What is Resilience?

Resilience is an essential skill as it protects us from the impact of adversity and helps us get back up after a fall. Being resilient doesn’t mean becoming invulnerable, but rather being able to better take the hits and even use them to grow. Viktor Frankl, in fact, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi extermination camps, was convinced that “the man who gets up is even stronger than the one who never fell”.

What does “resilience” mean?

In 1992 the American psychologist Emmy Werner was in Kauai, one of the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, when she was struck by a special ability that only some people seemed to have. She analyzed over 600 children born into poverty, a third of whom had had particularly difficult childhoods because she lived in dysfunctional families marked by violence, alcoholism and mental illness.

Not surprisingly, after 30 years many of these children had psychological and/or social problems, but some defied the odds and became people with stable relationships, good mental balance , and jobs they felt comfortable in.

Werner called these children “invulnerable” because she believed adversity hadn’t affected them, but then realized the point wasn’t that problems didn’t affect them, but that they were using them as a stepping stone to overcome themselves. Then the concept of resilience was born.

The term resilience in psychology is borrowed from physics. In physics, resilience is the ability of some materials to regain their original shape after being subjected to deforming pressure. In psychology, resilience is the ability to face stressful and/or traumatic events, overcome them and positively reorganize one’s life in order to continue to grow while looking to the future.

Therefore, the meaning of resilience involves much more than returning to the previous state of equilibrium. It doesn’t simply imply a return to normalcy, but it does imply transformative change that leads to learning and growth. The resilient person finds his strength in adversity.

On the other hand, resilience also includes the ability to maintain some emotional balance amidst the storm. The resilient person is not immune to suffering, but can face it without collapsing emotionally, maintaining a basic level of functioning in daily life.

Therefore, “resilience is the natural human ability to navigate life well. It is something that every human being possesses: wisdom and common sense. It means knowing how you think, who you are spiritually, where you are from and where you are going. The key is to learn to use the innate resilience that every human being is born with. It is about understanding our inner spirit and finding a sense of direction,” as psychologist Iris Heavy Runner wrote.

What is resilience for?

Resilience is not a shield against suffering and pain. Being resilient is not synonymous with immunity or invulnerability. Troubles, losses, or illnesses cause deep distress to all.

However, resilience ensures our survival in difficult times because it strengthens our self-esteem and helps us put the broken pieces back together so we can move forward. Resilience allows us to give more constructive meaning to what happens to us, so that we can use that pain or suffering as building blocks for growth.

Resilience protects us from the devastating effects of stress because it allows us to face adversity with greater equanimity, also preventing the appearance of disorders such as generalized anxiety or depression. Indeed, we can better understand the concept of resilience through the different trajectories that we can follow in the face of an adverse event or trauma.

Graph from Bonnano, GA

Obviously, resilience is not only important emotionally but also physically. A study conducted at Stanford University with people who had been diagnosed with cancer revealed that, faced with similar initial clinical conditions, those who faced the disease with a combative and resilient attitude had a better adaptation than those who took it with desperation, impotence and fatalism.

Other research has shown that resilience helps people recover after a spinal cord injury. People who identify as resilient have also reported feeling happier and experiencing greater spiritual connection, which helps them cope with the consequences of illness and recover.

Therefore, resilience not only helps us deal with adversity by maintaining a certain degree of control and even equidistance to find the best solution to the problem, but it also protects our health or helps us cope better with illness.

Three inspiring examples of resilience

The examples of resilience in history are countless. They are stories of life marked by adversity and of people who have found the strength to overcome all problems to grow up in such unfavorable conditions that everyone else would have won.

  1. Hellen Keller, the girl who had everything against

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of resilience is that of Hellen Keller, who at 19 months suffered from an illness that would scar her for life, depriving her of sight and hearing, so that she would not even learn to speak.

In the 1880s that level of disability was practically a sentence. However, Hellen realized that he could discover the world with his other senses and by the age of 7 had already invented more than 60 signals to communicate with his family.

But that intelligence turned against her because it also made him notice her limitations. Her frustration soon appeared and Hellen expressed it aggressively. Her parents realized she needed help and hired a private teacher, Anne Sullivan.

With his help, Hellen not only learned to read and write Braille, but was also able to read people’s lips by touching them with her fingers to sense movement and vibration.

In 1904, Hellen graduated with honors and wrote the book The Story of My Life, the first in a long series of works. She has dedicated her life to helping other people with disabilities and has lectured in several countries inspiring books and films on resilience.

  1. Beethoven, the genius whose gift was taken away

Another great example of resilience was the life of Ludovicus van Beethoven. As a child he received a very strict upbringing. His father, who was an alcoholic, woke him up at midnight to play in front of his friends and prevented him from playing during the day so he could study music. As a result, he was unable to enjoy his childhood.

The family pressure was so unbearable that at the age of 17 Beethoven left for the Austrian capital. He soon had to return to say goodbye to his mother, who died of tuberculosis. Months later, his father suffered from a deep depression, his alcoholism worsened and he ended up in prison.

The young Beethoven had to take care of his younger brothers, so he spent five years teaching piano and playing violin in a local orchestra to support the family financially. But just as he began to shine as a composer, sometime after creating his First Symphony, he began to notice the first symptoms of a terrible disease for any musician: deafness.

That problem, far from separating him from his passion, gave him new strength and he began to compose feverishly. It is said that he could do it directly on paper because he listened to the notes in his head. In fact, the composer didn’t have a piano in the room where he composed because he preferred not to play the piece because he would have played it badly.

By the end of his life, he had almost completely lost his hearing. But the more his deafness progressed, the more his music evolved, probably because he preferred the low and medium notes more since he didn’t hear the high notes well.

  1. Frida Kahlo, the painting that comes from pain

Another example of resilience is the life of Frida Kahlo. Although she was born into an artistic family, during her early years she showed no particular interest in art or painting. At the age of six she contracted polio which allegedly shortened her right leg, which became a cause for ridicule among the children.

However, this did not prevent her from being a restless girl and teenager, interested in sports practices that kept her moving to compensate for the physical problem. At 18 everything would change due to a tragic accident.

The bus he was traveling in was hit by a tram. The consequences were severe: multiple fractures and spinal injuries. All this caused him enormous suffering throughout his life. Frida underwent 32 operations over the years, some with disastrous consequences, long recovery and severe sequelae, and she used about 25 different braces to correct her posture.

It was during this period, due to the immobility to which she was subjected, that she began to paint. Her famous paintings represent suffering, pain and death, but also love and passion for life. Indeed, although her work is usually included in Surrealist painting, Frida claimed to have painted not her dreams of hers, but her reality of hers.

She had three pregnancies that ended in miscarriages and even her love/hate relationship with Diego Rivera was not helpful for her to achieve an emotionally calmer life.

In recent years the pain worsened and they even had to amputate a part of his right leg, below the knee, threatened by gangrene. However, Frida found in painting a way of survival and expression. In fact, her latest work, which she entitled “Long live life!” and she signed eight days before she died, is an allegory of her own existence.


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