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As the new year approached, wildfires swept unexpectedly across suburban neighborhoods in Boulder County, Colorado. Nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed in a matter of hours. Climate change disasters are unsettlingly constant now, and as the Boulder fire demonstrated so poignantly, they can occur almost anywhere.
By themselves, climate disasters are worrisome enough, but they occur now amid the ongoing exhaustion of a global health pandemic, which has taken more than 5 million lives globally. Add to the mix festering political discord and simmering racial unrest and the combination is literally combustible. Not surprisingly, there has been widespread alarm about possible mental health costs.
Yet, despite such weighty burdens, the remarkable truth is that most people can manage these combined stresses and strains surprisingly well. In short, people are resilient.
In retrospect, this shouldn’t be surprising. Abundant research has shown that the most common pattern following potentially traumatic events, such as military combat, natural disasters, violent injury, or even assault, is a stable trajectory of good mental health beginning typically in the first month after the event. A 2018 review of 54 studies found that the stable resilience pattern occurred, on average, in two-thirds of the people that experienced these kinds of events. This has proved true even in recent studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with overall mental health back to pre-pandemic levels just several months later. Not everyone shows the resilience trajectory, of course. But even among the smaller percentage of people who struggle with mental health declines, 15–25 percent will nonetheless recover their normal level of functioning within a year or two.
Resilience doesn’t mean there is no pain, no suffering. Most people get upset when bad things happen. They may feel disoriented, anxious, on-edge, sad, or worried about the future. It’s perfectly natural to feel this way, and to some extent it’s actually adaptive to have negative feelings about bad things. The distress we feel causes us to take in and focus on what happened and adjust to its consequences so that we can move forward. Most people are able to do this, and for most people, the distressing feelings that come with such upheavals dissipate relatively quickly, usually within a week or two, sometimes a bit longer. This is the resilience trajectory. Even when more enduring stresses and strains occur, for example following a home-destroying fire or disease pandemic, most people are still able to find their way to stable resilience trajectory within several months.
Although talk of “trauma” seems to have overtaken the discourse, most people are at least somewhat familiar with the word resilience. But how can we remain resilient in unusually straining times like these, and how might we become more resilient in the future? For that, we need to take a closer look at what science can tell us.
Crucially, resilience is not about having the right qualities. There’s a popular idea that there are five (or three, or seven) traits of highly resilient people, things like self-awareness, optimism, and the ability to find meaning in life’s hardest times. But in truth, there are no one-size-fits-all traits because, paradoxically, no trait or behavior is ever always effective in the face of tragedy. As psychologist Walter Mischel demonstrated more than a half-century ago, our behavior is not nearly as consistent as we tend to think it is. A person we might think of as extroverted, for example, may be extremely outgoing among friends but surprisingly quiet and sedate at work or around strangers. Studies of coping and emotion regulation have also shown that a behavior or strategy that might be effective in one situation may be less effective or even harmful in another. This has proved true even for positive emotions where feeling too happy can dampen our ability to connect with a partner sharing bad news. Research we’ve done on the “dark side of happiness” shows that even our positive feelings can lead us to take unsafe risks and may not help us in every situation or moment.
Instead, to be resilient, we must be flexible. The challenges we face in life are simply too varied for a single strategy or tool. The ways a climate disaster might tax us depends on where we were, and when we encountered it, and what resources we happened to have available. That nexus, in turn, will differ markedly for a terrorist attack, which will be a different kind of ordeal than a violent assault or an ongoing disease pandemic.
We can flexibly confront varying challenges using a three-step sequence. First, we pay attention to the specific challenge we face. We think about what is actually happening to us, what the challenge might be that is making us feel the way we feel. Second, we work out a possible solution to that challenge from whatever traits, skills, and resources we might have at our disposal. Crucially, we might not get it right on the first try. Nobody always gets it right every time. For this reason, we need a third step where we take stock of how we are doing. If all is working well, we keep doing what we are doing. If not, we adjust the strategy or change to a new strategy. Some challenges, like the COVID pandemic, evolve over time, which necessitates that we continually shift through these steps as we go along.
Resilience isn’t only about feeling good during life’s challenges. It is also about experiencing whatever emotions might match the ongoing situation: joy at unexpected surprises, sadness when there is loss, fear in periods of uncertainty, or anger at injustice. Sometimes these emotions can be complex and evolve over time too. If you’ve lost your home in a fire, you might well face many days of frustration and despair, but also some moments of contentment you didn’t see coming. Studies have shown in fact that the more people want to be happy in their daily lives, the less happy they actually become. The quest for happiness can even increase people’s risk of being depressed—a finding referred to by psychologist Iris Mauss as the paradoxical pursuit of happiness. By contrast, others have shown that people who experience a diverse menu of emotions in their everyday life—including happiness and joy but also negative feelings like fear, sadness, or even anger—fare better physically and psychologically, and even show lower inflammatory markers of stress and disease vulnerability.
Science has confirmed as well that the components of flexible coping are not rarefied skills. Most people have at least a moderate aptitude in each of these abilities. But there can be weak spots too. We’ve found that many people have shortages in one skill or another. You may know someone, for example, who is extremely adept at expressing emotion but unable to calmly dampen that same emotion in overwhelming situations. Or another person who is a pro when it comes to thinking a difficult situation through, but simply unable to distract themselves or focus on others when the need arises. It is possible to enhance these skills with practice, using self-talk and other relatively simple exercises. Several scientifically backed therapeutic interventions also offer tools for building flexibility, which, our research suggests, may be particularly applicable to depression or anxiety.
Hopefully, this knowledge will pave the road to a brighter future. When we see and flexibly respond to what is right in front of our eyes—even when it means facing head-on environmental, health, and political crises—we cope more effectively. We also arm ourselves and our loved ones with the knowledge that we will be able to better adapt to the inevitable challenges that always lie ahead.
Read more about the science of resilience in George Bonanno’s new book, The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD. For more on mental health and the pandemic, check out June Gruber’s course, #talkmentalillness.
State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.