Through adversity, we acquire skills, abilities, and attributes that enable us to not just survive, but ultimately, thrive.
French psychiatrist Pierre Janet said:
“Every life is a piece of art, put together with all means available.”
Van Der Kolk, 2014, p. 112
When I think of Janet’s statement, I envision a colorful and intricate life mosaic assembled through good times and bad, having considered and tried different options, landing on the right fit to complete the work.
Adversity is similarly situated. As youth, we watched adults negotiate hardship. We observed what made them resilient and what helped them get through difficult times. If we think of life as art, we ask, “what skills and attributes are apparent in their life mosaic?”
To understand the attributes and abilities used to overcome adversity, in this article, we investigate the concept of protective factors in psychology and their vital role in mental healthcare.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you to effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.
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What Are Protective Factors in Psychology?
Protective factors are individual and environmental attributes that are associated with positive adjustment and development throughout the course of life-threatening conditions and cultural situations (Lopez, Pedrotti, and Snyder, 2019).
Grych, Hamby, and Banyard (2015) use a framework they call the resilience portfolio model to describe attributes that promote health and thriving for individuals who experience adversity.
In order to construct a comprehensive model, factors such as self-regulation and social support have been identified and organized into three domains:
Regulatory strengths contribute toward impulse control, managing unruly emotions, and perseverance in the face of adversity.
- Interpersonal strengths
Cultivating strong interpersonal relationships, including family, friends, and community members, supports thriving and resilience.
- Meaning making
The ability to both understand and explain difficult or traumatic experiences promotes mental health. Religious and spiritual meaning making are included in this category, helping individuals cope with violence and hardship.
The resilience portfolio model suggests it may be the totality of strengths, or poly-strengths, in a person’s portfolio that is likely to reduce exposure and enhance coping, rather than any single strength or protective factor. The use of poly-strengths suggests that the “density and diversity of resources and assets available to individuals (their resilience portfolio) shapes their responses to violence” (Grych et al., 2015, p. 343).
There are several ways protective factors can operate. They can reduce the likelihood of adversity, promote healthy functioning despite adversity, or reduce the impact of adversity on health and wellbeing (Grych et al., 2015).
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center showcased this in story after story depicting the horrific events experienced by New Yorkers and the world.
Several New Yorkers exhibited strengths that helped them survive and thrive through this adversity. Let’s evaluate these strengths.
36 Examples of Protective Factors
Martin Seligman’s theory of learned optimism indicates that certain individuals use adaptive causal attributions to understand and explain negative life events, whereas pessimists default to internal causation and failure (Lopez et al., 2019).
Optimism is one of several protective factors.
Hamby, Grych, and Banyard (2017) conducted research in rural Appalachia using three indicators of healthy functioning following adversity: subjective wellbeing, post-traumatic growth, and mental health symptoms.
They showed how regulatory, meaning-making, and interpersonal strengths are associated with various domains of healthy functioning.
Some protective factors associated with each strength are outlined below.
- Religious meaning making
- Self-oriented meaning making
- Relationship-oriented meaning making
- Moral meaning making
- Family care meaning making
- Social support
- Community support
- Generous behavior
- Generative roles
- Maternal attachment
- Paternal attachment
Some of the most promising protective factors included emotional intelligence components – emotional regulation and emotional awareness. Others included optimism, a sense of purpose, and psychological endurance (Hamby et al., 2017).
Protective factors for children
As juvenile probation officers, we used categories such as living environment, prior offenses, education/employment, peer relations, substance abuse, mental health, leisure/recreation, and attitudes/orientation to assess the protective factors of at-risk youth.
Based on a report published by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2009), the US Department of Health and Human Services (n.d.) released a handout dividing protective factors for youth into three domains: individual, family, and school/community.
- Positive physical development
- Academic achievement
- High self-esteem
- Emotional self-regulation
- Coping and problem-solving skills
- Engagement and connections in at least two contexts including school, peers, athletics, employment, religion, and culture
- Provides structure, limits, rules, monitoring, and predictability
- Supportive relationships
- Clear expectations for behaviors and values
- Mentors and support for development of skills and interests
- Engagement in school and community
- Positive norms
- Clear expectations for behavior
- Physical and psychological safety
Protective Factors and Resilience
Trying times can be the seedbed of negativity and pessimism. According to Barbara Fredrickson (2008), if we fail to monitor our mindset and perspective during hardships, it can lead to a downward spiral that can drain the life out of us.
