Learn resilience to cope with life’s obstacles

Checkup on Health

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Experts view traumatic experiences as critical events that allow growth and transformation to a degree that can’t happen without them.

By Mark Servis, M.D.

Some people seem to lead charmed lives. Even when adversity hits they get up again, and some emerge even stronger. Others internalize distress with depression or anxiety disorders, or attempt to blunt pain with drug or alcohol abuse.

Why do some people cope better than others with life’s inevitable challenges and blows? What is the secret to mental resilience?

Dr. Servis is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC Davis Health System and a senior dean at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

The ability to effectively handle adversity has attracted considerable research interest in recent years. Some investigators looked at why certain individuals who endured abusive childhoods grew up to become mentally healthy and productive adults. Others studied people who coped successfully with life despite having a diagnosis of AIDS or personal memories of the Holocaust. Upbeat elderly people have also been scrutinized.

What makes an individual a survivor, sometimes even a thriving one? Here are some characteristics that researchers have identified:

High self-esteem

A belief in one’s own abilities gives an internal stability that is critical in weathering life’s storms. It can mean the difference between feeling effective in a crisis and feeling helpless.

How does one bolster up an already established poor self-esteem? Start by dispensing with negative “self-talk” and develop an internal commentary that is forgiving, upbeat and encouraging, much like a loving friend or parent would provide.

An effective counselor can also help someone develop a stronger self-esteem, by offering new insights into an individual’s personality. Qualities perceived as personal weaknesses may sometimes be revealed as strengths that have helped the person survive.


Some researchers feel that a positive outlook can be even more important than a realistic one when it comes to coping successfully. One study looked at personalities of men who had survived a heart attack. Optimists had much better long-term survival rates than pessimists.

Optimists tend to look at problems as a challenge rather than a barrier. They focus on opportunities and on what lies ahead rather than mistakes of the past. Many base their optimism on religious faith. Others simply have an enduring belief that the future will hold better times.


Coping with difficulties often requires the ability to shift gears. A job lay-off or a broken heart is better endured by an individual who can plan for a future with multiple viable outcomes. A resilient person can re-evaluate priorities and set new goals when things are not working out as hoped.

Ability to learn from unpleasant experiences and move on

It’s an important truism that it isn’t what happens to us but how we react that is important. People who tend to feel like a victim and blame others for a bad situation do poorly in a crisis. Resilient people are more likely to acknowledge that everyone, including themselves, makes mistakes, and then can move on.

Social support

Close family and friends provide a secure basis from which to explore the world and take risks, make mistakes, fall back on and venture out again. Loners are much more vulnerable. In a crisis, those who have an established social network can ask for help, both for practical matters and for emotional support.

Innate or learned?

Does resilience involve innate characteristics that some people are just plain lucky to have? Psychiatrists used to view a person’s past as a sort of prison with personality characteristics that are immutable. But a more positive position is emerging, in which it is felt that all people have the capacity for resilience. Many of the qualities can be learned. A counselor can help an individual to identify strengths, then nurture and develop them.

We can’t avoid all risk in life. Successful coping is key. Experts view traumatic experiences as critical events that allow growth and transformation to a degree that can’t happen without them. They can force a person to learn new skills, gain confidence, and strengthen personal relations.

Some individuals describe that despite an illness or trauma, they are experiencing the best years of their life. The crises have brought them a heightened awareness of life’s joys and a better ability to connect with other people. Some feel that they have been tested and can now survive anything. While they may not be glad they had their bad experience, many agree that it made them better people.