What is Resilience?

What factors help us to do well in spite of stress, trauma, and other difficulties? That is the question the SPF Lab seeks to answer. We developed the Scale of Protective Factors (SPF) to measure the protective factors that help us counteract risk factors such as stress and trauma. Over the last few decades, scientists focusing on human development have worked to understand the process involved in overcoming risk. This process is called resilience. Click here to take the Scale of Protective Factors and learn more about your personal resilience.

Early on, it was believed that resilience was something a person was either born with or not. But, then we learned that, although personality and other inborn traits like genetics may play a role, the number and severity of risk versus protective factors has a lot to do with creating resilience. Having a larger number of more significant protective factors when compared to risk factors greatly improves the chances of having a positive outcome in spite of negative experiences. Fulcrum 1

But, that isn’t the whole story. Remember, personality and genetics play a role too. Researchers are beginning to realize that there are multiple processes at play here. Not only do protective factors such as planning behavior, goal setting, family support, and social skills play a role in off setting risk factors as shown in the GIF above, but the type and severity of risk factors may change the entire process for better or worse.

Fulcrum 2

If a person experiences certain risk factors early on in life, and these factors become chronic or are very severe, it may change the way a person responds to stress and trauma. It may make it harder to benefit from protective factors, making a person less resilient. If a person is exposed to certain protective factors, it may make them more resistant to certain risk factors and result in higher resilience. Some of the risk factors and some of the protective factors are within our control. Even those genetic factors that we feel are out of our control may respond to changes in our lives. This means we may be able to change how we respond to stress behaviorally, emotionally, and biologically.

Fulcrum 3

The SPF Lab is working to help everyone learn ways to improve their own resilience, support the development of resilience in children, and increase resilience within communities.

GIF’s are from

The Life-Span Science of Resilience

Resilience may occur at any point in life. It is possible to be resilience even if you have fallen victim to the risk factors in your life and have experienced poor outcomes for a time. This is often called post traumatic growth. You may have been doing well and then starting not doing so well after adversity. If so, you can recover and be resilient by working to address the balance of protective and risk factors in your life.

Across our lives, there are certain periods at which our development comes to a tipping point; a time when we can restructure our environment to support our natural resilience. Essentially, we can actively move the pivot point, or fulcrum, on which our protective and risk factors balance. These are called critical or sensitive periods of development. Although most of these periods are believed to occur in childhood, recent research suggests that we have sensitive periods throughout our lives. Emerging adulthood, the ages between 18 and 25, may be one of these sensitive periods of development. It appears that mid-life may represent another sensitive period. These are times when we are changing our careers, our social circles, and the way we manage our time and stress. If these changes are for the better, we can improve our resilience.

There are multiple paths to resilience and post traumatic growth.

Paths To Resilience

Chart is adapted from Masten, A. M. & Narayan, A. J. (2012). Child Development in the Context of Disaster, War, and Terrorism: Pathways of Risk and Resilience. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 227-57. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100356. Epub 2011 Sep 19.

We may have experience trauma early in life and never fully recovered. It may be that we only experience positive change after a major setback. It may also be that we experience positive change only after reaching an age at which we are able to take control of our situation. This could occur in early or emerging adulthood, after a divorce, or upon changing careers. The life events that seem to cause us to reevaluate the choices and conditions in which we live may serve as tipping points, or opportunities to make some adjustments to environment and how we process stress.

Improving Personal Resilience

For adults, research has shown that there are four major ways to influence personal resilience. It appears that specific health, community, social, and cognitive characteristics help individuals to regulate their response to stress and to be more effective at solving life’s problems.


healthAfter about the age of 27, all of us begin to experience a decline in our physical health and in the speed at which we can think through and solve problems. But, we can slow the progression of this decline by supporting our physical health. A key factor in slowing the loss of physical health is in the way we maintain our health. Our health maintenance behaviors include going to the doctor for regular check ups, brushing our teeth, eating whole foods in healthy portions, and getting regular exercise.

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