The word resilience refers to healthy functioning following adverse circumstances. Another term used to describe resilience is bouncing back. Lopez et al. (2019, p. 108) describe resilience as “a class of phenomena characterized by patterns of positive adaptation in the context of significant adversity or risk.”
Hamby et al. (2017) state that resilience involves three components: adversity or some traumatic or stressful event, healthy functioning following adversity, and the mechanisms that enable the individual to avoid or recover from adversity.
The mechanisms include protective factors. The study of resilience led researchers to label factors that promote productive functioning following adversity.
One regulatory protective factor cited by Hamby et al. (2017) is emotional awareness. Experts in the field of resilience expound on this protective factor and discuss how various emotions aid resilience.
Resilience and positive emotions
Fredrickson (2008) believes humans can be quite resilient and that resilience is, in fact, our birthright. Her research with college students before and after the 9/11 attacks bore this out.
The students with resilient personality styles before the attacks showed fewer signs of clinical depression, grew psychologically stronger in some manner, and became more optimistic, tranquil, and fulfilled with their lives after the attacks.
According to Lucy Hone (2017), seeking answers following adversity can lead to curious investigation about the incident itself and the ensuing emotional processing.
Individuals may find comfort and solace in understanding that the process is normal and that they are not alone.
According to Hone, experiences such as a magnificent sunset or the changing of the leaves in fall lend themselves to moments of awe, reminding us we are part of an immense and amazing universe, much bigger than the problems experienced in the moment.
Other positive emotions discussed by Hone include pride, hope, inspiration, gratitude, serenity, humor, and love.
The Role in Mental Healthcare
Healthcare providers, social workers, instructors, and all personnel working with struggling people can use the strengths-based focus of protective factors as part of an assessment process.
Layous, Chancellor, and Lyubomirsky (2014, p. 3) succinctly conclude, “Happier people show less psychopathology.”
According to the authors, wellbeing serves as an antidote to negative emotions such as anxiety and depression and aids those feeling trapped by grief, pessimism, and isolation. Increased happiness helps dampen acute pain from adverse life events and prevents the spiral to clinical levels of depression, substance abuse, or other mental health conditions.
Layous et al. (2014) acknowledge that most people are currently without the minimally suggested healthcare treatment and suggest researchers and practitioners focus on wellbeing. They believe attending to wellbeing improves overall mental health in two ways:
- Intentionally cultivating wellbeing can reduce negative emotions, behaviors, and thoughts characteristic of many risk factors for disorders.
- Promoting wellbeing renders positive outcomes in work, love, and health that buffer the adverse effects of risk factors.
Using Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory, Layous et al. (2014) posit that positive emotions serve to enhance creative problem-solving and outcomes. They propose positive activities serve in an intervening capacity, buffering against psychopathology.
Positive activities are feasible and functional, according to Layous et al. (2014, p. 5), because they are “typically brief, simple, accessible, and require little to no financial resources.” For example, clients may be asked to list five blessings or reflect on two good things that happened at the end of each day.
Practices shown to increase wellbeing include:
- Writing letters of gratitude
- Counting blessings
- Practicing optimism
- Practicing acts of kindness
- Using subjective strengths in new ways
- Affirming personal values
- Meditating on positive feelings toward ourselves and others
Besides buffering against difficult times, engagement in positive activities has also been shown to satisfy the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competency, and relatedness posited by Ryan and Deci (2000) in self-determination theory.
Protective Factors Training Explained
Protective factors can be applied in a variety of contexts; for instance, protective factors for mental health may have differing components than protective factors for children at risk.
Therefore, accessing protective factors training is nuanced and achieved through perseverance. Thankfully, most types of training can now be accessed online. Some ideas for protective factors training have been included below.
As it relates to substance abuse, the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helps explain the underlying utility of protective factors in this handout detailing Risk and Protective Factors.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (n.d.) also published a handout of protective factors that span from infancy to early adulthood.
Another way to attain protective factors training is through courses related to resilience, as the two are often associated. The READY Resilience Training Program, a group psychosocial training program, explores five protective factors targeting workplace wellbeing: positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, social support, life meaning, and active coping (Burton, Pakenham, & Brown, 2010).
The Children’s Trust Alliance provides training, resources, and materials that explain a strengths-based approach to eradicate child abuse and neglect. Resources such as this description of protective factors are available in Spanish and English. In addition, information about training can be found in this flyer or on their website.
