Friday, September 24, 2010

Psychological Resilience

When psychologists have wanted to learn whether human development is more influenced by nature or nurture, they have studied the cases of identical twins separated at birth.

Identical twins who are put up for adoption and are brought up in different family environments show us how much or how little their development responds to cultural factors.

In a world where many people still believe that human nature is a social construct, these studies show that nature has a far more important role in development than we would tend to believe. Many qualities really are hard-wired into the human organism.

A second group of comparative studies addresses how people recover from either a difficult upbringing or a trauma. Here, cultural factors take on greater importance.

Take two individuals from the same neighborhood, perhaps even the same home, and ask yourself how one of them can grow up to be a drug-addicted felon while the other becomes a pillar of the community. You would trust the latter with your life;  you wouldn't trust the former with a stick of gum.

Or else, take two people who suffer the same trauma, whether it is a hurricane or a terrorist attack or a rape, and ask yourself why one seems to be able to recover without too many problems while the other is afflicted with social paralysis and other post-traumatic disorders.

Nothing distinguishes the two people in terms of background and maturity. Yet, one demonstrates considerable resilience or adaptability while the other seems to have none.

Therapists have also been puzzled by the fact that some victims can mine their personal resources and recover from trauma without undergoing any therapy while others undergo extensive therapy and still cannot get themselves back on an even keel.

Dr. Lloyd Sederer addressed these issues in an article, and they are worth our attention. Link here.

As Dr. Sederer defines the term: "Resilience is a term that originates from physics and refers to the capacity of a substance to return to its original state after being subject to intense levels of pressure, heat or other external force. What a great term for human nature to adopt. It conveys a capacity to return to what was after experiencing trauma, tragedy, life threatening danger, persistent adversity or all of these profound and too often inescapable fates that humans encounter. Sometimes resilience is called adaptation, but resilience has a dynamic feeling to it, a sense that we can all tap into properties that enable us to rebound to where we were before misfortune, natural or manmade, strikes."

What then makes people resilient? What gives some people the capacity to process trauma and move on while others become overwhelmed by it?

Most of the answers are unsurprising. Supportive families and communities head the list.

If trauma tends to make people feel isolated and alone, if it causes psychological damage for making a person feel different, as though he had become someone else, then support from family and community, constant reinforcement of the fact that he has not changed will matter.

This differs from therapies that encourages people to join a group of fellow victims. Groups of victims tend to offer people a new identity at a time when the important thing is to recover their old identity.

Therapies like psychoanalysis that encourage introspection and independence are of little help. The same is true of therapies that encourage emotional expression, or, what is called debriefing.

According to Dr. Sederer the most helpful therapies involve problem-solving. These therapies, like coaching, do not involve empathy or feeling someone's pain. They offer hope because they show the trauma victim that he can do something to facilitate his recovery.

If trauma tends to make people feel that they are powerless to change what happened or how they feel about it, problem solving therapies and coaching can offer concrete suggestions that will empower them.

How can people develop resilience? First, by having the experience of learning through trial and error. Someone who has been coddled and protected, who has been always told he is doing well, will feel disarmed when something bad happens.

He will not possess the resources to adapt to changed circumstances or to put his life back in order after it has suffered a severe disruption.

Someone who is allowed to make his own mistakes and to figure out for himself how to rectify them will be more resilient than someone who always calls on someone else to clean up his messes.

Resilience studies affirm the place of character, of community, of culture.

I would only offer one clarification. Resilience does not involve making it as though nothing has happened. Something did happen; you were required to deal with its reality; you got yourself out of it. But that does not mean that you are returning to the state before the trauma. You have gained something from having had to work your way out of it.

Resilience works best when the trauma is not taken to be everything, when it is not made into a moment that defines your life, gives it new meaning, and is allowed to take you over.


David Foster said...

Tom Peters has written about resilient people and resilient organizations, and has speculated about indicators that may suggest whether a prospective employee has this characteristic. His post reminded me of some thoughts from Field Marshal Lord Wavell. After commenting on the British practice of testing military equipment by dropping it off a tower and then burying it in the mud for a few days, Wavell continues:

"Now the mind of the general in war is buried, not merely for 48 hours but for days and weeks, in the mud and sand of unreliable information and uncertain factors, and may at any time receive, from an unsuspected move of the enemy, an unforseen accident, or a treaherous turn in the weather, a bump equivalent to a drop of at least a hundred feet on to something hard. Delicate mechanism is of little use in war; and this applies to the mind of the commander as well as his body; to the spirit of an army as well as to the weapons and instruments with which it is equipped."

David Foster said...

The Tom Peters post I mentioned is here:

Proud Hindu said...

So basically the Indian caste system was right all along! Who knew the ancients were so precise?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, David, for the quote and the reference to Tom Peters. I hope that many others take a look at it.