Resilience Theory: What Research Articles in Psychology Teach Us (+PDF)

Resilience theory
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Experiencing the loss of a loved one, sexual abuse, violence, and war; these are the things that shape us. Life will continuously be a balance between peace and turmoil. That is the reality of the human experience.

When faced with tough times, others encourage us to push through and be “resilient.” However, what does being resilient mean and why it is essential to have this trait?

In this article, we will discuss what makes a person resilient, the impact of adversity on mental health, the creation of resilience, and how psychologist became genuinely interested in the science of resilience.

If you are intrigued and would love to learn more about this topic, read on!


What is Resilience Theory?

Resilience is the act of “bouncing back” or resisting to crack under pressure. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of risk.

Resilience theory is a set of ideas that discuss the impact of challenging events on individuals and families and how well they have adapted to that traumatic experience.

Research surrounding resilience is driven by these questions: What is the difference for children whose lives are threatened by disadvantage or adversity? How is it that some children successfully overcome severe life challenges and grow up to lead a competent and well-adjusted life?

The answers to those questions would give important strategies for implementing the effects of adversity on child development and well-being. (Masten, 2011)

Severe trauma can consist of the loss of a loved one, homelessness, war and other consequences of economic, natural and political turmoil. (Narayan, Masten, Silverman, & Osofsky, 2015; Nichols, 2013).

Exposure to adverse events such as these can put the mental health in significant amounts of stress causing some to fold under pressure. However, some are the keyword here. Not everyone will shut down in the face of adversity.

These specific individuals can bounce back to a state of normalcy relatively well. Some will use their trauma to propel them into a more satisfying life than they once had before their traumatic experience. There is no clear way to understand all the building blocks that make a person more resilient than the next, but this missing link is what researchers want to find out.

Ann Masten, a professor at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota, a leading expert on resilience, coined the term “ordinary magic” to describe the mix of ingredients that make resilience.

Masten is known for researching resilience and the impact of severe challenges on children and families. In her book ‘Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development,’ Masten talks about the origin of resilience theory, what it means and the process of gaining resilience.

Resilience theory is rooted in the study of adversity. During World War II scientists were curious about how children were reacting to the stress of war. The war brought poverty, homelessness, disease, starvation, and death. Scientists from all over were eager to research the impact of severe trauma on children. (Masten, 2001)

For 40 years, Masten studied children around the world throughout their life. She discovered common traits among resilient children who have faced adversity. She figured out that resilience is a combination of what she calls “ordinary factors” such as their relationships, family, and individual differences such as personality, and even genetics. (Masten, 2001)

Michael Rutter (1987) discovered that resilience is better explained in terms of processes and used the Person Process-Context Model. This model made it easier for researchers to study the correlation between risk and protective factors.

Michael Rutter defined six significant predictors of resilience. (1987) They are:

  1. Stressors – these activate the resilience process and create a disruption in homeostasis in the individual, family, group, or community. The perception of stress can vary because of the person’s viewpoint.
  2. The External Environmental Context – this includes the balance of risk and protective factors in the child’s environment such as school.
  3. Person-Environment Interactional Processes – this is the process between the child and their environment. The child either passively or actively tries to understand and overcome demanding environments to build a more protective situation.
  4. Internal Self Characteristics – this is the spiritual, cognitive, behavioral, physical and emotional strengths needed to be successful in different tasks, cultures, and environments.
  5. Resilience Processes – this is the short-term or long-term resilience or coping processes learned by the individual through gradual exposure to increasing challenges and stressors that help the individual to bounce-back (Richardson, Neiger, Jensen, & Kumpfer, 1990).
  6. Positive Outcomes – successful life adaptation regardless of stress, risks, and traumatic experience means that a person has a higher chance of success when faced with negative events later on in life.


The 4 Most Impactful Resilience Articles

Here are four articles that offer in-depth understanding of resilience.

1. Understanding the Relationship of Trauma, Substance Use, and Resilience Among Religiously Affiliated University Students

This study analyzed patterns of connection between 12 traumatic life events, resilience, and substance use at a church-affiliated university.

The original report showed several positive and negative connections between traumatic life events and alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco use within the year. The study revealed significant connections between men and how they are more likely to cope with traumatic life experiences with substance abuse such as alcohol and marijuana. (Burnett, Witzel, Allers & C., 2016)

2. The Resiliency Model

This article talks about how competency and resiliency are protective barriers and how those characteristics are applied to health education. They also touch on how to intervene when someone is amid adversity or the “disruptive process.” (Richardson, Neiger, Jensen & Kumpfer, 1990)

3. Resilience Theory Theoretical and Professional Conceptualizations

This paper analyzes the theoretical assumptions of resiliency theory and tests these assumptions through a qualitative research design. Eighteen professionals were interviewed to gain a sharper understanding of what conditions practitioners thought acted as cushions to life stress and contributed to coping and resilience.

