Before 2020, Stephanie Walkenshaw had certain convictions about what it meant to be resilient. “I used to believe resilience was about pushing through, picking yourself back up, tenacity,” the 43-year-old from Denver said.
But over the last year, "pushing through" became harder and harder to do. Walkenshaw had a parent dealing with cancer, while working from home with two children in virtual school during a pandemic. “I came to find that, despite my drive to keep on keeping on, eventually that drive started to break down,” she said. “I hit a breaking point.”
Jessica Clapham, a 26-year-old in Chico, California, felt that she'd been tasked with maintaining resilience since before COVID-19. She lost her home in the Camp Fire wildfire, her father died in 2019 from liver disease, and then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. “Truth is, I don't want to be resilient anymore,” Clapham said. “It is not something I am proud to be right now.”
This is a common sentiment: that despite the allure of a hot vax summer, it's all getting to be too much. In a recent article in Vox, Anna North wrote about the “Delta doldrums.” People are tired. “It just feels like folks kind of want to curl up in a ball, take a nap, and wake up when this is all over,” one clinical psychologist told her. As Anne Helen Petersen wrote in the Washington Post, “The Delta variant arrived at just the right time to break our spirits.”
And it's more than just Delta. As Vice’s Rachel Miller wrote, “There’s a sense of ennui that I can’t quite pin down, and a not-insignificant amount of anxiety that doesn’t feel easy explained away by the existence of the Delta variant.” It might have something to do with the sheer amount of time we've been asked to just keep on going, paired with an absence of time to recover.
It's led some to reflect on the concept of resilience. Is this really the moment when resilience reaches its "breaking point," as Walkenshaw described?
"The word has slowly lost its meaning to me," Clapham said. "Like a song that is played over and over on the radio. Eventually, your ears become used to hearing it and you'd rather hear something else. The issue with being continuously resilient is that tapping into the strengths to overcome continuous struggles can become tiring and emotionally crippling."
Resilience, broadly defined, is when people (or systems) are able to function well after an adverse event. (The Latin roots of the word mean to "leap or spring back," to "rebound", or to "recoil.") Resilience, as a concept, is widely applied; in Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, academics noted, "It appears that everything (organizations, cities, nations) and everybody (from schoolteachers to the U.S. president) can and should be resilient."
This is how resilience often gets thrown around—as an ambiguous buzzword. Though resilience describes an entity's ability to bounce back after hardship, its use has colloquially extended to the act of persevering without complaint during an adverse event. It's regarded as a trait, one that's synonymous with grit or endurance.
In 2015, critic Parul Sehgal wrote about the “profound emptiness of resilience,” and how “‘resilience’ has sprung into new life as a catchword in international development and Silicon Valley and among parenting pundits and TED-heads. Hundreds of books have been published on the topic this year, mostly with a focus on toughening up your investment portfolio or your toddler.” Resilience is "touted as a protective talisman against the effects of trauma, which individuals, communities and whole economies are told to cultivate. Schools are being taught how to encourage resilience in children; armies are trained in it at enormous expense," wrote Emine Saner in the Guardian.
With this ubiquitous framing and presence, it's no wonder that when a person is feeling burnout, they may think they're losing their resilience. In speaking to researchers who study resilience, though, it became clear that the idea that psychological resilience is faltering because negative emotions creep in, we need to take breaks, or need to rely on others is based on this incorrect—though pervasive—definition of what resilience is.
First, there's a temporal issue. I had wondered what the effects of chronic resilience were, but learned that since researchers usually assess resilience based on how a person is doing after an adverse event, and we are still very much in the middle of the pandemic, asking about our level of resilience now may not be the right question. (As if the pandemic wanted to prove a point, in the middle of reporting this article on resilience, I tested positive for COVID-19. I had considered myself to be pretty resilient throughout the pandemic, despite some personal losses, and yet after getting diagnosed I felt new waves of exhaustion and overwhelmedness.)
Additionally, the notion of resilience as an individual trait, something you have—and can lose—ignores that resilience is understood by researchers to be a dynamic, and varied, process. “If you can just control your mind, then you will be resilient—that is actually an outdated idea,” said Michael Ungar, the director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada. “But it’s still very popular.”
Resilience is not the steely resolve of a person who is never fazed, and picks themself up again over and over. Instead, resilience is help-seeking, self-care, and accessing institutional support—all things people reach for that they may associate with resilience waning. Those are not byproducts of failing at resilience but adaptive and flexible coping strategies that could help to foster resilience later on.
“People have been coping for a long time with this pandemic,” Ungar said. “And that’s great because we have no choice—we have to cope. But people at some point wanting to say, ‘I’m done’—that reaction could also be a sign of resilience. After a while, to release a certain amount of frustration is not necessarily a sign of vulnerability, but it could be part of the process of preserving your mental health.”
