Every day, people face divorce, death, bankruptcy, job losses and other traumatic experiences. Some recover quickly and resume constructive and fulfilling lives, while others become trapped and consumed by their misfortunes—often spiraling into emotional despair and mental illness.

Why? What makes some people more resilient than others? How is it that some individuals overcome and thrive despite the most trying circumstances, while others struggle at the first sign of trouble?

What Scientists Believe about Resiliency

Scientists continue to research factors that contribute to people's varied abilities to overcome stressful situations.

With the rising rate of suicide among returning soldiers, the military has recently conducted studies to help identify soldiers at risk for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hoping to catch them before they face combat. Evidence from those studies points to previous emotional health as a good indicator of future resiliency.

Other research has suggested that environmental factors and genetic differences play a role in determining individual responses to stress. While researchers continue to try to understand why some people are able to bounce back better than others, certain character traits among the most resilient seem evident.

Traits of Resilient People

Resilient people tend to engage in five specific emotional actions when experiencing a stressful event. They include:

  • Maintaining a positive attitude
  • Recognizing that the negative experience is temporary
  • Staying flexible
  • Maintaining one's physical health
  • Seeking out support

Applying These Traits to Life Circumstances

  1. In maintaining a positive attitude, resilient people refrain from adapting long-term negative beliefs when confronting stressors. Rather than making a long-term statement after being fired—such as, “My life is terrible, and I'll never find another job,"—a resilient person will accept his circumstance, and make a list of constructive actions to propel him forward. He may even ultimately see the job loss as an opportunity to pursue other dreams or improve his life.
  2. Recognizing that a terrible event is short-term allows a person with good coping skills to accept and understand that setbacks do not mean all is permanently lost. Such a belief implies that crises provide opportunities to overcome challenges and strengthen oneself. Hence, a trauma does not mean that life is over; it is simply changed.
  3. Flexibility is a key component to resiliency, inherent in strong individuals. Instead of becoming paralyzed by a harrowing experience, a person who often bounces back considers various approaches to understanding what might have lead to the event. Being open-minded to new solutions when not under stress enables resilient people to handle stress more effectively; they are accustomed to thinking of novel solutions, and rely on such skills when faced with a catastrophe.
  4. Despite difficulties, resilient people do not tend to neglect their physical health. Sticking to an exercise routine, eating well and sleeping enough hours per night are all actions that contribute to mental well-being.
  5. The hardy among us often surround them selves with a strong support network. Being socially engaged, both personally and professionally, offers a buffer for trying times.

Ultimately, seeking old and new connections with supportive people is perhaps the most important act to undertake in helping an individual deal with a crisis.

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Katherine J. Gold, M.D., M.S.W., M.S.
Liz Matheis, Ph.D.
Sigal Sharf


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