Understanding resilience

Psychological resilience is the ability to adapt to, manage and overcome adverse events in life. It also refers to the set of skills that enable one to maintain functional during a crisis. However, there are degrees of resilience. At one end of the scale we have the qualities that enable us to handle the everyday stresses and strains of life; at the other we have the traits that enable us to weather extreme situations such as war, epidemics and natural disasters.

Defining resilience in a crisis

In this article we explore how resilient people get through a crisis. This could be a job loss; a financial disaster; the end of a relationship or family break up; a critical incident (assault, terrorism, crash, etc.); a criminal prosecution; serious illness; death of someone close to you. In fact anything that pushes people to the edge of endurance.

A crisis should be distinguished from an emergency. While a crisis may continue for months, or even years (as did the Covid epidemic), an emergency is short-lived and generally involves an immediate threat to life or, at any rate, the personal safety of individuals. An example here would be a terrorist incident. This article refers mainly to crises that unfold over time. The most relevant resilience trait that applies to emergencies is the third in the list below: Taking one step at a time.

The six key factors in crisis resilience are:

  • Acceptance
  • Social support
  • Taking one step at a time
  • Thought control
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Connecting to your purpose

These six factors are based for the most part on my observations of people (including a few clients) weathering crises such as death of close family member or partner; redundancy; separation/divorce; imprisonment; and financial disaster.


Many people weathering a crisis go into shock. Things can feel so overwhelming that they may experience derealisation. As that happens the sense of reality can turn to panic. Therefore the first (simple) step is to accept that one is in shock. Accepting, also, the experience of too much happening at the same time, and feeling fragile. This opens us up to the realisation that we might need some careful nurturing and (if available) some solid help.

Acceptance means accepting what is, rather than mourning for what one had before. This is especially relevant when relationships end: those left behind can spend months, or even years, denying their loss. This prevents them taking those first, small, steps towards rebuilding. The underlying problem is that pain that comes from hurt can be hard to accept. But owning the pain and nurturing oneself can often be a turning point.

Social support

Resilience isn’t, as some people think, merely about ‘toughness’; sometimes it is a recognition of vulnerability: we can’t do it on our own. Rather than fighting misfortune resilient people bend with the wind of change, and gather support for the journey ahead.

Research shows that help received from a support network is the single most important difference between those who remain resilient in a crisis compared to those who struggle. Resilient people foresee this and invest a great deal of time building a circle of trusted friends and supporters to help them through the bad times (in return they also spend time giving out help to others). In this respect emotional resilience is closely linked to emotional intelligence.

If we are lucky enough to have resilient people in our network we can learn from their experience. They may not always tell us what we want to hear but, being resilient, they will know while the truth hurts sometimes, it can also set you free.

Taking one step at a time

This relates partly to the experience of shock described in the first item. The human tendency in extreme situations is to try and fix things – or at least make them better straight away. When this is not possible some people resist the state of helplessness, and rush around doing anything at all that might give them the illusion of control.

Accepting (for now) that it may be some time before the crisis fades, resilient people focus on small steps each day that might improve their position. These tasks may, or may not, be directly related to the crisis. The general rule is to refocus away from the crisis if there is nothing you can do to address it right now. For example:

Another way of thinking about this step comes from the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. Which makes the wise point that focusing on the little things (every day) gradually works up to doing the big things as well.

Thought control

A common problem amongst non-resilient people in crisis (especially in an emergency) is a panic reaction. This comes about from two sources: high arousal, and panicky thoughts.

In a crisis the brain is apt to increase the circulation of adrenalin. While this provides an energy shot it can also lead to feelings of restlessness and agitation. This can be misinterpreted as ‘nerves’ and might lead the person to think they are having a panic attack. When that misunderstanding is accompanied by anxious thoughts (for example’ I am out of control’) a full-blown anxiety episode is likely to follow.

Resilient people will have learned the art of mind control before a crisis comes along. They distinguish between helpful, practical thoughts and the unhelpful variety and pay attention only to the former. While sidelining, or defusing from thoughts that trigger anxiety.

See this article here for information on Stoic thinking habits that aid resilience.

Adaptability and flexibility

This factor is related to Acceptance. If you can accept that you are in a crisis (and that there may not be much you can do about it directly) you are in position to adapt to the new reality. Taking each day as it comes, and focusing on small, steps. While also remaining open-minded  about your available options.

The general idea is to focus on problem-solving and available solutions. Ignoring problems you can’t influence, while doing something about the rest.

Connecting to your purpose

Surveys of resilient people working through hardships reveal that the great majority have strong transpersonal beliefs. For some these are spiritual allegiances, for others they are related to families and communities, justice and peace, altruism and love, or to personal values such as completing their purpose in living.

Having a transcendent reason for enduring suffering will make it easier for you to continue. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen before you discover your true purpose in life.


Photo by John Hain at Pixabay.




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