Finally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information related to protective factors that buffer individuals from suicide on their website along with other helpful resources.
Top 5 Worksheets to Help Clients
Worksheets included here develop some of the critical components related to protective factors. Below are worksheets that explore coping skills, coping with stress, exploring past resilience, avoidant tendencies, and gratitude.
The Coping Skills Inventory identifies six common coping skills, including thought challenging, releasing emotions, practicing self-love, distracting, tapping into your best self, and grounding. The inventory encourages clients to journal how they might employ each of the coping skills when faced with adversity.
This worksheet helps clients identify coping strategies they possess in the present, reflect on strategies used in the past, and consider strategies that may be available to them in the future. Clients are encouraged to identify stressors, coping resources, obstacles, and methods for overcoming obstacles.
This worksheet provides an opportunity to reflect on a past setback and examine the strategies used to overcome it. A series of questions help guide the client to a deeper understanding of the holistic experience.
This exercise acknowledges that avoidant behavior is one way to deal with trauma; however, it is a short-term solution. The first step in overcoming fears is to face them. This exercise helps clients identify and gradually face the fears that plague them, first by listing them and then by devising a gradual plan to face them.
Positive emotions such as gratitude have been identified as factors leading to resilience by researchers, such as Barbara Fredrickson. This simple exercise can be used to help clients create a plan to express gratitude to one or more deserving people in their life.
Helpful PositivePsychology.com Resources
- 60-Second Value Pitch
In this exercise, clients are asked to identify three core values and develop a ‘pitch’ to sell their values to other members of the group. This exercise is integral to protective factors because values give our life meaning and help us make meaning of the adverse circumstances that occur in our lives.
- Moments of Meaning
This exercise allows clients to use their social connections to explore and develop a sense of meaning and purpose in their life. Clients are asked to interview acquaintances about the 10 most inspiring things they’ve seen or done in the last month then reflect on components they heard that piqued their interest.
- Visualizing the Bodily Experience of an Emotion
This simple exercise encourages clients to increase emotional awareness by recognizing how emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, happiness, and pride are felt somatically.
- Best Possible Resilient Self
This tool helps clients develop optimism and confidence to overcome adversity. The exercise walks the client through a challenging situation, describing elements that made it difficult and then imagining overcoming each of the elements.
Clients are also asked to describe their most resilient self. What did they look like? How did they feel? Finally, clients imagine interviewing their most resilient self and subsequently reflect on their interview.
- 17 Resilience & Coping Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, check out this collection of 17 validated resilience tools for practitioners. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.
A Take-Home Message
There has been ample time to reflect on the trauma that occurred in the 9/11 attacks and assess both the totality of the harm and the resilience of the survivors.
Similar to creating a mosaic, a variety of strengths and attributes were painfully, meticulously realized by survivors, contributing to their ongoing, individual narrative of overcoming adversity.
What will we say years after a worldwide pandemic? Who survived? Who thrived and why? What strengths were discovered and used to thrive?
Each of us has protective factors, both used and unrealized, contributing to our life mosaics. They help explain how we embraced the good and traversed the bad. In doing so, we create lessons for ourselves and our loved ones. Art is never perfect, but what a beautiful piece of art it is.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.
- Burton, N. W., Pakenham, K. I., & Brown, W. J. (2010). Feasibility and effectiveness of psychosocial resilience training: A pilot study of the READY Program. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 15(3), 266–277.
- Fredrickson, B. L. (2008). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. Three Rivers Press.
- Grych, J., Hamby, S., & Banyard, V. (2015). The resilience portfolio model: Understanding healthy adaptation in victims of violence. Psychology of Violence, 5(4), 343–354.
- Hamby, S., Grych, J., & Banyard, V. (2017). Resilience portfolios and poly-strengths: Identifying protective factors associated with thriving after adversity. Psychology of Violence, 8(2), 172–183.
- Hone, L. (2017). Resilient grieving: Finding strength and embracing life after a loss that changes everything. The Experiment.
- Layous, K., Chancellor, J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Positive activities as protective factors against mental health conditions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(1), 3–12.
- Lopez, S. J., Pedrotti, J., T. & Snyder, C. R. (2019). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strength. Sage.
- National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people. National Academies Press.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Risk and protective factors for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders across the life cycle.
- Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.