The sense of resilience (definition)

The sense of resilience (definition)

12 September 2021 psycho 1

The sense of resilience (definition) – Typhaine Lacroix Sept 2021 (Psychotherapist)

Why or how do some people come out stronger, or stand up better than others front of life’s challenges, adversity, trauma? How to recover from an attack, how to rebuild? As Michel Tousignant (2005) presents it so well. “How to protect yourself, to continue to fight, to have control over life, and to keep in the middle of all,  a copy of dignity, not to feel responsible or completely powerless in front of the misfortunes which fall on your head? “. Thus for a long time this characteristic was attributed to a particular constitution of the individual. In fact, it is only recently, through a systemic approach, that the notion of resilience has emerged.

Definition of the concept of resilience

The word resilience was first used in the physics of materials. It expresses the ability of a material to absorb the energy of a shock as it deforms, and its ability to regain its initial shape, and therefore not to break. In the field of information technology, resiliency refers to the ability of an IT system to continue functioning in the event of failure, hacking, or activity overload. It is his ability to adapt to all situations, whether frequent or unexpected.

In human sciences (psychology, sociology …), resilience can be considered as a dynamic process involving positive adaptation in the context of significant adversity. A major difference with the physical resilience of a material is that the person does not return to its initial state. But on the contrary, evolves by adapting to the new situation. There is a notion of development, of dynamics in psychological resilience.


Emmy Werner’s contribution

The term resilience was first used by Emmy Werner and Michaël Rutter in the 1980s (1989). Since 1955, Emmy Werner had followed the fate of 698 children from an extremely disadvantaged Hawaiian island. Thirty years later she found that children who, from 10 to 18 years old, had been very damaged physically, psychologically and socially, had by the age of 30, been able to repair much of their troubles. About two-thirds of people who were not resilient in adolescence became so in adulthood.

It was only in the 1990s that the concept of resilience really developed in France under the aegis of practitioners such as Boris Cyrulnik, Michel Manciaux, Stanislas Tomkiewicz… The number of publications in France on resilience was 609 between 2000 and 2015. France was in 7th position worldwide in number of publications (3.44%), nevertheless still far behind the United States (37.4%) (Jourdan-Ionescu, 2018).

Many concepts are associated with resilience such as stress, coping, risk and protective factors, vulnerability, self-esteem, locus of control, attachment (secure / insecure), defense mechanisms …

The different approaches to resilience

Resilience can be approached within the framework of approaches which are sometimes based on a very broad definition of its acceptance, while others draw sharper, even restrictive contours.

In the literature (Anaut, 2005), resilience can be referred to:

  • Normal development under difficult conditions
  • A process by which an individual interacts with his environment to produce a given evolution.
  • An ability to successfully integrate into society despite adversity which carries the serious risk of a negative outcome.
  • Exceptional adaptation despite exposure to significant stressors.

As the different definitions of resilience indicate, resilience can be seen as a trivial process of adapting to life (normal development under difficult conditions). Or conversely as an exceptional adaptation to an exceptional or repetitive event.


The individual, relatives and the population

On the other hand, resilience can also be seen from the perspective of the individual, family, community or society. In the event of a terrorist act, it is not only individuals who are targeted, but the population and its institutions. The trauma is experienced by the victims directly but also indirectly by the family and relatives. At the population level, we are witnessing community support initiatives, in the form of blood donations, spontaneous help to extract the victims or to welcome the victims.

Finally, depending on the different disciplines of psychology and its streams, approaches may diverge. There can be a big gap between the approaches of psychosociology which can study a country and the psychodynamic approaches which can focus on the individual, his intrapsychic processes and his internalization of the environment.


Studies are numerous and we can highlight 2 directions :

  • First of all, neurobiology. As Bustany (2012) noted, “to date, there are a dozen brain stress response systems. Based on neurotransmitters, neuropeptides or hormones, these systems organize themselves to control our vulnerability to stress and our resilience. “
  • Then the trials to model resilience. In 2014, Prince-Embury presented a model based on three characteristics of personal resilience (resiliency) and their interrelationships: the sense of mastery, the sense of relatedness and the emotional reactivity


So it is sometimes difficult to define resilience and agree on what resilience means. There is no particular reason to believe that the resources used in the face of trauma are specific and different from those used in dealing with daily adversity (Leys, 2018).


