. That's what makes her feel that overwhelming feeling of love.

What does that have to do with resilience? Well, oxytocin is a stress hormone. That means that, among other hormones, when we're stressed, our bodies release oxytocin. This is our body's way of making us seek out social support in times of stress. So, when Joey finds out that he's being laid off, he might suddenly feel the urge to see his wife. That's his oxytocin making sure that he is around someone who can help him through this difficult time.

There are other hormones and neurotransmitters that also help make people resilient. Some neurotransmitters (which are essentially hormones in the brain) help to reduce the body's stress response. You know how, when you're stressed, your heart races and your palms get sweaty? These are part of the body's stress response. So neurotransmitters that reduce your heart rate and your sweaty palms are helping you feel less stress, and therefore making you more resilient.

Resilience Cycle

Both perspectives on resilience, the biological and risk/protective factors, see resilience as a personal trait. That is, you are a resilient person or you're not. But there's another way to look at it. Many psychologists see resilience as a process or cycle, not a personality trait. That is, anybody and everybody can be resilient. It's about going through a process to become resilient.

There are many different process-based approaches to resilience, but most include variations on four basic steps. They are:

1. Deterioration. In the first step, adversity hits and the person under stress begins to feel the stress. They may start to panic and fall apart. For example, when Joey first gets his pink slip, he might be so stressed and panicked that he can't think straight. He's deteriorating.

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