You may be forgiven for thinking the term ‘resilience’ has psychological roots, but, in fact, it originates from engineering and is centuries old. So, for humans, what do we mean by resilience and it’s good to know that we’ve all got what it takes.
Engineers describe resilience as the ability of a material that has been deformed or altered by pressure, to spring back into shape. This was illustrated beautifully in the heatwave of 2019, when railway lines that had buckled in the extreme heat regained their original shape once the temperature dropped. Saving us the huge expense of re-laying thousands of miles of track. It was a testament to the resilience of the steel from which the tracks were made.
Psychologists stole the term because it encapsulates how people respond “adaptively” to pressure and adversity: the ability to thrive no matter whatever life throws at us. The problem is, psychologists can’t quite agree on a definition of resilience as it applies to humans.
Is resilience innate or learned? Fixed or variable? How it should be measured? Can it can be trained? Why do some people seem to have more of it that others? There is one thing, however, that most agree on: resilient people “bounce back” in response to adversity and it would be very handy to know how and why.
It is estimated that at least a third of us are born naturally resilient. Genetics and neurobiology will naturally predispose these lucky individuals, but genetic predisposition isn’t a guarantee. I may be genetically predisposed to live a long and healthy life, but if I eat badly, don’t exercise, smoke and drink too much, I might easily squander my inheritance. So, there must be more to it than genes and biology.
If we think of our capacity for resilience as a cocktail made up of a whole range of ingredients from genetics and epigenetics, to culture and society, including any personal adversity, we find that some ingredients are simply not within our control. However, there are some over which we can exercise significant influence, and those are our executive function skills.
Broadly speaking executive function skills include, emotional regulation, problem-solving, perspective taking, consequential thinking, insight, foresight, hindsight, oversight and empathy. Many of us develop these skills naturally and they are fully formed by the time we reach our mid-twenties. However, for some of us, for all sorts of reasons, these skills don’t develop fully or at all, and this can have enormous consequences on how we manage our lives in general and in adversity in particular.