Resilience-Perspectives, Research, Growth through Trauma


What is resilience?

Resilience the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences. Especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands. It refers to humans’ amazing ability to bounce back and even thrive in the face of serious life challenges.

Resilience is a widely shared human capacity. Many people may not know they possess until confronted with trauma or crisis.

Definitions of Resilience

Ann Masten defines resilience as “a class of phenomenon characterized by good outcomes in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development” (author’s italics).

Ryff and Singer, define resilience as “maintenance, recovery, or improvement in mental or physical health following challenge”.

For a judgment of resilience to be made, a person must first face a “significant” threat or risk. That has the potential to produce negative outcomes.

Developmental Perspectives of Resilience:

Research has investigated a variety of factors that may threaten normal development. Studies show that children who grow up in physically abusive homes, who have parents suffering from mental illness or alcoholism, or raised in poverty are at significant risk for a variety of problems.

Compared to children raised by healthy parents, for example, children raised by parents with mental illnesses are at greater risk for developing mental illnesses themselves.

The second part of resilience requires judgment of a favorable or good outcome. However, the standards for judging outcomes defined by the relating expectations of society for the age and situation of the individual.

Orphanage children compared to “normal” adopted and non-adopted children for purposes of evaluating deficits and delays in development.

some researchers have also defined resilience as an absence of problem behaviors or psychopathology following adversity. Children of alcoholic, mentally ill, or abusive parents may be resilient. If they don’t develop substance abuse problems, suffer mental illness, become abusive parents themselves, or show symptoms of poor adjustment.

Resilient responses to adversity are common across the life span. Raising kids, divorce, relocation, job loss, illness, loss of a significant other, and physical declines late in life are all common parts of the human experience. Social resources are also important to resilience. Including quality relationships with others who provide intimacy and social support.

Clinical Perspectives of resilience:

Developmental researchers have examined children who faced adversity during some part of their growing up years. Resilient responses documented by the fact that some children showed healthy outcomes despite facing serious threats to normal development. Clinical investigations have examined how people cope with more specific life challenges occurring within a shorter frame of time.

In clinical psychology has investigated shorter-term reactions to specific events, such as loss (e.g., death of a loved one) and trauma (i.e., violent or life-threatening situations). Bonanno (2004) describes a resilient response to a specific loss or trauma as:. “The ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially disruptive event, such as a death of a close relation or a violent or life-threatening situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning”.

Bonanno argues that recovery, judged by mental health criteria, involves a period of clinically significant symptoms (e.g., of posttraumatic stress or depression) lasting at least 6 months. This period followed by a much longer time frame of several years, during which the individual gradually returns to the level of mental health that existed before the trauma or loss. Resilience, on the other hand, involves short-term disturbances in a person’s normal functioning lasting only for a period of weeks.

Resilience characterized by “bouncing back” from negative experiences. within a relatively short period of time. The concept of resilience highlights the strength of the individual and his or her coping resources.

Recovery begins with more severe reactions and takes considerably more time before the person returns pre-event levels of functioning. The concept of recovery highlights individual vulnerability and coping resources that have been overwhelmed. Bonanno argues for a greater awareness that resilience is both a common and a healthy response to loss and trauma.

Growth Through Trauma.

A growing body of empirical literature reveals that many people find meaningful life lessons, a renewed appreciation for life, and increased feelings of personal strength as a result of traumatic experiences. The negative outcomes that characterize posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), positive outcomes arising from traumatic experiences have been referred to as posttraumatic growth (PTG).

Posttraumatic growth captures the main theme of research showing the potential for growth and enhancement that may result from personal suffering. The posttraumatic growth literature is closely related to the literature on resilience because both focus on human strengths in the face of challenging life events. One difference is that resilience research has emphasized how people can bounce back to pre-trauma levels of functioning following adversity (in other words, return to their previous level of adjustment). In contrast, PTG research has explored positive changes and enhanced functioning following trauma (in other words, a person might grow beyond his or her pre- trauma level of adjustment).

Negative Effects of Trauma

Research has examined how people cope with a wide variety of traumas including catastrophic fires; loss of a loved one; caring for a seriously ill infant; surviving a heart attack or natural disaster; dealing with HIV infection, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer; coping with disabilities; and being victimized in a sexual assault.