Themes that frequently emerged from the data included personal attitude, spirituality/religion, education, and multilevel attachments. The data identified important practice skills to enhance resilience. Implications for practice and education are discussed. (Greene, Galambos & Youjung, 2004)

4. Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

This article was sparked by the panel at the 29th Annual International Society for Traumatic Stress in 2013. Steven Southwick, George Bonanno, Ann Masten, Catherine Panter-Brick, and Rachel Yehuda give a better understanding of resilience research across different fields of study.

Some of the questions discussed during the panel were:

  1. The definition of resilience
  2. The elements needed to create resilience
  3. The influence of new technologies informing on the science of resilience
  4. The most effective ways to enhance resilience


What Research in Positive Psychology Shows

The field of positive psychology strives to understand the strengths within individuals, families and even communities, and what they need to flourish.

This sub-field of psychology concentrates on cultivating what is best within yourself to lead a satisfying life. Resilience and positive psychology go together. The art of bouncing back is discussed often when talking about positive psychology. It is vital to have the ability to spring back from negative events to live a high-quality life.

Through the lens of positive psychology, resilience is considered an important characteristic and it is a learned behavior. Let’s start by saying that most people are resilient. It is not a phenomenon. Just by looking around, you will be able to see many people who are resilient and dared to wake up despite their troubles.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

Lucious Annaeus Seneca

A significant finding that links the study of resilience and positive psychology, is having healthy relationships. We learn how to build meaningful relationships from our parents. Our parents have a profound influence on our ability to be resilient which can be shaped by the parenting style.

According to Baumrinds (2013), there are three categories of parenting styles:

1. Authoritative – this style is firm, loving and kind with clear boundaries. These parents allow their kids to make healthy choices and encourage them to take on more responsibility as they get older.

2. Authoritarian – this style is strict, inflexible and militant. These parents expect obedience without their children questioning them. They may also discipline harshly.

3. Passive – this style is permissive. Parents feel that they are imposing on their child’s life by setting rules and boundaries. They don’t want their child to have many consequences. Even when their child is not obeying the laws, they find it hard to discipline them.

Among the three, authoritative parenting turned out to be the best way to raise children. This style produces children who are self-reliant, have a good sense of inner direction, able to regulate themselves, and can adapt to stress well (Baumrinds, 2013).

Children raised by this authoritarian style can grow to be rebellious, dependent and lack self-control behavior.


Resilience Theory in Social Work

According to the Social Work Policy Institute, the study of resilience has grown over the past decade in many disciplines. This includes studies of individuals and families in social work.

Dennis Saleebey, former professor and chair at the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas, wrote about the strengths-based approach to social work in his 1996 article, The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice: Extensions and Cautions.

Saleebey said, when using the strength-based approach, it gives a different point-of-view when assessing social work cases because it makes professionals see people in the “light of their capacities, talents, competencies.”

Like the perspective of positive psychology, the strengths-based perspective in social work encourages others to view people based on their strengths despite how broken they may have become through “circumstance, oppression, and trauma.” (Saleebey, 1996).

Having a sense of humor, integrity, and independence allows a person to feel powerful and successful even though they have been through terrible times. (Wolin & Wolin, 1993).


Family Resilience Theory

Families are complex. They are made up of people who see the world differently, think differently and have lived different lives who are trying to get along with each other.

The family’s ability to bounce back from stress as a unit and work together is called family resilience. In an interview with Psychology Today, Froma Walsh, one of the leading researchers in family resilience, said that resilience within a family is more so about support, shared beliefs, family structure and communicating with each other.

Walsh said families who show incredible resilience seem to share a belief system or practice that gives hope in tough times and doesn’t mind acknowledging the hard times.

Communication is precious to families because it makes them feel connected and tuned into each other’s needs. This shows a high level of respect and support in the family unit.

A supportive environment and correct parenting style could directly contribute to resilience throughout the lifecycle of a child. They can create resources or “buffers” from stress such as problem-solving, acceptance, a sense of purpose and adaptability. (Lopez & Snyder, 2009)


Shame Resilience Theory

Brené Brown developed the Shame Resilience Theory or SRT. Brown wrote about SRT in her book “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) – Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough.’” She stated that SRT is a hushed epidemic and it is something everyone feels, regardless of ethnicity, culture, or class.

“Shame creates feeling of fear, blame and disconnect.”

Brené Brown.

According to Brown, SRT is an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and undeserving of acceptance and belonging. She also says that women often experience shame because of expectations by society.

Shame is not a fleeting emotion. It is powerful and can negatively affect mental health. Studies of shame have been linked to bullying, suicide, violence, sexual assault, depression, addiction, and overall low self-esteem. (Brown, 2006)

When experiencing shame along with the situations mentioned above, it can also cause a person to isolate themselves from family, friends, and community. The intensity of shame can vary between people and cultures.

