Resilience: The Psychology of Coping Well

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Resilience: The Psychology of Coping Well

Children are not resilient, children are malleable. (Bruce Perry, Children in a Violent Society, 1997)

Great men rejoice in adversity just as brave soldiers triumph in war. (Seneca, The Providentia, 40 BC)

Stress affects the body, decisions and judgements, relationships and work performance. We now know a lot about the physiology of stress and how cortisol, noradrenalin and adrenalin impact on people over time. Stress is bad, so we need to know how to deal with it. Being stress-resistant and stress-coping is good. That is at the heart of resilience. It is about coping and recovering after significant, as well as minor setbacks. Resilience is a prophylactic against failure: a way of adapting and thriving, rather than ruminating or falling into depression.

Resilient people can self-regulate: they can control their impulses and emotions. They tend to be optimistic. Employers want resilient staff. And most people want it too.

It has been argued that resilience has various component parts. It has to do (in part) with realistic self-confidence which is a realistic appraisal of achievements and choices. It is also about self-esteem which is having a sense of one’s purpose and contribution. Next, there is self-efficacy which is the belief in one’s own abilities and strengths. And also self-control or the belief that one is in control of one’s life: captain of your ship and master of your fate.

The question, of course, is whether it can be trained. Studies of resilience show that the toughest and most adaptive have been tested, often in childhood. Unstable family life caused by poverty, war or difficult relationships? Relationships test young people. Death, divorce, downward mobility, all bring out the best and worst in a child. It can break the sensitive, vulnerable youth or forge the stable one. If you have been through the darkest night, and survived, when most vulnerable, little can scare you after that.

Resilience is about head and heart. It is about being in touch with your emotions and able to talk about them. It is detecting what the signals are in yourself and others and knowing what do about them.

Resilience is not about denial, being tough or repressing emotions. And it is not about a ’big boys don’t cry’ macho boastfulness. There is a dark side of stoicism sometimes confused with resilience. Stoicism is more about emotional non-involvement and control, lack of emotional expressivity, fortitude and emotional concealment.


There are a number of recent books on this topic. Managers know that everyone experiences stress at some time: the question is how often (chronicity) and how deeply (acuity). They are concerned with such issues as whether resilience is a personality trait, a cognitive process or a learnt skill? Is it a process that causes positive adaptation or is it an outcome of experience?

There are also many more simple popular books. Neenan (2009) defines resilience as a set of flexible cognitive, behavioural and emotional responses to acute or chronic adversities which can be unusual or commonplace. Essentially it is about the attitude you adopt to cope with adversity. He argues that resilience is not a special gift but a capacity that can be learnt by anyone. It should be seen as coming back, rather than bouncing back from adversity. And it is not just about dealing with adversity: it is about seeking new experiences and opportunities to learn and grow. It is about how to interpret everyday events. To a large extent it is about managing negative emotions and being able to distinguish what is, and what is not, in one’s control. It is about learning from past experiences.

Neenan offers ten simple but useful summary statements:

1 Resilience is a capacity that everybody can learn.

2 Resilience is coming back, rather than bouncing back from adversity.

3 It is not just about dealing with adversity but seeking opportunities/experiences and taking risks.

4 Attitudes, beliefs and the way you look at the world are at the heart of resilience.

5 It is not only about attitudes but behaviour: act in support of your resilient attitudes.

6 Resilience is about managing negative emotions.

7 It is important to distinguish what is inside and outside your personal control.

8 All experiences are useful: learn from setbacks and victories.

9 Develop ’can do’ self-beliefs about achieving and stretching goals and targets.

10 Maintain your resilient outlook whatever comes your way.

Others have very much the same ideas. Clarke and Nicholson (2010) have a ten-point plan to increase resilience:

1 Visualize success, thinking about whom you benchmark yourself against; how you view your own capabilities and performance; and the way you come across to others.

2 Boost your self-esteem by listing things you are good at and recognize what others appreciate and value about you.

3 Enhance your self-efficacy by taking control of your life. They suggest you need to drop six ’drag anchors’: (a) I am the victim of my personal history; (b) There’s so much to do, it’s not even worth trying; (c) I only get one shot at this; (d) There’s a right answer to everything; (e) I am on my own; (f) This isn’t fair.

4 Become more optimistic, this is the ability to reframe things, most notably moving from feelings of disappointment to seeing opportunities.

5 Managing stress by reducing stress-inducing things like displaying hostility to others; being too much of a perfectionist; being unable to listen to others; having a tendency to hide your feelings and having difficulty in relaxing.

6 Improve your decision-making by trying honest risk-assessment and asking others for help. It also helps to work on being more rational and more intuitive.

7 Ask for help and reach out to others in your network.

8 Deal with conflict assertively, flexibly, using collaborative conflict.

9 Take up life-long learning. Invest time and resources in it.

10 Be yourself: authentic.


Clarke, J., & Nicholson, J. (2010). Resilience: Bounce back from whatever life throws at you. London: Crimson.

Neenan, M. (2009). Developing Resilience. London: Routledge.

Reich, J., Zautra, A. & Hall, J. (Eds) (2010). Handbook of Adult Resilience. London: Guilford.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. London: Nicholas Brealey.