In this way, resilience can be thought of as both something that will emerge later on and a skill that we can work to build now. It's interactive, community-based, and can look different each day. It’s both the ability to be strong in the face of difficult times, and also knowing when to be soft, and compassionate to yourself.
It's unsurprising that people have wildly different characterizations of resilience. Even in research, resilience has been defined in varying, divergent ways. “You don’t have to go far to see that there’s dozens of definitions of resilience,” said Thomas Britt, a professor of psychology at Clemson University, who has studied trauma and resilience in the military and in the workplace.
While much of the current study of resilience looks at how people function after adversity, there are also important distinctions to make about the variations in adversity, said George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the author of The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD.
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Bonanno has described two different main kinds of resilience: emergent resilience and minimal-impact resilience. Emergent resilience is what follows chronic events that last a long time, and minimal-impact resilience is what can occur after an acute event with a shorter duration, like a car accident or an assault.
Because emergent resilience is a response to chronic and ongoing stress, “resilience in this context is often not fully apparent until after the aversive circumstances have run their course,” Bonanno wrote in 2015. “A child might struggle for years, for example, against the caustic influence of an ongoing abusive family context. Nonetheless, that child would evidence emergent resilience if he or she eventually went on to meet normal developmental milestones and culturally relevant expectations for competence and psychological adjustment.”
Assessing how people are doing in the middle of chronic adversity is more difficult, because the context and nature of the stressors could be changing throughout. “The distinction between resilience and maladjustment is often not fully apparent until after the stressful context has, to some degree, abated,” Bonanno wrote.
Bonanno's work has consistently found that people are remarkably resilient—and that resilience may be the norm after adversity. But in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, it’s to be expected that people would still be struggling. “It’s natural to have some stress,” Bonanno said. “It’s natural to be a little fed up with the whole thing.” Since chronic events like a pandemic don’t just end on a specific day, people will be on different timelines for resilience; their "after" periods will take place at mismatched times.
Lara Aknin, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University, said that people possess what's been called the "psychological immune system," meaning that we are surprisingly good at adapting to both good and bad events in our lives. (On the downside, it can mean that when positive things happen—we get a promotion or get married—we think we’re going to be happy forever due to these events; ultimately, though, we adapt to them.)
Aknin was the co-author of a review on the first year of the pandemic that found that people were doing better mentally than originally expected. But the capacity for adaptation requires fixed events, and then time to adjust. In our case, with the pandemic, "there are just so many unknowns that I think makes it really hard for people to adapt,” Aknin said.
This is the kind of breathing room Clapham said she's been missing. “If I had some time to stop and reflect, settle into life as it is for me now, if I could have a break from recovering from one loss after another, one disaster after another, I might feel that pride of resilience return, and maybe I can start fully healing, but until then I am stuck learning how to heal my scars while being resilient at the same time,” she said.
When people think about being resilient, they may also have very specific ideas of adaptations, coping mechanisms, or outcomes that look “very rosy, and come about very quickly and without effort," said Michele Bedard-Gilligan, an associate professor at the UW School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry, and the associate director of the UW Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress. “Some definitions of resilience describe it as no disruption in functioning, and I don’t know that I buy that. For me, that doesn’t sound human.”
The idea that a person "is" resilient, and that resilience is a specific innate set of qualities, persists, said Ungar. But he uses the term in a much more active way. "It’s not, 'I am resilient,' but 'I engage with the world to get what I need' or 'I do things in active ways to cope with stress.'"
“It is a kind of myth, the resilient type,” Bonanno said. “And you see this all the time on wellness websites or other things that talk about the ‘five things about the resilient person.’”
There is something called the “resilience paradox,” which is that while there are personality variables associated with resilient outcomes, at the end of the day, they explain almost nothing. “If you think of resilience like a pie, they’re tiny little slices,” Bonanno said.
Resilience should instead be understood as the process by which we interact with our environments, resources, and support. “We’re influenced by the world around us,” Ungar said. “Our ability to cope is a reflection of not just positive thinking but also how well we’re supported by our governments, by the institutions around us, by our family, our friends, and the opportunities we have as well.”
With this more dynamic notion of resilience in mind, the question isn’t how is this person being resilient but instead, how they're doing in relation to the world around them. This helps to avoid blaming people for their "lack" of resilience when it's often that people don’t have the resources or support they need.
Other variations seen in people's resilience levels are likely influenced by whether they observed good coping models when they were growing up, and levels of resources and support, Bedard-Gilligan said. Resilience doesn't seem to be inherent, but it can be learned. “Our resilience is tied up in the resilience of others and the world around us,” Ungar said.
