What do we know about resilience?

Professor Ilona Boniwell, CEO Positran; Programme Leader, MSc in Applied Positive Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University; Visiting Professor, University of East London

resilience blog
resilience blog

Defining resilience

Stress, limitations, challenging situations, loss, significant life changes, like getting older, and even death, are an inevitable part of being human. Although on the surface these issues sound like nemeses of positive psychology, given that they are unavoidable, managing them well can actually contribute to a life well lived.


The concept of resilience was conceived about 40 years ago when researchers noticed that some people adapt well to life despite the presence of high-risk circumstances (such as losing parents young, for example). This indicated a positive divergence from the typical pathological models that assumed that early traumatic experiences would undoubtedly result in negative life consequences. However, little scientific research at the time was devoted to this phenomenon and the field of study was fairly small. It is only in the past 20 years that the investigation of resilience expanded considerably, and a recent review revealed that the usage of the term ‘resilience’ in the academic literature increased by 8-fold in the last two decades.


Resilience can be described as resistance to stress as well as present and future adverse events or conditions (maltreatment,?divorce, poverty, etc). In other words, resilience is a capacity to bounce back and to feel in control of the way we feel about and react in challenging circumstances. Those who have this capacity are more active, socially responsive and adapt successfully to the experience of risk factors.


Resilience is actually a multi-faceted construct. It is both a capacity and an active process encompassing a person’s flexibility in response to changing situational demands, and the ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. We can distinguish three facets of resilience: recovery, resistance and reconfiguration.


  1. Recovery is the facet of resilience which refers to the return to a normal, pre-stressor, level of functioning (health and psychosocial wellbeing).
  2. Resistance as a facet of resilience is said to occur when a person displays minimum or no signs of disturbance (low distress, normal functioning) following a challenging event.
  3. Reconfiguration is said to occur when a person returns to homeostasis in a different formation with key aspects about that individual changing as a result of their experience.

Although resilience is a complex phenomenon, many of its skills can be learned, thanks to the tools offered by coping, post-traumatic growth, cognitive-behavioural therapy, positive psychology, mindfulness etc. So, let’s have a thorough look at the areas of research and practice that inform our current understanding of resilience.

1) Coping

Coping literature talks about three broad types of strategies people tend to use: problem-focused, emotion-focused, and avoidance coping (Carr, 2004). Problem-focused coping happens when people identify the problem and take steps to resolve it. These strategies aim to modify the source of stress directly, sorting the problem out. Emotion-focused coping is focused not so much on the problem but on the emotions it arouses in us. So, if we turn to someone else for assistance, it would generally be for emotional support (e.g. talking things through, crying, empathy), rather than instrumental (e.g. specific advice on what to do in the situation). It often pays to deal with the emotions first, before focusing on the actual problem at hand. When the emotions have been diffused, we can think better and evaluate the situation more accurately, seeing the opportunities in it. These strategies are also more appropriate for uncontrollable stresses, when it is impossible to ‘solve’ the problem. Avoidance coping happens when people try to deny that the problem exists and try to block it out of their minds (possibly with the help of alcohol, drugs or even study/work).


The concrete strategies in these three broad groups can be functional and dysfunctional. For example, accepting responsibility for solving a problem or developing a realistic action plan are amongst the functional problem-focused strategies, whilst procrastination is a dysfunctional one. Similarly, catharsis, emotional discharge or asking friends for support are the constructive emotion-focused ways of coping, whilst getting involved in destructive relationships, aggression or wishful thinking are much less so. Avoidance-focused strategies also can be useful in the short-term. However, being permanently distracted and mentally disengaged from the experience is dysfunctional, partly because unattended problems do not get sorted out by themselves but tend to worsen with time.

2) Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)

We encounter stressful situations on a daily basis, some of them more severe than others. However, at times we are faced with traumatic events (for example, the death of a parent or acquiring a disability) that have the potential to change the course of our lives forever. Certain beliefs (for example, that the world is generally a fair place) may no longer seem true and many goals may no longer seem important. Yet, even when this happens, some individuals emerge from the experience having gained something from it. This phenomenon is called post-traumatic growth. It is associated with not only better psychological, but also physical, health (Baumeister & Vohs, 2002).


Experiencing post-traumatic growth, many people feel that they are much stronger following the adversity and have more confidence in themselves and their capacities. Others report improved and stronger relationships or having a greater feeling of compassion for others in similar situations. Sometimes people learn to appreciate anew what they have, even the small things in life that we so often take for granted. Some also discover meaning or spirituality in the aftermath of the event, leading to the development of a more coherent and satisfying worldview and life philosophy (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).


A renowned psychologist, Victor Frankl (1963), who himself was a survivor of the Holocaust, found that the attitude one adopts towards adversity is crucial: “Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. For example, if a traumatic situation is perceived as a challenge, the person is more likely to experience PTG.


Several factors that contribute to PTG are also useful skills that can help develop resilience. These include:


  • Making sense of the situation
  • Finding meaning
  • Attitude towards adversity
  • Interpersonal support.

3) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a term used to describe interventions that aim to reduce psychological stress and maladaptive behaviour by altering cognitive processes or thinking. Indeed, it has been seen that many psychological problems are coupled with distorted or deficient thinking (e.g. those with anxiety disorders have been found to mis-perceive ambiguous events as threatening. A number of reviews have concluded that CBT is an effective way to help us deal with psychological or behavioural problems (e.g., Dray et al, 2017).