We nevertheless propose two definitions
  • The definition of Claude de Tichey (2001): “The capacity of the individual to build and live satisfactorily despite the difficulties and traumatic situations with which he may be confronted during his life”.
  • The definition of Manciaux, Vanistendael, Lecomte and Cyrulnik (2001): “The capacity of a person or a group to develop well, to continue to project themselves into the future despite destabilizing events, difficult, severe trauma ”

This last definition introduces the dynamic and evolving notion of resilience.

A multi-causal process

Personality trait ?

Is resilience a personality trait or a process that an individual develops more or less throughout their life? The question is important, because if it is a personality trait then this characteristic would be acquired once and for all and stable over time (Ashton, 2014 & Cottraux, 1995). The innate part of the personality might involve an overestimation of the inherited part in the process of resilience. We are born resilient or not. Conversely, the concept of dynamic and evolutionary process (both positive and negative) would open the field of accompaniment, therapeutic intervention and the possibility of supporting an individual. As for this individual the notion that nothing is writing.

Bowlby was the first to insist (as early as the 1950s) on the role of attachment in the genesis of resilience, which he defined as “a moral spring, the quality of a person who is not discouraged, who does not feel discouraged. do not let down ”. The “secure” attachment style allowing the child to develop resilience. But since then, the plasticity of attachment styles has been raised (Anaut – 2005).


Invulnerability ?

The inter-individual differences in the face of stress and trauma are sometimes explained by the variation in the internal vulnerability of people. This was the case with the first interpretations of Emmy Werner to understand resilient children. But this approach comes up against the concept of invulnerability more linked to an unhuman (or pathological) insensitivity far removed from the reality of resilient people.

Thus this approach of intrinsic vulnerability to the individual does not take into account the parameters of the environment which can either amplify the shock or attenuate it. To illustrate resilience, the metaphor of the three dolls (inspired by Anthony -1982) proposed by Michel Manciaux (1999). If we drop a doll, it will break more or less easily depending on various parameters: the force of the jet (negligence or aggression), the nature of the floor (concrete, carpet, etc.) and the material from which it is made (glass , porcelain, cloth).

Riolli, Savicki, and Cepani (2002) found that resilience was positively correlated with openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extroversion, and negatively correlated with neuroscepticism (the Big5 factors). Oshio, Taku, Hirano, & Saeed (2018) suggest that resilience is in part a personality trait. But it would be wrong to conclude, from the fact that certain personality traits promote resilience, that this implies that resilience is a personality trait.


Multicausal process !

It is not a single cause that causes an effect of misfortune or a resistance to misfortune, but a convergence of internal and external causes. Indeed, resilience is a multifactorial process involving protective factors versus risk factors which, in a given context, produce a unique interaction. It is an interaction between the individual and his environment, comprising variables internal to the subject (psychic structure, personality, defense mechanisms, etc.) and external variables (characteristics of the socio-emotional environment).

The interaction between risk factors and protective factors can lead to resilience or vulnerability.

An immunization mechanism describes the capacity of certain individuals to better endure accumulated traumatic episodes, suggesting an improvement in resilience capacities and thus confirming that resilience is a dynamic process (Bonanno, 2004).

Resilience becomes the result of a process that rolls over time, when facing with adversity.


Trauma and defense mechanisms

However, resilience is often closely linked to the notion of trauma. In psychoanalysis we distinguish between trauma and traumatic injury. Traumatic injury is a sudden injury caused by an external force, while psychological trauma refers to the damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event.

Thus the trauma can be a single event, massive like an attack, but perhaps an accumulation of aversive events, or repeated serious deficiencies (family negligence, etc.).

The trauma includes a singular affective impact, specific to each person. Thus the emotional intensity depends on the perception of the subject and his defensive capacities, and is by consequences subjective.


Emergency defense mechanisms

Front to this trauma, an individual sets up “emergency” defensive mechanisms to protect himself. It can be denial, projection, imagination, repression of affects, passive / aggressive behavior…. This is the first phase of psychic operation.

