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Development of Resilience

Resilience is the most common pathway after a traumatic event and thought to be the natural defense against adversity (Bonanno, 2004). Recent research discoveries have led to a burst of interest in understanding what trauma resilience is and how it develops in a person. In order to create theories of development for resilience, we need to understand what exactly resilience involves. We also need to look at where the idea and term resilience came from and how it relates to trauma.

The most in depth description of resilience I agree with is by Dr. Michael Unger, stating, “In the context to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being; and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways” (Klinic, 2013). I believe this is one of the best definitions because of the factors that mediate the development of resilience in a person: psychological, social, cultural, spiritual, and physical. A common mistake people make is to think being resilient means a person does not experience difficulty or distress and that this trait is something you have or do not have; being resilient is quite the opposite though, involving emotional distress and being a learnable trait for anyone (Klinic, 2013). So, what is this “adversity” Dr. Michael Unger mentions and what does it have to do with the understanding of resilience? Adversity is known as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful of life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (NREPP, 2016). This definition is still limited due to the fact some individuals will perceive an event as traumatic while another will not. Trauma also comes in two forms, naturally and human caused, and multiple types (NREPP, 2016). Based on one’s experiences, you can be more resilient to one type of trauma than another.

Resilience or chronic disruptions are not the only pathways after experiencing a traumatic event. Dr. Bonanno (2004) discussed the differences between chronic disruption in normal functioning, delayed disruption, recovery, and resilience. We need to understand all four of these to know what to look for in individuals with resilience factors, but the most important difference to distinguish between is individuals who are in recovery stage from a traumatic event compared to an individual who was resilient to the event.

Chronic disruption is the extreme end of the spectrum with severe disruptions of normal functioning for two or more years. These individuals surpass levels for psychopathology (clinically significant symptoms of depression, PTSD, etc.). Delayed disruption individuals also show severe disruption but this disruption starts much later after the event (typically showing about a year after the event). Immediately after the event, they show moderate levels of distress but are able to function within normal functioning. The last two, recovery and resilience, are confused by most due to their positive outcomes.

Recovery happens when an individual experience a traumatic event and they afterwards experience disruptions in their normal functioning (typically lasting several months), but then gradually return to normal functioning over a one to two-year period of time (Bonanno, 2004).

Resilience, comparably, is when an individual maintains relatively stable equilibrium in functioning after a traumatic event. Bonanno (2004) stresses resilience is more than just the absence of psychopathology but the ability to maintain relatively stable functioning after traumatic events.

Bonanno, Wortman, Lehman, Tweed, Haring, Sonnega, Carr, & Nesse (2002) looked into resilience with loss of a close loved one, specifically one’s spouse, and the differences between those who developed chronic grief and those who did not. Their findings supported that the resilient pathway, stable or low depression symptoms, was the most common pathway after a loss. This study mentions a possible reasoning for the difference in resilience development through the difference in trauma pathways. Grief pathways are all the same as disruption of function pathways except for there has not been evidence for delayed grief, mimicking delayed disruption (Bonanno et al., 2002). Past theorists believed those who failed to show grieving signs after a loss were superficially attached to their spouse or avoidant and emotionally distant (Bonanno et al., 2002). Their results refuted these statements and showed resilience to loss was developed through well-adjustment and coping skills or resources. Those that followed other grief pathways showed maladjustment, self-absorb characteristics, and inadequate coping skills or resources in their life. It is important to understand these differences in the individuals on each pathway because these factors are all trainable and not unchangeable characteristics.

Another factor affecting the development of one’s resilience is their interaction with parents and family linage. Multiple studies have shown parents who experience trauma pass the distress down to their children, known as historical trauma (Denham, 2008). This was first studied in major events such as the Native American’s losing their land and way of life or the Holocaust survivors after World War II. Denham (2008) went into a Native American tribe to listen to their stories and analyze what has led to their development of resilience. He saw that those who held onto their culture and continued to share the stories about the traumatic history showed higher rates of resilience than those who accepted the new ways and forgot their culture, and, with each generation, the resilience grew stronger or weaker depending on their culture remembrance (Denham, 2008).

Examining resilience development in children, we need to understand the interplay between resilience and posttraumatic growth (PTG). Research has connected multiple factors and know how they regulate PTG; these factors are highly correlated with increased resilience in a child (Meyerson, Grant, Carter, & Kilmer, 2011). They first looked at social factors promoting PTG in which they saw social support and perceived social support were associated with PTG and, with earlier studies mentioned, social support was a promoting factor for resilience in children (Meyerson et al., 2011).

Though PTG is associated with resilience, other of its factors are related to PTSD symptoms instead (Nishi, Matsuoka, & Kim, 2010). It was interesting to see that, in motor vehicle trauma, those with increased PTG show increased appreciation of life and spiritual change and these two factors were strongly related to their PTSD development (Nishi et al., 2010). Connection with one’s religion and being accepted for their religion are both factors for promoting resilience (Herman, 2015). Other factors they should be looking for during PTG is increased perception of personal strength, connection with others, and accepting of new experiences (Nishi et al., 2010).

Resilience is a common pathway after trauma, and we can increase our resilience quotient through connections with others, engaging in our faith and cultural homes, and openness to new experiences.


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