Resilience: How Are We Doing?

In a recent podcast, Dr. Bertha K. Madras, professor of psychobiology and chair of the Division of Neurochemistry at Harvard Medical School, describes life as a combination of highs and lows. She states, “I’ve seen so much tragedy and so much hardship among people … and the ones who have determination and the ones who have ‘grit’ do beautifully. And I think ‘grit’ can be taught, and children can learn it.”

The 10 Factors of Resilience

In the latest edition of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Southwick and Charney prove that resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, can be learned. The authors outline ten coping mechanisms that proved to be effective for bouncing back after an adverse event. The ten coping mechanisms, or resilience factors, are:

  1. Realistic optimism
  2. Facing fear
  3. Moral compass, ethics, and altruism
  4. Religion and spirituality
  5. Social support
  6. Resilient role models
  7. Physical fitness
  8. Brain fitness
  9. Cognitive and emotional flexibility
  10. Meaning and purpose

They determine these factors through rigorous study of the most recent research on the brain. They also interview trauma survivors to explore the personal side of living with trauma. People interviewed include survivors of abuse, survivors of military combat, and immigrants escaping impoverished countries. One enlightening quote from their recent edition is an explanation about how the United States has a distorted view of stress:

“Most of us have been taught to believe that stress is bad. We have learned to see stress as our enemy, something that we must avoid or reduce. But the truth is, when stress can be managed, it tends to be very good and even necessary for health and growth. Without it, the mind and body weaken. If we can learn to harness stress, it can serve as a catalyst for developing even greater wisdom” (Southwick & Charney, 2018, p.25).

Can Overcoming Adversity Lead to Growth?

Some psychologists argue that overcoming adversity can lead to growth. Jay describes the phenomenon of resilient people as “supernormal.” Feldman calls those that overcome adversity and choose to give back as “supersurvivors.” Still another term for positive change after experiencing trauma is posttraumatic growth, or a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis. Southwick and Charney describe potential “benefits” of adversity:

  • Greater compassion for others
  • Enhanced wisdom and maturity
  • A new sense of meaning and purpose
  • Greater sense of kinship with humanity

Despite the trend to see stress as negative, people still respond strongly to stories of overcoming adversity. Some of the most popular movies in the last 20 years are true stories of resilient people:

  • Walk the Line (2005): The story of Johnny Cash’s traumatic upbringing, rise to fame, struggles with addiction, and then ability to maintain his sobriety while giving back to others.
  • Precious (2009): Claireece “Precious” Jones suffers constant abuse at the hands of her mother. Precious instinctively sees a chance to turn her life around when the opportunity arises to transfer to an alternative school. Her new teacher is patient and firm and guides her in the journey to self-determination.
  • The Blind Side (2009): The story of Michael Oher, who was taken in by a caring woman and her family. Over the course of the film, he goes from being homeless to becoming an All-American football player and first round NFL draft pick.

What Areas of Resilience Might Need Strengthening?

Still another term for positive reactions to trauma is posttraumatic growth, or a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis.

People still respond strongly to stories of resilience, but are we still generally considered resilient? According to Southwick and Charney, some evidence suggests resilience seems to be on the decline, especially for children. The areas of physical fitness, brain fitness, altruism, and role models may be particularly low.

Physical Fitness

Why is it important? Studies show exercise and eating healthfully keep the brain and body well. When we don’t incorporate these patterns into our life, the brain does not function as well.
How are we doing? One study reports that many youth spend 7 hours daily on sedentary activities. Additionally, a nonprofit organization comprised of retired military officers released a report about the status of the current acceptance rate into the U.S. Military. Their report indicates that 75% of youth that attempt to enlist in the military are being rejected for medical, educational, and emotional reasons.

Brain Fitness

Why is it important? When you find yourself in a complex situation, it is important to pay full attention in order to solve the problem to the best of your ability.
How are we doing? Due to the current culture of constant distractions and technology, most of us are rushing through our lives without full attention to any task. Children are especially at-risk; according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 1-2 hours of total screen time per day is recommended for children. But according to a 2010 report, children spend up to 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen, and for some families, there are no rules with regards to electronic devices.


Why is it important? Altruism, or helping others without any self-interest, is associated with better life adjustment in addition to less hopelessness and depression.
How are we doing? Currently, people may be more narcissistic than ever. A recent study found that young adults had less capacity to accept criticism, to work toward a goal, and to empathize with others, and scored high on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.

Positive Role Models

Why is it important? According to research, teens who have positive role models demonstrate positive attitudes towards school and are less likely to drink alcohol or abuse drugs. Observational learning may be the most effective form of role modeling; children learn from observing adult behavior and imitating that behavior in their own lives.
How are we doing? Our culture places an enormous emphasis on physical attractiveness, status, and material wealth, especially in the realm of social media. Wealthy celebrities tend to attract the highest numbers of young followers. Many studies have indicated that young adults who spend more time on social media have higher rates of depression.

Which Resilience Factors Will You Focus On?

While there are ten total resilience factors, is it advisable to choose a few resilience traits and diligently practice them. Some schools are already implementing training courses on resilience. Elementary schools could benefit from adopting curricula that use the principles found in some research on resilience.

Learning resilience can be beneficial for those who have not experienced adversity. People can use their knowledge of resilience to help a friend, relative, or co-worker experiencing difficult times. Helping others can create an energy spike, greater well-being, and lower levels of pain in the helper. In fact, some brain imaging studies show that dopamine, the chemical that stimulates brain reward centers, is released in the brain during the act of helping.

If you would like assistance overcoming a recent adverse event, or would like to learn more about resilience, please contact a licensed therapist.


  1. Amen, D., & Amen, T. (2017, April 18). Sports, mentors and social environments. The Brain Warriors Way Podcast. Retrieved from
  2. Chowdhry, A. (2016, April 30). Research links heavy Facebook and social media usage to depression. Forbes. Retrieved from
  3. Jay, M. (2017). Supernormal: The untold story of adversity and resilience. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc.
  4. Pinsky, D. (2018, May 29). Bertha Madras. The Dr. Drew Podcast. Retrieved from
  5. Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.
  6. Southwick, S. M. & Charney, D. S. (2018). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Twenge, J. & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York, NY: Atria Books.
  8. What is PTG? (2014). University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT

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