The basic principle behind CBT is that, since behaviour and feelings are influenced by cognitive processes, changing the way we think can lead to changes in behaviour and feelings. CBT focuses on the ‘here and now’ rather than the past, and is based on a process of guided self-discovery, experimentation and skills development.


Listed below are the core components of cognitive behavioural interventions that can be useful for the development of resilience:


  • Thought monitoring (e.g. identification of negative automatic thoughts)
  • Identification of and challenging cognitive distortions and thinking traps (jumping to conclusions; tunnel vision; magnifying the negative and minimising the positive; personalising or externalising blame; over generalising small setbacks, etc.)
  • Thought evaluation and reframing (development of alternative cognitive processes)
  • Deliberate optimism in crafting new and positive future perspectives
  • Affective labelling (e.g. naming experienced emotions)
  • Affective monitoring (e.g. scales to rate intensity)
  • Affective management (e.g. relaxation techniques)
  • Role play, modelling and rehearsal
  • Home-based practice and assignments

4) Positive Psychology

Positive psychology (PP) is the science of positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, well-being and flourishing. Often contrasted with the medical model, this approach places an explicit emphasis on the potential of individuals and on researching things that make life worth living (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). PP poses slightly different questions, such as ‘What works?’ rather than ‘What doesn’t work?’; ‘What is right with this person?’ rather than ‘What is wrong?’; ‘Why do some individuals succeed when faced with unfavourable circumstances?’ instead of ‘Why do people some fail?’. In a nutshell, PP can be summarised as drawing on what is strong, rather than dealing with what is wrong. The following positive psychology elements and interventions have been identified as helpful for the development of resilience (Tabibnia & Radecki, 2018).


  • Identifying one’s previous experiences of triumph and competence
  • Recognising and using personal and authentic strengths
  • Active engagement with trusted social support networks
  • Harvesting the ‘power’ of positive emotions
  • Developing a flexible mindset
  • Participation in physical activity

5) Mindfulness

The mindfulness research and evidence base has grown exponentially in the last few years with the combined number of publications in the last three years representing more than the total number of publications from 1980 – 2013. This explosion of research reflects the growing scientific and practitioner interest in mindfulness.   Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zin, 2013, p. xxxv) with the ability to remain fully present to whatever is happening in the moment as it occurs.  Extensive neuroscientific studies found that mindfulness changes how the brain function – it improves cognitive flexibility, creativity and innovation, well-being, emotional regulation, and empathy.  Mindfulness is also presented as an effective strategy for emotional regulation, improved stress regulation and psychological and physical well-being and improving cognitive flexibility, managing pain and improving positive affect. Evidence shows that combining CBT approaches with mindfulness contributes to the overall effectiveness of a resilience intervention (Joyce et al, 2018).


Examples of mindfulness exercises include Body Scan (focusing the mind on specific parts of the body in sequence, with complete and undivided awareness, creating more focused attention), or Mindful Listening (bringing full, focused attention to all sounds surrounding a person). Whilst some of these, Body Scan, for example, may be long, other techniques can be done easily, in around 5 minutes. Including these techniques into multi-component resilience interventions facilitates emotional and stress regulation.

In conclusion

The science tells us that resilience can be developed, with evidence pinpointing to multiple resources that can be built through deliberate training and interventions (Dray et al, 2107). Over the past twelve years we created the SPARK Resilience Programme that has been administered in educational and workplace settings though face-to-face and digital means, showing positive impact on resilience, self-esteem and depression outcomes (Boniwell & Ryan, 2009; Pluess & Boniwell, 2015; Pluess, Boniwell, Hefferon, & Tunariu, 2017). The programme has been evolving in line with the latest research evidence and now includes most resilience-enhancing strategies identified in the literature. Lately, the programme has been tested during the Covid-19 pandemic and results have shown improved resilience and meaning, as well as a reduction in negative affect and stress.

Want to know more?

See SPARK Resilience at work
See SPARK Resilience in Education
See SPARK Resilience during COVID-19

Scientific references

Baumeister, R.F. & Vohs, K.D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp.608–618). New York: Oxford University Press.

Boniwell, I. & Ryan, L. (2009). SPARK Resilience: A teacher’s guide. London, UK: University of East London.

Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Dray, J., Bowman, J., Campbell, E., Freund, M., Wolfenden, L., Hodder, R. K., … & Small, T. (2017). Systematic review of universal resilience-focused interventions targeting child and adolescent mental health in the school setting. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry56(10), 813-824.

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, Simon and Schuster, New York

Joyce, S., Shand, F., Tighe, J., Laurent, S. J., Bryant, R. A., & Harvey, S. B. (2018). Road to resilience: a systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions. BMJ Open8(6), e017858.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living, revised edition: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Hachette UK.

Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of vantage sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences82, 40-45.

Pluess, M., Boniwell, I., Hefferon, K., & Tunariu, A. (2017). Preliminary evaluation of a school-based resilience-promoting intervention in a high-risk population: Application of an exploratory two-cohort treatment/control design. PloS one12(5), e0177191.

Seligman, M.E.P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Tabibnia, G., & Radecki, D. (2018). Resilience training that can change the brain. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 59-88.

Tedeschi, R.G. & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). A clinical approach to posttraumatic growth. In P. A. Linley and S. Joseph (Eds.) Positive Psychology in Practice (pp.405–419). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

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