What Makes Humans Resilient?

by Shreya Ravichandran 
July 4, 2021
What Makes Humans Resilient?

The onset of the pandemic brought on a state of confusion for people across the world. Accustomed to a life on the go, the sudden announcements to stay at home unless absolutely essential were new and scary. I, for one, was stuck in Ireland as I study abroad. With the sudden international flight ban by India, away from home and loved ones in these uncertain times, everything seemed a bit more terrifying. Moreover, everyone across the world suddenly found themselves fraught with an abundance of free time during the lockdown. People tried to channel their energy into new hobbies such as baking, cooking, gardening, and more. However, we all also struggled mentally, not quite ready to be plunged into such isolation from human contact for days on end. Now, most people have adjusted to the new normal, where face masks have become a norm, social distancing isn’t a foreign concept, and personal hygiene is at an all-time high. These drastic changes in behavior and social norms can be explained through the concept of psychological resilience.

Resilience can be defined as a skill or the knowledge an individual utilizes to overcome difficulties, and consequently learn how to face future challenges of a similar nature. There are many situations that can challenge and test our extent of resilience. Stress, for instance, is one such challenge that plays a role in making or breaking human resilience. Stressors are external stimuli and events that may become demanding and challenging when prolonged. Additionally, stress can come in various forms. Trauma from wars, accidents, terrorist attacks, or as in today’s world- a global pandemic, are some examples of episodic or circumstantial stressors. Chronic stressors, which may be less intense but long-lasting or persistent, can manifest as a part of daily life through bullying, challenging relationships, and work pressure. The reaction to these different kinds of stressors may vary across individuals.

Each individual’s biological, psychological, and cultural factors interact to determine the extent of their resilience. Someone who adjusts well to academic pressure does not necessarily cope well with family disputes. Depending upon the resources available, an individual may be resilient in some situations but not in others. These stressors, when built up to chronic levels, may lead to more challenging conditions such as Depression, Anxiety, and even cardiovascular disease. For instance, research suggests that individuals who have been through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction are more likely to develop Depression (Poole et al., 2017). Individuals who reported low resilience showed a stronger association between ACEs and Depression, as compared to individuals with higher resilience. Thus, it can be deduced that resilience may act as a buffer to the development of Depression later in life. This offers the perspective that resilience can also be viewed as the ability to adapt to harsh setbacks by bouncing back stronger than before. So, who can be called a resilient individual?

It is imperative to understand that those who are resilient are not “stronger” than those who are not resilient. It’s just a matter of whether a person has the internal resources, and chooses to, face a challenge head-on. It is also important to reiterate that a person’s childhood has a big role in shaping future resilience. Healthy attachment relationships, caregiving, fostering emotional regulation, the ability to visualize the future, and, most importantly, self-awareness largely shape personality (Southwick et al., 2014). These qualities inculcate the motivation to learn and grow from experiences, either good or bad.

Moreover, another factor that influences resilience is immune neglect or the natural resilience that enables people to bounce back in the face of adversity. People tend to form a bias in regards to anticipating how they would respond during adverse events. In other words, they may miss the available coping strategies to deal with future distress. This then influences the emotional reactions to stressful events (Hoerger, 2012). Our mental health also has an immune response, much like our physical health, wherein in the face of a stressor, we are capable of organically fighting back. Most of us tend to ignore this ability which interferes with our natural mental health resilience. While these factors that make an individual resilient are inherent, there are methods in which resilience can be increased via external influences as well.

One key factor that helps individuals show higher resilience is social support. The extent of social support an individual has determines whether they will bounce back in the face of adversity, or their existing stress will decompensate into extreme dysfunction. Social support has been found to moderate the genetic and environmental vulnerabilities to developing a mental illness (Ozbay et al., 2007). This can be through other psychosocial factors, through promoting coping strategies, which directly affect the functioning of an individual. So if one wants to build resilience, seeking and enlisting social support is key.

Increased resilience is always a possibility both at an individual level or through community interventions. One approach is through educating parents and schools because they primarily foster the development of resilience in children. Job training can be utilized to promote this skill amongst employees as well. It is important to keep in mind that interventions applicable to one situation, such as the aftermath of a terrorist attack, cannot be applied to when someone goes through a divorce. However, one of the models that can be applied towards building resilience overall is the ‘problem solving’ model of stress and adaptation. Past research has established that problem solving moderates psychological maladaptation to stress (Helmreich et al., 2017). Effective problem solving can attenuate negative effects of stress and can thus enhance an individual’s positive approach towards problem solving. This pertains to setting goals, looking at alternatives, and thus choosing the best solution.

Furthermore, mindful-based stress reduction emphasises the importance of the present moment. The model addresses the need to pay attention to one’s body sensations, thoughts, and emotions in the present. The focus is on enhancing the positive aspects of life as it allows flexibility to identify and learn to accept negative life outcomes. This is relevant now more than ever. The pandemic has had everyone holding on to the hope of returning to normal for a very long time, testing our patience to the limit. With the idea that we are almost at the end of a very dark tunnel constantly pushed further and further, it is more important to make use of such techniques to build resilience. We should also applaud ourselves for getting this far. In comparison to the high numbers of positive cases scaring people into negative thoughts at the beginning, the same and still rising numbers today are motivating people to be even more careful and practice preventative measures. The change in attitude shows how humans can learn from unfavourable circumstances and accordingly adjust, case in point, human resilience.

To conclude, resilience helps us deal with setbacks and pick ourselves up in the face of adversity. It essentially allows us to go back to working towards our goals which continue to make our lives meaningful. To build resilience, we can choose to not fear adversity, because each setback is an opportunity for growth. Humans have great potential to adapt to adversity, as we can see from the history of evolution. We have learned what works best for our survival and have adapted constantly to live a better life. Leaning on support from family and friends, focusing on what we can control rather than what we cannot, and making a conscious effort to restrain ourselves from entering a cycle of negative thoughts are just a few factors that help foster resilience which can go a long way in helping one face life’s challenges head on.


Shreya Ravichandran

Clinical & Research Intern, PsychLine.in


Helmreich, I., Kunzler, A., Chmitorz, A., König, J., Binder, H., Wessa, M., & Lieb, K. (2017). Psychological interventions for resilience enhancement in adults. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2017(2), CD012527. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012527

Hoerger M. (2012). Coping strategies and immune neglect in affective forecasting: Direct evidence and key moderators. Judgment and Decision Making, 7(1), 86–96.

Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan III, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35-40.

Poole, J. C., Dobson, K. S., & Pusch, D. (2017). Childhood adversity and adult depression: the protective role of psychological resilience. Child Abuse & Neglect, 64, 89-100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2016.12.012

Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338