What characterizes the defense mechanisms is above all their homeostatic purpose. Their goals are to protect the subject, preventing him from being immobilized by anxiety and depression. However, they can be more or less adapted, in particular according to the context of their use and the rigidity of their expression (Anaut, 2005).

As a reminder, we propose Alain Braconnier’s definition to define defense mechanisms (1998): “The notion of defense mechanism encompasses all the means used by the ego to master, control and channel internal and external dangers”.

Boris Cyrulnik (2001) proposes the concepts of early scaffolding (ego bodybuilding) and adaptive crash reactions (costly but defensive).


Integration of shock and repair

The second phase involves abandoning or replacing certain emergency defenses (denial, projection, etc.). More mature, more suitable long-term defense mechanisms are favored. For example creativity, humor, intellectualization, altruism, sublimation … Claude de Tichey (2001) speaks of development mechanisms on which the individual can rely in order to hope to deal with conflictualities and tensions.

On the other hand, a process of mentalization is taking place. It’s about making sense of the trauma. For Claude de Tichey, defense mechanisms help to build short-term resilience front of the trauma, whereas mentalization alone is able to structure it more sustainably in the long term.

For Debray (1991), mentalization refers to “the capacity of the individual to tolerate, even to treat or even to negotiate intrapsychic anxiety and interpersonal or intrapsychic conflicts”. Finally, for Bergeret (1991) mentalization corresponds to “the mental use that we are going to make of the imaginary”.

The expression of a new narrative identity (which we will present in more details in a next article) may allow a positive identity component, a coherence of the self. The work of verbal representation will not modify the trauma, but will transform its representation.


Protective or risk factors

The protective factors are varied. The most often cited are, with regard to the resilient subject, self-esteem, sociability, the gift of arousing sympathy, a certain sense of humor, a life project … the entourage, a united family or at least a parent or a loving partner, in whom he trusts and who trust him; and, more broadly, social support. But resilience does not mean the absence of risk or total protection (M. Manciaux, 2001).

If family relationships can have a protective role, on the contrary, pathologies of family links can constitute traumatic contexts for the individual (psychological, physical and abuse), or even the exposure of the individual to unmanageable situations for him. This is the case with so-called parented or adultized children, p. ex. some children with mentally ill parents or severely socially failing parents … Thus, the family can protect or become traumatic.

Analysis of a subject’s defense mechanisms can identify rigid and / or energy-expensive defensive processes (eg, persistence of emergency defenses). The objective would then be to set up support to transform the suffering forms of resilience into truly salutogenic resilient processes.


Natural and adapted resilience

Front of chronic adversity and potentially traumatic events, some people cope without presenting psychopathological disorders that allow a clinical diagnosis to be made. Ionescu called the process behind this finding “natural resilience” because it is built without the help, without the intervention of mental health specialists. Conversely, some people need support. Ionescu (2004) proposes the concept “assisted resilience”.

Support for psychotrauma and therapeutic practices

Too strong emotion upsets, alters the functioning of the brain.

Most researchers and practitioners agree that resilience is a potential present in everyone. From this perspective, Michel Lemay (1999) describes it as: “a great health reserve available to each individual”. Resilience can be developed differently according to the individuals, their singular characteristics, according to the stages of psychological development, the life cycle and socio-environmental circumstances.


Immediate psychological intervention

We must distinguish between early support and long-term support. The last one is intended for patients who suffer from a psycho-traumatic syndrome constituted, lasting or even chronicized, and installed at the end of the post-immediate period (so called because of this period of incubation, meditation, contemplation or rumination) (Crocq, 2004).

The early support means that you first have to secure a pre-verbally injured person. But we must not force them. Indeed, some traumatized people feel the need to talk right away, but may not feel the need to talk about their trauma. However, they feel the need to speak, in the sense that speaking has a much more affective than informative function (Cyrulnik, 2018).

