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By Jeffrey Lackner, PsyD
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process and outcome of successfully adjusting to difficulties or challenging life experiences, especially through flexibility in thinking, feeling, and behaving.
There are a number of factors that influence resilience. Some of these involve the way individuals interact with their environment. Others concern the skills people have to manage adversity. The availability and quality of social relationships can also impact how well people endure adversity. In other words, just as resilience is a complex concept that includes biological, psychological, and environmental so are the factors that influence it.
“…having at least one stable and committed relations with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult is key for children who develop resilience.”
Developmental researchers have found that having at least one stable and committed relations with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult is key for children who develop resilience. The quality of these relationship “buffer” them from the adverse impact of negative life events. But quality social relationships do more than provide emotional support. It likely promotes cognitive functioning — the ability to plan, monitor, and self-regulate. In other words, supportive relationships provide the positive experience and adaptive skills building that makes resilience possible.
Another perspective focuses on specific coping skills for promoting resilience. Mindfulness, gratitude, relaxation, picking up a hobby, or making new friends are all regarded as resilient-friendly coping strategies. There is nothing wrong with any of these coping skills, but the research has failed to indicate that anyone coping skill is effective across different situations. This has led to a different perspective, one that sees what’s important in how someone sizes up a problem and uses this information to deploy a coping response that a situation calls for.
“…there are two types of strategies people use to handle stressful situations: problem-focused and emotion-focused methods.”
Key to this approach is an understanding that there are two types of strategies people use to handle stressful situations: problem-focused and emotion-focused methods.
Problem-focused strategies — With problem-focused strategies, you take concrete steps to change the situation itself. It’s an action-oriented coping strategy geared toward eliminating or fixing the source of a problem. If you were worried about an important exam, using a problem-focused strategy might include:
- forming a study group with other students to review the exam material
- scheduling a meeting with the teacher to clarify areas of confusion
- asking friends who took the course their advice on what to expect for the exam.
But what happens if you can’t do anything to eliminate or fix a problem? If you look at your worksheets, you’ll probably see an interesting pattern. Some sources of stress are invariably uncontrollable and just can’t be fixed. Trying to solve an unfixable problem will leave you frustrated, stressed out and miserable. Handling problems that can’t be fixed calls for a different type of coping strategy.
Emotion-focused strategies — Just because these problems can’t be solved doesn’t mean you have to suffer from them. Dealing with unfixable problems just calls for a different method of coping, called emotion-focused strategies. Let’s say after you took the exam, you find yourself worrying that you didn’t do well. There’s nothing you can do about the test until the teacher hands out grades next week. No amount of worry will make your actual grade any better, right? In the meantime, the only option is to adopt a coping response that limits the emotional impact. You might go out to a movie, hang out with friends, go for a run, or read a book. These actions are examples of emotion-focused coping methods. They don’t “fix” the problem, but they help soften its emotional blow. Examples of emotion-focused coping methods include:
- looking at the situation in a new way (reframing)
- reinterpreting the meaning of the situation
- getting support from family or friends
- going for a walk
- taking a deep breath and calming down
- accepting the situation, resigning yourself to an unchangeable outcome
- letting go
- adopting a “so what” approach.
“Problem-focused coping works best in situations where something can be done. Emotion-focused coping works best in situations that have to be accepted.”
There is no single coping solution that works best in every situation. The best coping response depends on asking first whether you can (or can’t) do anything to fix a problem and then matching the best coping method to your answer.
Problem-focused coping works best in situations where something can be done. Emotion-focused coping works best in situations that have to be accepted. Negative emotional reactions to uncontrollable events are best handled by changing the way you think about a situation. This approach can help you control your reactions without changing a situation that may be beyond your control.
“Stress occurs when the amount of control you really have over a problem doesn’t match the method you’ve chosen for coping with it.”
Stress occurs when the amount of control you really have over a problem doesn’t match the method you’ve chosen for coping with it. This finding lends scientific support to the basic message of the well-known Serenity Prayer:
“Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Simply put, we can learn to gain control in two ways. One by exerting control over our environment. The other is somewhat counterintuitive but powerful. We can gain control by acknowledging that we have no control over some problems or less than we like. The ability to shift gears depending on what situation we are in – not what we want to happen –makes for resilient people. In our research we call this flexible problem solving. It is a strategy that really resonates with people as evidenced by reduced painful GI symptoms after they learn these skills.
Jeffrey Lackner, PsyD is Professor of Medicine at the Jacobs School of Medicine at the University of Buffalo where he is the Chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine. He is a pioneer in the development and testing of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).