The Resilience Factor: The Changing Spectrum of Emotional Survival

Last week our blog post focused on resilience in the entitled surroundings of social media. And it occurred to us that perhaps not everyone is as familiar with the term “resilience” as those of us in the mental health field. So in today’s #TherapistsThoughts article from Teyhou Smyth, our London-based therapist, we examine resilience in a little more detail. We hope you find it helpful to understand the concept, and to take steps to increase your own resilience.


Emotional resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations.

People who have greater resilience to adversities experience better quality of life and have improved physical and emotional health outcomes.

As important as resilience is in the span of a person’s lifetime, it isn’t talked about as much as one would think prudent in our culture. Because resilience is so important to our long-term ability to cope and create meaning in our lives, it would benefit all of us to make it a more prominent part of our conversation about wellness.

Why Emotional Resilience is Important

Whether we are resilient or not, life continues to carry us along, by virtue of an ongoing heartbeat, brain synapses and the passage of time. So why bother to learn about resilience and try to grow it within ourselves?

Resilience offers us a variety of positive outcomes. When we improve our resilience, we become better equipped to handle difficult circumstances.

We improve our sense of self and our ability to trust ourselves to recover. There is a sense of empowerment that resilience brings. Consider people who have survived unimaginable disasters impacting their safety and security.

Resilient people who survive catastrophic events use those experiences to create meaning and purpose.

That is not to say those people didn’t have adverse reactions to the events, but over time they incorporate it into the story of their lives. Whether or not they do it consciously, they make a commitment to themselves to ensure this challenge isn’t one of futility. That resilience turns the negative experience into something new.

It gives it wings and sets it free to inspire others; to improve the individual’s life and the lives of those who witness it. In that way, resilience is a type of rebellion. Instead of turning to adversity with a spirit of defeat, resilience asks it a question: what will you teach me?

Resiliency Levels Across Time

Our levels of resilience can vary across our lifespan. There are many factors that determine our resilience at any given stage of life. In childhood, our resilience largely depends upon the support, nurturing and compassion of caregivers.

For children who do not have a healthy and nurturing childhood experience, resilience is compromised.

Those with adverse childhood experiences such as abuse and neglect start out their journeys with a marked disadvantage when it comes to resilience. Fortunately though, resilience can be grown and improved in each of us from early childhood through to adulthood.

Life can throw us into some compromising positions. When we face challenges with health, work, relationships and personal identity, it can chip away at our core sense of stability and wellness. At times like this, our resilience may seem minimal.

Risks of Low Resilience

Often a faltering sense of resilience manifests in negative coping strategies. When we are in emotional pain that seems relentless and all-encompassing, we tend to reach for the things that will make us feel better as a solution to our pain.

When we are in a negative mind-set, that can send us in directions that are detrimental.

Engaging in unhealthy, overindulgent behaviors for a short-term fix is a common avoidance technique for pain.

Whether it is abusing substances, overeating or some other form of emotional-buffering, these behaviors pull us away from resilience. They may be effective short-term numbing-agents, but do not build a stronger foundation for survival in the way that true resilience can.

Resilience can be difficult for those who have limited support systems.

As much as we would like to think we are independent and do not rely on the emotional support of others, we do rely on others for validation and a sense of belonging and community.

Throughout our lifespan we rely on our relationships with others to garner resilience in the face of difficult life events.

Even when others cannot help us solve a particular problem just knowing we have the support and compassion of a friend can make a major difference.

Even the timing of life circumstances can influence our ability to cope and remain resilient. If one is recovering from a negative life event when another hits, our resilience can be compromised.

Naturally, we need time to heal.

Part of that time involves coming to terms with the difficulties we face, but when we are not granted that time between significant life events, the compounded effects of a series of hardships can leave us feeling defeated.

It may seem like we become less resilient as time goes on. In some ways, this may be true. The cumulative effect of negative life experiences can drain our emotional resources. As years pass this can chip away at our resilience. It is especially detrimental on our resilience when we aren’t paying attention.

Building Resilience

We are not stuck in a holding pattern when it comes to our ability to survive and even thrive, in difficult circumstances. Resilience can be nurtured and grown within ourselves.

Pay attention to the signs:

When we are paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, we can get a good indication of whether our resilience is where it should be. When difficult times hit, what do you do? What thoughts occur to you first? How do you cope with the adversity?

If you find yourself avoiding feelings, isolating yourself from others and engaging in negative distraction techniques, those are signs that your resilience needs some attention.

Ask yourself the “how” and “what” questions instead of “why”:

One of the most futile questions we can ask the universe in a time of peril is “why?” When we are being bombarded with negative life events, there is seldom a good answer to the “why” question, and it generally leaves us feeling even more defeated and cursed.

Instead, ask yourself different questions that can begin to lead you toward growth and self-discovery. Questions like, “how can I grow from this?” and “what is life teaching me?” are a good way to jumpstart the resiliency process during adversity.

Treat yourself well:

During difficult times, you need to be your own best friend. Negative self-talk and punishing yourself for mistakes will only make your emotional pain worse. Try self-compassion instead. Make a rule that you will not make negative comments about yourself.

Look for ways to engage in healthy self-care on a daily basis. If you find yourself lapsing into a mode of self-pity, don’t stay stuck in that thought process, but also do not judge yourself harshly. Correcting your negative reactions and treating yourself and your situation with patience is key in rebuilding your stores of resilience.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website]

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