What is essential is that people have the choice to speak as well as to be silent, to grit their teeth and not to talk about it. If we force a person to speak, the risk is that he will add a verbal source to the trauma and, therefore, it makes the situation worse (Bonnano, 2004). To speak is not therefore to recite the trauma. It is about developing, or adding another verbal source to memory following the verbal source of the trauma.


Longer-term psychological intervention

The clinical pictures in question are those of traumatic neurosis (or more generally of the chronic psycho-traumatic syndrome), comprising its three aspects of manifestations of reviviscence, non-specific symptoms (also called “associated”) anxiety, asthenic, somatoform or behavioral. , and the alteration of the personality after the impact of the trauma. The therapeutic techniques used include, on the one hand, the prescription of psychotropic drugs aimed at reducing the disturbing symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and depressive inhibition. Secondly, it includes the management of trauma therapy, which aimed at making to discover to the person the deep meaning of his traumatic experience and to inscribe this experience thus endowed with meaning in the continuity of his life story. But, whatever they are (cognitive-behavioralists, hypnotics, psychotherapeutic support or psychoanalytic inspiration), these techniques are linked to the cathartic method advocated by Freud since 1893, in its two aspects. First to revive the event in “statu nascendi” (destructuring and reorganization) with all the load of affects that have remained stuck. Secondly to create association. That means to re-inscribe the event in the great complex of the patient’s personal signifiers (Crocq, 2010).

Therapeutic interviews are individual and scheduled over a long period of time (some provide healing in a few months, others only provide partial improvement, despite a folow up of several years). It should be noted that there are also discussion groups for traumatized patients (from the same event or from different events), providing mostly partial but appreciable improvements.


The resilience model

Thus the resilience model complements the classic approach to vulnerability, risk factors and psychopathology. Indeed, resilience enlarges the perspectives of clinical practices by supplementing the consideration of “pathogenic characteristics” by also “salutogenic/positive characteristics” …

Today there are many measures of resilience. This variety highlights the difficulty of measuring resilience in a relevant and operational way (Leys, 2018).

Resilience support programs can attempt to stimulate or develop modes of protection based on individual characteristics that already exist or to be developed in a subject. Like for example: intellectual efficiency, autonomy and efficiency dealing with the environment, the feeling of own value, interpersonal skills and empathy, anticipation and planning, the sense of humor.


Mobilizing resources

For professionals, developing resilience requires a different perspective on reality, in order to make better use of intervention strategies. This view seeks, beyond symptoms and behaviors, to detect and mobilize the resources of people, those around them and the community. It leads to abandon all fatalistic determinism, all idea of automatic transgenerational reproduction and all perfectionism, so that the person and the family seek, release and build themselves a path of life (M. Manciaux, 2001).

If we situate resilience in a context of daily adversity, and not necessarily traumatic, the use of the enneagram can be a good tool to develop the capacities of relational adaptation and to mobilize the resources of the people.

Conclusion; resilience & sense

The definition of resilience refers to a new personal development after a traumatic crash.

Resilience is not acquired definitively, but is in constant development. Thus a person, deemed to be resilient, may encounter breaks or gaps in resilience during an accumulation of stress or trauma. In addition, the process of resilience often mentioned in children or from childhood seems to be able to appear at different stages of life. Thus, we observe the emergence of the resilient process at any age (including old age). Situating mentalization in relation to the temporal continuum leads us to understand why resilience is never absolute but inevitably fluctuates over time (Tichey de, 2001).


Narrative identity

What is important for the development of resilience is not only the way people look at themselves front of adversity, through their perception of the situation, their projection into the future, etc., but also the way other people look at an injured person.

The individual, looking back on his past, will be able, by expressing himself through speech, writing, drawing, theater, altruism or any other mode of cultural expression, to carry out a work of cognitive reorganization. To give a sense to his past. Which will make possible to the person to lift his denial and his cleavage, and to become whole, coherent again. His narrative identity finally appeased will allow him to stand up and  simply to express

“I am the one who experienced the crash, who healed more or less well. This is with that you will have to establish your new relationships”

« Je suis celui qui a connu le fracas, qui a plus ou moins bien cicatrisé, c’est avec ça que vous aurez à établir vos nouvelles relations » (B. Cyrulnik, 2001).

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