Common triggers of shame (Brown, 2006):

  1. Appearance
  2. Body image
  3. Sexuality
  4. Family
  5. Motherhood
  6. Parenting
  7. Professional identity
  8. Work
  9. Mental health
  10. Physical health
  11. Aging
  12. Religion
  13. Speaking out
  14. Surviving trauma


The principal idea behind SRT is studying the way people avoid feeling confined, weak and alone when they feel shameful. A goal of Brown was to help individuals understand that they do belong. Resilience against shame helps those who feel shame to feel empathy, connection, power, and freedom. (Brown, 2006).

Shame resilience is primarily made up of four steps:

  1. Recognizing the personal vulnerability that led to the feelings of shame
  2. Knowing the outside factors that led to the opinions of shame
  3. Connecting with others to receive and offer empathy
  4. Discussing and deconstructing the feelings of shame themselves


These steps emphasize how vital it is to know that shame needs to be recognized and understood before it can be defeated. Much of SRT research says that unchecked feelings of shame can be harmful to mental health.

To overcome shame, we should practice empathy. Empathy is powerful. It is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. Practicing empathy can build connection while shame can isolate.


Community & Social Resilience Theory

Humans are social creatures. Since the beginning of time, we were smart enough to understand that we have better chances of survival by forming a group. Mancini & Bowan (2009) said communities are “open and dynamic.” They can change at any time and should be able to because this will give them the best chances to live successfully with the environment and the community.

Just as the study of resilience looks for protective barriers or buffers for individuals, Mancini & Bowan (2009) looks for the same things in a community. By doing this, he was able to find out what makes a group resilient.

Communities consist of a lot of moving parts. It’s dynamic and always shifting its gears. According to Mancini, since communities are living systems, challenges are inevitable – some anticipated and some surprising.

At any time, communities face a range of threats and challenges that require collective attention and management.

In his study, “Community Resilience: A Social Organization Theory of Action and Change,” they define community resilience as the ability of communities to cope and adapt in the context of challenge and adversity in ways that promote the achievement of desired community results (Mancini & Bowan, 2009).


Organizational Resilience Theory

“A resilient organization is one that not merely survives over the long term but also flourishes – passing the test of time.”

Howard Kerr

It is crucial for an organization to bounce back from tragedy. With the uncertain economy, an organization must be prepared to take a hit.

Without that flexibility, the company is considered doomed in that face of challenges. Denyer (2017), states that organizational resilience is “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions to survive and prosper.”

In his report called Organizational Resilience: A Summary of Academic Evidence, Business insights, and New Thinking, he found six critical features of resilient organizations.

  1. Preventative control – risk management by imposing physical barriers, backup systems, and standardized procedures. This protects the organization from threats and allows it to return to normal after disruptions.
  2. Mindful action – the ability to notice and react to threats and respond effectively to unfamiliar or challenging situations.
  3. Performance optimization – continually improving, refining and extending existing competencies, using current technologies to enhance working conditions.
  4. Adaptive innovation – organizational resilience is created by creating, inventing and exploring unknown markets and new technologies.


Having a lack of skills and knowledge throughout the chain of command weakens the “health” of the company and makes it susceptible to failure when faced with hardship (Danyer, 2017).


The ‘Science of Resilience’ Article

The Science of Resilience article by Southwick (2012), talks about the role of biology in resilience research. For the past 20 years, he has studied the impact of traumatic events on high-risk children.

During his research, he discovered that some children were more resilient than others, but he wanted to know why. Even when the child is exposed to inhibiting factors in their environment, they continued to thrive.

Southwick and his colleagues studied three highly resilient groups of people: former Vietnam prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors, and men and women who had endured terrible situations. They analyzed these groups on five different levels. Those levels were genetic; psychological; biological; social and spiritual. (Southwick, 2012).

Before going forward with the research, Southwick believed resilient people were “rare and possibly genetically gifted.”  They turned out to be wrong (Southwick, 2012).

They found out that resilience is common and that anyone can train themselves to be more resilient.

Southwick said, “The key involves knowing how to harness stress and use it to our advantage. After all, stress is necessary for growth. Without it, the mind and body weaken and atrophy.

There are no specific combinations of genes that add to resilience, but they do play a vital part in how a person may react to stress and trauma.

Depending on the person, the response to stress can vary. Something that is not a big deal to someone may be extreme for another. Southwick’s research highlights how the body responds in times of traumatic events. (Southwick, 2012).

Many systems in the body are associated with resilience. The nervous system regulates our stress in the face of danger. Our hippocampi allow us to identify the difference between threat and safety. The amygdala processes emotions related to the flight-or-fight response.

