Resilience is the ability to adapt and overcome, to rebound from stressors and return to a balanced state of well-being. It’s key to maintaining a positive quality of life—complete with joy, hope and possibilities—regardless of challenges.
Physical and psychological resilience
Research describes two types of resilience—physical and psychological. In the past, physical resilience was viewed as the opposite of physical frailty—but it’s more complicated than that. Today, physical resilience is defined as the ability to withstand or recover from functional decline following acute and/or chronic health stressors throughout the full lifespan.
Psychological resilience refers to a person’s ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. Psychological resilience relies more heavily on the external environment and social support than physical resilience.
Some people seem to be born with resilience. They bounce back from tragedy, overcome obstacles and just keep moving forward no matter what. But a lot of people require help to build resilience, and they need to be immersed in an environment that actively supports resilience.
Whole-person wellness and resilience
Supporting the seven different aspects of well-being—physical, social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, vocational and environmental—is part of the equation for strengthening resilience. These dimensions, of course, link together and overlap, but understanding them separately helps you support each one.
In the same way, it’s important to understand individual components of resilience. Every person, regardless of age or circumstances, has basic human needs. Some—like our needs for food, water, shelter and clothes—are concrete. But we also have more abstract needs—such as having meaning and purpose, feeling competent and in control, giving as well as receiving, and feeling of value to others. Recognizing these more abstract needs is critical to building and supporting resilience.
In a culture of well-being, positive attitudes and expectations (regardless of age) form a rich tapestry of support, generating a sense of belonging and cooperation and uplifting hope, optimism, confidence, perspective and mastery—which (by the way) are building blocks of resilience.
Behaviors that lead to resilience
Positive social connections with family and friends and/or a close-knit community of mutual social support help build resilience. A healthy active lifestyle is also predictive of higher resilience.
Happiness and well-being are strengthened by effective coping strategies, such as embracing a sense of self-efficacy (I can face challenges with flexibility and adaptability) and exhibiting a willingness to view challenges through a lens of optimism rather than despair. To build an environment of resilience, both residents and staff must be encouraged to solve challenges on their own and together.
One strategy known to bolster resilience is reminding individuals how they faced and overcame previous challenges. Helping people remember specific times they’ve been resilient can trigger a mindset of seeking ways to keep moving forward—to overcome rather than simply cope with challenges.
Individually and as a community, practice optimism. For individuals it’s important to avoid personalizing challenges (i.e., why me?). Life and stress happen. Recognizing stress as a normal part of life and building in ways to take stress breaks—short walks, mindfulness meditation—can help shift the focus away from the stressor and toward steps to move forward. Consciously rewriting the story to include triumphing over adversity helps build resilience. Actively fostering a community mindset of facing stress with optimism and positive thinking also reinforces a culture of resilience.
Savoring positive experiences
A study by Mather Lifeways describes the value of consciously savoring positive experiences to support resilience. They examined how some people tend to amplify positive experiences by fully appreciating the experience, actively choosing to share it with others and feeling gratitude for the experience. Comparatively, some people tend more toward “dampening’ behaviors—thinking of ways an experience could have been better, feeling disappointed that it will end soon and downplaying the overall value of the positive experience.
This study’s intervention asked participants to intentionally focus on a happy experience twice a day for one week. They were asked to fully embrace those feelings of happiness and emotional well-being. The intervention had a positive effect on resilience, primarily by helping people who tended to downplay positive experiences become aware of their “dampening” behaviors and helping them savor positive experiences.
The study demonstrated that even people who are not naturally inclined toward a positive outlook can use tools to support a shift in mindset—a strengthening of resilience.
Purpose and resilience
Finally, having a sense of purpose has been repeatedly shown to have a strong impact on building both psychological and physical resilience. Purpose impacts building blocks of resilience, such as optimism, mastery and confidence, which support the ability to continue to move forward—regardless of challenges. A strong sense of purpose—especially when focused on giving support to others—also leads to improvement in physical health, making individuals more likely to engage in healthy lifestyles, improving longevity and making the body more resilient against stressors.
For more information on how you can cultivate and support resilience in your communities, join Kay Van Norman on April 8 for an ICAA webinar, “Building individual and community resilience during difficult times.”
Kay Van Norman, president of consulting firm Brilliant Aging, is an internationally acclaimed author, speaker and wellness consultant.