The term “resilience” is a word and concept that often gets thrown around in a variety of contexts within the mental health field. Despite the prevalence of the terminology, it is frequently unclear as to what professionals are trying to capture through the use of this construct. The multitude of definitions and interchangeability of resilience with other constructs (such as recovery) make it difficult to establish a common language among mental health providers, particularly with regard to interventions and research designed to facilitate resiliency. In Ungar’s 2004 article on resilience, he points out the “definitional ambiguity in the resilience construct.” Through this article I hope to provide a brief overview of the etiology and evolution of resilience while highlighting some of the past and recent research. Hopefully this information will help to inform our future application and efforts to foster resiliency in our own lives and those around us.
Historical accounts date the origin of resilience from between 1620-30 C.E. with the Latin root “resiliens,” meaning to “spring back” or “rebound” (Friesen, 2005; Luthans, Vogelgesand, & Lester 2006; Online Etymology Dictionary, 2008). The resilience that we now associate with mental health became a prominent construct in the 1970s when researchers began to examine individuals who were able to follow a positive developmental trajectory despite the presence of high-risk conditions or adversity (Luthar & Zigler, 1991). Since that time, there have been three recognized waves of research involving resiliency, “resilient qualities,” “the resiliency process,” and “innate resiliency” (Richardson, 2002).
Resilient qualities research has sought to identify particular traits or characteristics that have helped them survive some form of adversity. Various studies have identified these protective factors to include items such as gender, tolerance, achievement orientation, good communicator, altruism, self-efficacy, future orientation, high expectations, good self-esteem, happiness, faith, creativity, and morality, among others (Baumeister & Exline 2000; Buss, 2000; Myers, 2000; Simonton, 2000; Werner, 1982; 2005; Werner & Smith 1992). These specific developmental assets remain of interest to resiliency researchers while an emphasis on the process involved in fostering resilient responses has gained even greater attention.
The resiliency process research has sought to view resiliency as more of a dynamic developmental process between person and environment while reflecting some positive adjustment despite some form of adversity (Friesen, 2005; Edeschi & Kilmer, 2005). This movement within the field of resilience has sought to transform the construct from a trait to be expressed into a state that is either developed or elicited within particular context (Lussier, Derevensky, Gupta, Bergevin, & Ellenbogen, 2007). The exploration of the interactional and environmental nature of resiliency welcomed another wave of research into how resilience might be fostered, developed, and learned.
Innate resiliency research drew into question many of the assumptions that had previously been made about the resilience construct. Resilience was beginning to be viewed as no longer an either yes or no condition that individuals were predetermined to have (or not), but a construct that falls along a continuum and may be continually enhanced (Cairns-Descoteaux, 2005). This further development also began to draw into question the necessity that there be the presence of some stressor or adversity (to overcome) in order for their truly to be a resiliency process in effect.
Many current explorations of resiliency have begun to view resiliency as something innate to us all. In Bonnie Benard’s The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework emphasizes the “process of connectedness” within resiliency and the importance of the how we do what we do, trying to move our focus in mental health from our fixation on the content of what we do and instead on the context. This concept is further elucidated (within an educational context) by Dr. Truebridge’s in her blog Resilience, Research, and Educational Reform resilience-research-and-educational-reform/) in which she discusses the importance of change in the person delivering a particular service and the way it is delivered (and not necessarily the service itself) in terms of facilitating resilience in those with whom we come in contact. These recent examinations have helped to highlight the role of our own beliefs (and those within the broader social context) as a crucial element in creating resilience.
As can be seen by the previous review of resiliency literature, the construct remains somewhat of an enigma. The many various interpretations and understandings of resilience has led to much of the ambiguity in the term and has led some researchers to draw into question the utility of the construct itself in meaningfully contributing to the research and literature. Through my own research of resilience I tried to address this issue through the process of a meta-synthesis of other resiliency studies in the hopes of identifying common themes and creating a more meaningful understanding of the construct. The results of the study suggested the presence of eight core processes within resiliency of internal locus of control, reconstruction of the narrative, altruism, acceptance, flexibility, optimistic outlook, interpersonal effectiveness, and social support (Nebel, 2008). Resilience remains a prominent issue of debate within the clinical and research fields of psychology. Hopefully this blog was able to provide a brief overview of some of the current views and applications of the resiliency construct in mental health while highlighting the ongoing need for continued dialogue and research.

By Scott Nebel, Psy.D.
  • Scott is a Psychologist on MHCD’s Intensive In-Home Treatment Team and collaborates with the MHCD Research Institute.

Baumeister, R., Exline, J. (2000). Self-Control, Morality, and Human Strength, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 29-42.

Buss, D. (2000). The Evolution of Happiness. American Psychologist, 55, 15-23.

Cairns-Descoteaux, B. (2005). The Journey to Resiliency: An Integrative Framework for Treatment for Victims and Survivors of Family Violence. Social Work & Christianity, 32(4), 305-320.

Friesen, B. (2005). The Concept of Recovery: “Value Added” for the Children’s Mental Health Field?. Focal Point, 19(1), 5-8.

Lussier, I., Derevensky, J., Gupta, R., Bergevin, T., Ellenbogen, S. (2007). Youth Gambling Behaviors: An Examination of the Role of Resilience. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 21(2), 165-173.

Luthans, F., Vogelgesang, G., Lester, P. (2006). Developing the Psychological Capital of Resiliency. Human Resource Development Review, 5(1), 25-44.

Luthar, S., Zigler, E. (1991). Vulnerability and Competence: A Review of Research on Resilience in Childhood. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61(1), 6-22.

Myers, D. (2000). The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People. American Psychologist, 55, 56-67.

Online Etymology Dictionary, 2008

Richardson, G. (2002). The Metatheory of Resilience and Resiliency. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(3), 307-321.

Simonton, D. (2000). Creativity. American Psychologist, 55, 151-158.
Ungar, M. (2004). A Constructionist Discourse On Resilience. Youth & Society, 35(3), 341-365.

Werner, E. (2005). Resilience and Recovery: Findings From the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Focal Point, 19(1), 11-14.

Werner, E., Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.