Janoff-Bulman argues that the psychological toll of trauma occurs, in large part, because traumatic events shatter people’s basic assumptions about themselves and the world they live in. She describes three basic assumptions that are challenged by trauma:

  1. The belief in personal invulnerability
  2. The perception of the world as meaningful and comprehensible
  3. The view of ourselves in a positive light
  • The first assumption refers to the belief that “it can’t happen to me.” Research consistently shows that people underestimate the likelihood of serious negative events happening to them. People believe that bad things always happen to “the other guy”. A traumatic experience opens the door to the possibility of thinking that “if this can happen, anything can happen.” A person’s former belief in his or her invulnerability to traumatic events now seems like an illusion.
  • The second assumption, that life is meaningful and comprehensible, may also be contradicted by a traumatic experience. After trauma, a person’s life may seem chaotic and confusing. Victims frequently ask themselves, “why me?” or “what did I do to deserve this?”. People may come to believe that they have far less control over negative events than they previously thought.
  • The third assumption, concerning positive self-image, may undergo a similar transformation. Research shows that people’s sense of personal worth and self-esteem is often deflated and undermined by trauma. People may feel helpless, weak, out of control, powerless, or needy following victimization.

Positive Effects of Trauma

Park (1998) reports that after a traumatic experience a significant number of people actually say that “it was the best thing that ever happened” to them. The general explanation for PTG is that challenged beliefs and assumptions about life can provide a basis and an opportunity for personal growth.

Initially, traumatic experiences are disorienting and frightening. Over time, however, people may learn deeper lessons about themselves and about life. These lessons have the potential to enhance individuals’ understanding of themselves, their relationships, and what is most important in life. Early research tended to view reports of positive change following trauma as defensive responses that might help a person cope temporarily, by artificially softening the effects of the trauma. Positive changes were not viewed as real and enduring.

Explanations for Growth Through Trauma

Frankl argued that a “will to meaning” was a basic motivating force in people’s lives. He thought that people need an overarching sense of purpose, meaning, and direction to sustain them through life’s journey. A meaningful life is expressed in people’s goals and ambitions that, in turn, direct their energy toward the future.

When traumatic experiences shatter or disrupt these goals and purposes, life may be perceived as meaningless. Under such conditions, people highly motivate themselves to restore a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. Such circumstances present opportunities for personal growth. As people develop and commit themselves to new goals, ambitions, and purposes that re-establish their sense of meaning and direction. The same negative experiences that shatter basic assumptions may also provide opportunities for positive growth as people find life- renewing purpose.

Meaning making refers to an active process of reappraisal and revision of how an event might be interpreted or what it might signify. Researchers have focused on two forms of meaning making following tragedy:. Making sense of the event, and finding benefits or positive outcomes.

Sense-making refers to making the event comprehensible in terms of beliefs about how the world operates. Finding benefits or
positive outcomes in trauma and loss.

Davis, Nolen Hoeksema, and Larson (1998) found that 6 months after losing a loved one to a terminal illness, 73% of bereaved people reported positive outcomes. Eighteen months later, 77% reported some benefit from their loss. Studies of people dealing with a seriously ill infant, property damage by tornado or fire, or a serious medical emergency, have found a similar percentage of people who report some growth and benefit as a result of negative life events.

Resilience Research

Studies of resilience are most prominent in developmental psychology. Interest in resilience grew out of a shared awareness among developmental researchers studying at-risk children. In the 1970s, scientists began to take notice of the significant number of children in their studies who showed healthy development despite having faced serious adversity.

Despite these difficult life circumstances, researchers consistently found resilient children who somehow managed to prevail and become competent, healthy adults. Because of naturally occurring life circumstances, one-third of the children exposed to multiple risks for developmental problems. The following risks were present before 2 years of age. Poverty, parental mental illness, family conflict, and poor environmental conditions for raising children. Werner and Smith found that one-third of these high-risk children grew up to be caring, and competent adults.

Contrary to popular belief, most people over the age of 65 are not in ill-health, are not lonely, and are not suffering from depression. In fact, ratings of life satisfaction and self-esteem are, on average, as high in old age as in any other period of adulthood


Positive Psychology. Baumgardner and Crothers. 2015. Pearson India Education.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing. William C. Compton , Edward L. Hoffman. 

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