Britt and his colleagues have made a distinction between “demonstrating resilience” and the “capacity” for resilience. Capacity is a combination of a person’s personality and genetics, plus the resources available to them, like family, community, work, and government. In this model, the capacity for resilience is related to the ways that people cope when they’re facing adversity, which could lead to demonstrating resilience once the adversity is over.
“I don't think resilience really ever happens completely at the individual level,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “And I think there’s very few people who, particularly over the last 18 months, have been able to cope adaptively entirely on their own.”
That's what Kathleen Brown, a 39-year-old from Chicago, learned when she was a teenager in the 1990s, during treatment for bone cancer. She said she was cut off from her loved ones, since she didn’t have a cell phone, the internet, or social media in that era. When she began to feel a similar sense of isolation during the pandemic, she focused on connecting to others in order to maintain her mental health.
“When you lack human interaction, you have nothing to compare yourself or your experience to," Brown said. "One of humans' defining characteristics is that we long for connection and belonging, so it's really helpful to build a tribe of people who can relate to your situation, to build resilience together.”
When we cling to a more individualistic notion of resilience, it can become maladaptive. Ungar has suggested that there can be a dark side to resilience, when resilient traits become non-functional. For example, consider the "resilience" of rebuilding homes on floodplains, and being called resilient for rebuilding.
“Let’s be real clear: That is a twisted idea of resilience,” Ungar said. If your land has flooded three times in the century, the resilience to keep rebuilding it is not a positive attribute. Maybe it’s blind faith, naivety, arrogance, or a variety of other things.”
In our current situation, it's worth asking: Is striving to keep up with pre-pandemic levels of productivity a functional behavior for the long term? What about rushing to undo public health measures to "go back" to how things were? “We can become tired and frustrated and testy," Ungar said. "Those are also part of our coping strategies; we need release valves. But hopefully we can do this in a non–self-destructive way. It doesn't mean we should get rid of the mask mandates just because we’re fed up.”
An overemphasis on resilience can also place the responsibility on individuals to maintain their own mental health, Britt said, and absolve other organizations of their role in trying to decrease the exposure to stressful events.
“We’ve known that for awhile in the field of occupational health psychology: that organizations would much rather invest in stress management training for employees and put it on the employee to be able to manage stress better as opposed to doing structural changes within the organization to decrease the nature of the adversity that the employees are exposed to,” Britt said.
Resilience isn’t just about maintaining well-being through brute strength but all of the behaviors that help you to move forward despite facing adversity. And those behaviors can vary a lot.
Within the last year and a half, we’ve had good days and bad days; periods where things feel easier and periods where they feel harder. “I would argue that that up and down, that seasonal pattern, is actually a characteristic of resilience,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “Resilience is probably not linear, that it does go up and down depending on circumstances.”
Resilience might sometimes look like grinning and bearing it. “But there’s times when resilience may look like crawling back into bed and crying,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “Feeling those emotions and processing through whatever it is that's causing them. It may actually be the most adaptive thing you can do at that moment." Bonnano coined the phrase “coping ugly” for the things we have to do in some situations to manage in the moment.
And rather than focusing so much on how resilient we are or aren't in the middle of adversity, Bonanno suggested the concept of flexibility could be more helpful. Having psychological flexibility means that when exposed to stress, a person has a well-stocked toolkit and is open to using a wide variety of those tools in different circumstances.
“The success of coping efforts depends not so much on whether a person uses so-called adaptive or maladaptive coping behaviors but rather on that person’s ability to utilize coping strategies flexibly and in a manner that best corresponds to the demands of the stressor situation,” Bonanno wrote.
Bonanno said to be successfully flexible, you must first focus on what is happening and how you feel. Then you can answer questions: What do you need to do? What are you able to do given your resources? Finally, you reflect on how your actions made a difference. Did they make you feel better? If not, it could be time to do something different.
“Now that we’re being faced with the fact that we may have many more months of this, it may be totally new things that we have to do to get us out of bed in the morning,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “And that’s OK. Our resilience isn’t failing. It just means we have to adapt again.”
Walkenshaw said that the past year has taught her just this: Her previous understanding of resilience was too static. She thinks it was an understanding of resilience that’s widespread but damaging. “Perhaps it's a reflection of my generation—the first latchkey kids? Or some by-product of the stigma around mental health?” she said. "There's certainly a collective notion I see in myself and in those around me that says we have to keep going, keep pushing.”
Now she has shifted her definition of resilience to be built around self-care, and she doesn't think that taking the time to take care of herself is a retreat from resilience. “I had to learn to take better care of myself,” she said. An added benefit of resilience being interactive: When we practice it, we are able to share it with others. “My kids, who have witnessed all the stress and anxiety during this period, have also watched me undertake this transformation and learned from it themselves," Walkenshaw said. "I want to continue to be a better guide for them on this front, so I think that will keep me motivated to see it through.”
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