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Extraordinary Events and Psychological Resilience

Life is hard. For some people, life may be extremely hard. Often we face circumstances that threaten our well-being and challenge our most basic coping skills, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and distraught. Whether we are dealing with the recent hurricanes and their devastating aftermath, or the damage that comes from a lifetime of poverty, abuse, or trauma, we are all called upon at times to contend with significant adversity. Some of us may cope very well, while others may not. What separates these two groups?

Our ability to tolerate distress depends on a number of factors-the nature of the stressful situation, the intensity of the emotion that is generated, the amount of stress we are already experiencing, our overall physical and psychological health, and the effectiveness of our coping style. Research on children raised in hostile, abusive environments suggests that there may be another factor that buffers us from the otherwise deleterious effects of stressful life events-psychological resilience.

Individuals who are more psychologically resilient seem to share certain qualities or characteristics that inoculate them against stress and enable them to survive, even in the face of extreme adversity. Psychologically resilient individuals are typically intelligent, self-confident, and able to recognize their own competencies. They have the ability to appreciate the "big picture" and see beyond their current life circumstances. They can control their impulses, think through the ramifications of their life choices, and avoid some of the more maladaptive coping strategies utilized by so many. Furthermore, they refuse to blame themselves or take responsibility for circumstances beyond their control. And perhaps most importantly, they are able to remain optimistic and hopeful, even in very trying times.

In short, these individuals have perseverance and hardiness. They are not easily overwhelmed, and have the mental flexibility to adapt to difficult life circumstances, adjusting their tactics rather than trying to apply a more rigid problem-solving approach that has limited utility. Simply stated, they are able to stay positive.

As we come to better understand the genetic and biological underpinnings of these characteristics, it seems clear that only an unfortunate few are born genetically pre-programmed to experience great distress and develop psychopathology in the face of adversity, while on the other hand, only a select few are born with a genetic make-up that truly buffers them from such even in the worst of circumstances. Most of us fall somewhere between these two genetic extremes, and specifically where we fall along the continuum can change over time.

For example, research has empirically demonstrated the importance of social support. Specifically, being able to turn to someone who cares about us and who can help us shoulder life's burdens can positively affect our ability to cope with even the most difficult of stressors. Having and utilizing social support can positively impact our overall psychological resiliency.

Furthermore, developing a life philosophy or perspective that enables us to remain positive, even in the face of adversity, is also critically important. Perhaps this has to do with the ability to find meaning in our lives, and by extension, in our suffering. As Nietzsche so aptly pointed out, man can survive any how if he has a why. Finding some way to understand and accept life's difficulties is also consistent with greater psychological resiliency.

In the end, it is clear that we all face adversity, big or small, in our lives. We may have an easier or more difficult time adjusting, depending upon our genetics and our life histories, but we all have to do what we can to increase our psychological resiliency. When we find ourselves overwhelmed, when we experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, or another mental health ailment, or when we turn to maladaptive coping skills, this is the time to step back and examine what else we can do to face the adversity in a more adaptive fashion-what else we can do to cope when life is particularly hard.

John S. Schell, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

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