By: Kristen Nishimi and Karmel Choi 

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Odds are you’ve recently read something about the concept of “resilience.” In the past few years, the word resilience has appeared repeatedly in the headlines of top publications, such as the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post.  And in the scientific community, the number of research papers covering the topic of resilience has increased from 85 papers in 1998 to 2,832 in 2017.  Clearly, the concept of resilience is becoming buzz-worthy.

But how exactly can we define resilience? And what does it mean for people to be resilient?

How did research on resilience develop? 

Like many things in science, research on psychological resilience began when scientists noticed something unexpected.  After studying the negative consequences of exposure to very adverse events in children, such as war, being orphaned, or experiencing a natural disaster, researchers in the field of developmental psychopathology made an important discovery.  While these terrible events were disruptive and often associated with poor outcomes, such as greater risk for psychopathology symptoms, the developmental consequences of these adversities were not the same for everyone. In fact, many children – or about more than two-thirds – developed “normally” despite experiencing the adversity, going on to live healthy and happy lives. Thus, these seemingly “resilient” individuals were not the exception, but rather the norm. 

As a result of these early findings, many researchers – spanning psychiatry, psychology, social work, education, and epidemiology – have begun to examine if and how people are resilient to stressful events and how people can overcome challenges and achieve positive outcomes despite experiencing adversity.  The hope for this work is that by better understanding what leads to resilience from adversity, we can build interventions and design policies that promote resilience, enabling people to overcome life’s setbacks and thrive. 

What does it mean to be resilient? 

This basic question has a complex answer.  Many researchers have discussed the challenges associated with reaching consensus on the definition of resilience.  Generally, they have concluded that there is no one, agreed-upon definition.  Some commonly used definitions of resilience described in the scientific literature include:

  • An individual’s capacity for coping successfully and functioning competently despite experiencing chronic stress or adversity or following exposure to an acute, but severe, trauma.
  • The capacity of a dynamic system to withstand or recover from significant threats to stability, viability, or development.
  • The relative resistance to environmental risk or overcoming of stress and adversity. 
  • A process of adaptation spanning biological, psychological, relational and sociocultural domains, following exposure to adversity. 

Resilience broadly can be seen as doing better than might be expected in the face of risk or adversity. Often people use “resilience” in the media (and even in research) as something like a trait or characteristic you either do or don't have.  However, this “trait” may not capture whether someone is truly resilient in the face of adversity.  Rather, researchers generally agree that resilience is best thought of as a dynamic process that develops and varies over time and context. In other words, an individual’s level of resilience is continuously being influenced by the environment and person-level factors, such as self-esteem. 

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What are some active areas of research in the area of resilience?

There are many exciting and active areas of research around the concept of resilience.  Three of the areas that we are working on include:  

  •  Measuring “resilience”.  As alluded to earlier, there are several major unanswered questions related to measuring resilience.  Is one measure of resilience best?  How do different measures of resilience compare to each other?  In other words, do we indeed mean similar things when we say “resilience”? Through her work in the lab, Kristen has been exploring how four different resilience measures relate to one another within a sample of almost 2,000 adults; interestingly, we are finding that the measures are not necessarily identical, especially in terms of the prediction of health outcomes, but rather that they may be tapping into slightly different facets of “resilience”. 

  • Genetics of resilience.  Several researchers at Mass General, including Karmel Choi, have begun to use large-scale genetic data to better understand resilience. For example, growing efforts are being made to look at what parts of people’s genetic code may be associated with resilient outcomes, and also to figure out which changeable factors in people’s lives – like physical activity, or social support – could promote resilience to depression, for those who are genetically at risk.

  • Implications for physical health.  Despite resilience being a positive outcome in its own right, does psychological resilience also promote physical health? An emerging literature has begun to show that psychological assets, such as optimism, purpose in life, and positive affect, can have beneficial effects in protecting against chronic physical conditions.  Through Kristen’s dissertation work, she hopes to identify whether psychologically resilient adults go on to have healthier lifestyle behaviors and ultimately lower risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease. 

Through this research, our hope is that we can get closer to truly understanding the phenomenon of resilience and ultimately using that information to help promote resilience among people exposed to adversity. 

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