Resilience is the key

Author: Kylie Ann Carter ’02

Stress is bad for your health. This is hardly breaking news to anyone. But is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from the negative effects of stress?

Cindy Bergeman, a Notre Dame psychology professor, and a team of researchers have spent the last five years studying the relationship between stress and health in older people. They have found one factor that appears to soften the effects of stress: resilience.

Resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, varies greatly from person to person. Two people may experience the same traumatic life experience, such as the loss of a spouse, and go in opposite trajectories — one may rely on inner strength and support from loved ones, gradually surviving the loss, whereas the other may turn inward, lose hope and never recover.

Bergeman was interested in what makes people react so differently to stress. Using the diaries and interviews from hundreds of elderly participants, she found some major components to stress resilience.

Personal protective factors, including a positive, hardy personality, a secure sense of self and the feeling that you have control over your life, make up one component. Another is social support factors — having friends and family you can count on and turn to in times of trouble, people who believe in you.

Resilience once was believed to be a special quality that could be acquired only after surviving a traumatic life experience. However, now it’s thought to be much more common and attainable.

“We all have the capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity,” says Bergeman. “We don’t have to have major stressors in order to capture that.”

The ND psychologist says resilience can be cultivated in the daily reaction to hassles and stress. Coping with daily stress in a positive way, drawing on inner strength and social support, is what makes us prepared for life’s larger challenges. Resilience and positive emotions minimize the negative effects of stress and, in turn, minimize health risks.

“People who are resilient are not people who have lived a life without adversity,” she notes. “If you’ve never experienced stress, that is not going to be protective in any way.”

The ability or inability to be resilient starts at an early age. Bergeman says parents often ask how they can make their children more resilient. Her answer: Don’t fix all your children’s problems.

“You allow them to experience frustration or stress, and you help them with the coping strategies. You help them learn to deal with it. You’re there for them, you’re listening to them, but you’re not fixing it for them. Then they’re developing the confidence so that the next time they face a problem, they have the resources to deal with that and so on across their lifespan.”

Bergeman says resilience works like a vaccine. If you are able to deal with a small, manageable dose of stress effectively, and put these coping strategies in place, then when a larger stressor comes your way you feel more prepared; you know what resources you have — friends, family, faith — to get you through.