The prefrontal cortex controls our feelings and behavior and helps us make sound decisions. If the prefrontal cortex is functioning well, it stops the amygdala from processing hormones related to stress and the flight-or-fight response. Any damage to either system decreases their ability to control stress. Hence why some people who experience stress more than others, find it harder to calm themselves once the event has already past. (Southwick, 2012).

Scientists are learning more about the impact that genetics, cognition, and neurobiology have on resilience on an individual level. (Southwick, 2012).


3 More Articles on Mental Toughness

Here are three more articles that dive deep into the art of resilience.

1. The Science of Resilience: Implications for Preventions and Treatment of Depression

This article talks about why and how the body reacts to stress. They go into detail about stress-related disorders and the different reactions to stress for different people. They touch on severe stress-related disorders such as PTSD, clinical depression and even say that some people develop milder disorders that can ultimately heal themselves. (Southwick, Charney, 2012)

2. Resilience in the Face of Potential Trauma

Recent research in trauma shows that adults exposed to traumatic events still are relatively stable after the event happens. They found that there is not a specific way to be resilient and it comes in many unexpected forms. (Bonanno, 2005).

3. Psychosocial Resilience and Protective Mechanisms

This article discusses the coping process people go through to protect against psychological risks. Those processes are reducing the impact of threats; reducing the chain reaction that comes from the danger; establishing and maintaining self‐esteem, and being open to opportunities after the impact. (Rutter, 1987)


Norman Garmezy’s Main Findings and Contribution

Norman Garmezy, another pioneer in research on risk and resilience, was a legendary mentor as well as an eminent scientist in clinical psychology. He has often been coined as the “father” of the study of resilience. Garmezy introduced a strengths and recovery based approach to psychology, which transformed resilience research across many disciplines.

Garmezy loved to share his knowledge of psychology with everyone around him. During his days at the University of Minnesota, he studied the risks that lead to mental illnesses. Garmezy quickly understood that he had to somehow measure the early stages of mental disorders. This made him start the Project Competence Longitudinal Study (PCLS)

The PCLS created methods, measures, and definitions of competence, mental buffers, and resilience. The PCLS is what set the standard for understanding resilience. (Masten & Tellegen, 2012)


Seligman’s 3P’s Model of Resilience

Positive psychology game changer, Martin Seligman, learned through extensive research that people who are satisfied with their life discovered their unique “signature strengths.” Seligman created the “3P’s of Resilience,” which says the three things that can hinder recovering from adversity, which are:

Personalization – personalizing is a cognitive distortion that makes a person believe they are to blame for every problem. Someone who customizes things needs to know that other factors play a part in every situation. A person should take responsibility for a failure, but they should not see themselves as a failure.

Pervasiveness – the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life instead of just one area. People who have this mindset may find it hard to carry on with life because they feel there is no way out if their situation.

Permanence – the belief that your feelings or situation will last forever. This may cause the person to become overwhelmed. The truth is time passes by, and life’s challenges go with it. Pain and pleasure are temporary. By embracing that truth, an individual can become more understanding of the process of adversity.

Seligman realized that having these three distortions can hinder the creation of resilience. His message to all is that our perception of a situation can change the result. We can build our resilience by adjusting the perception of adversity.


A Take Home Message

In this article, we have come to understand the origin, process, and building blocks of resilience across many different disciplines. Within each field of study, the definition of resilience changes, but it keeps the underlying characteristic of springing back from adversity; whether it is dealing with an individual, family or company.

By surviving through pain and suffering, we can become mentally stronger. Our ability to adapt to challenges decides how resilient we can be. However, facing traumatic experiences do not have to be the end of the world, even though it can feel that way. The power is in you to not only bounce back but to surpass heights you never thought you could achieve before. There is strength in your pain waiting to be cultivated.


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About the Author

Dysheada Reid is a positive psychology enthusiast and an aspiring clinical mental health counselor. She has her B.A in Mass Communications and is a former journalist. Dysheada is now a freelance researcher and writer in the mental health field. She is a passionate storyteller and loves inspiring people through her blog Tilted.


  1. Munir Abubakar

    It is very interested and good looking

  2. Tanyaradzwa Dianah Mutseura

    Thank you for an informative read. Has there been any research on child resilience narrowing specifically at children with mental health challenges who live in rehabilitation centres.

  3. Kathy Marshall Emerson

    For a broad exposure to resilience in education, explore the National Resilience Resource Center’s (NRRC) massive free website at Find seminal journal article PDF’s, inspirational essays, visual presentations, curriculum information, webinars and more. NRRC also provides consultation, professional development and training; there are also selected charitable services. Established at the University of Minnesota more than 25 years ago, now operating independently NRRC bridges the gap between current needs and the wealth of vital resources and supports developed by many players. Explore and enjoy!

    • Bana

      You are a star!
      I want to ask about more resources.


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