Resilience: the secret of inner strength

Written by Dana Peterson

Some people maintain their courage to face life despite the most adverse circumstances and react to crises with confidence. Researchers call this trait “resilience”, the secret of inner strength.

The uncertainty does not frighten people with a robust psyche: They do not long to imagine the possible dangers a company entails - and thus protect themselves from excessive fear
The uncertainty does not frighten people with a robust psyche: They do not long to imagine the possible dangers a company entails – and thus protect themselves from excessive fear

What is resilience?

There are two answers to this question, a simple one and a complicated one. The simple one: Resilience is a special power of the psyche to withstand stress – a pronounced courageous attitude. A resilient person does not allow himself to be thrown off course by strokes of fate, but quickly gets back on his feet and copes with his life as before. That is the reading that you find in advice books or hear at weekend seminars about better crisis management.

But this simple, somewhat hasty interpretation of resilience is not enough for scientists. Your answer to the question of what resilience is, is more complicated and not yet complete: There is no mysterious power behind resilience, but a complex psychological mechanism made up of many individual factors, some of which are known, others not yet.

Therefore, a cautious explanation from research is: Resilience is the ability to maintain one’s mental health during adversity or to restore it quickly afterward. 

Why are not all people equally resilient?

The inner strength of resistance is very different. What may seem like an overwhelming burden to one person – such as moving to a new city – may not cause any trouble for another, and may even be a welcome challenge for them. These differences also become apparent when the conditions in the environment are similar (at least at first glance).

This was the result of a long-term study, which is still much cited today and which is considered the beginning of resilience research. The US psychologist Emmy Werner had spent three decades researching the careers of around 700 Hawaiian children born in 1955. About a third of these children grew up in precarious circumstances. They were starving, neglected, or mistreated. And that also shaped her adult life. Like their parents, they drank a lot of alcohol, had behavioral problems or had dropped out of school. But not all of them. Surprisingly, almost a third of the children managed to get through their bad start unscathed. They developed into respected members of their communities, some were studying. Emmy Werner called her “vulnerable but invincible” – in one word: resilient.

Life may be stormy: people with high resilience remain steadfast. It is as if external adversity cannot touch their innermost being - because they know their own strength
Life may be stormy: people with high resilience remain steadfast. It is as if external adversity cannot touch their innermost being – because they know their own strength

But what was the reason for that? Why did these children succeed in what others failed to do? Emmy Werner’s finding from the study: There was at least one person in your life who always stuck to you. A relative, a teacher, a brother or a sister stood by their side, encouraged them, made them feel that they were worth something.

Further studies confirmed this conclusion. In the meantime, a reliable caregiver in childhood and a stable social network in later life are central factors for psychological resilience. And today scientists all over the world are concerned with understanding even better what, moreover, it depends on that some develop a particularly robust psyche.

Can the psychological resilience also be hereditary?

Many scientists believe that resilience is not an innate trait, but rather develops in the course of life. However, it arises from a complex interplay of many factors – including some that are innate. The neuroscientist Raffael Kalisch, co-founder of the German Resilience Center in Mainz, lists three hereditary factors in particular:

  • Intelligence: It helps to find creative ways out of crises
  • Optimism: It creates trust that everything will turn out well
  • Extraversion: This quality makes it easier for you to approach other people and forge social bonds.

But to find out more about which genes play a role in resilience development and what goes on in the brain when life turns out differently than hoped, long-term studies are needed.

At the Mainz Research Institute, Raffael Kalisch and his colleagues are currently studying young people who are at a special turning point in their lives: the transition from school to training and work. The subjects are to be scientifically monitored for several years. How much resilience is possibly also influenced by genes could therefore be clarified in the near future.

What exactly is a resilient person?

Mentally robust people, however different they may be, have something in common, as the following examples show:

  • The Austrian Natascha Kampusch survived years of imprisonment in a cellar with great psychological strength and now leads a self-determined life as a book author and jewelry designer.
  • Samuel Koch injured himself so badly in the TV show “Wetten, dass …?” That he has been paraplegic ever since. Nevertheless, he works as an actor and is a member of the ensemble of the Nationaltheater Mannheim.

The life paths of the two cannot be compared with each other. But they have one thing in common: they have retained their ability to act despite the most serious life crises. Resilience researchers refer to this as the “expectation of self-efficacy” – as a person’s belief that they can master their life on their own.

Anyone who has the expectation of self-efficacy is not looking for the guilty party in a crisis, but for a way out, trusting firmly that it is feasible. Such people experience crises as painfully as others, but the pain does not paralyze them.

What psychological protective factors are there?

The social environment that promotes a person and supports them in the event of a crisis plays an essential role as a protective factor. But this also includes the ability of the individual to accept social support, and despite all obstacles, continue to set goals and actively strive for them. Resilient people do not tend to “catastrophize”, as psychologists call it. You don’t try to figure out what could go wrong, thereby saving yourself unnecessary stress.

And that is extremely effective. Because strong stress puts an enormous strain on the psyche and the entire organism, especially when it becomes chronic. It can lead to anxiety disorders, depression or cardiovascular diseases. Basically, resilience is the successful defense against an impending stress disease. But that also means that it only shows itself after a crisis. Without the acid test of stress, resilience remains invisible, so to speak. And that’s why some scientists think it’s nonsense for guidebook authors to use questionnaires to determine the resilience of their readers. It’s like testing how well a person can swim without being in the water.

The second part of this article can be found in GEO KNOWLEDGE: Overcoming life crises. Among other things, questions such as how to train resilience and what tools are available to develop inner strength are answered there.

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About the author

Dana Peterson

I'm Dana Peterson, a freelance writer, serial blogger, self-published author of 7 books, and speaker who enjoys enlightening others about unknown and little-known facts.

I'm a mother of two kids, but I've also been a typographer, a film composer, a piano player, a singer in an all-girl rock band. I love writing on cruise ships, or late nights, but also at home in my sunny southern California garden.

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