Resilience is not something we're born with--it's a set of learned behaviors, and it takes strategizing to build. That was the take-home message of an APA 2003 Annual Convention session on the grit required to navigate life's difficulties.

It's also a main message of the APA Practice Directorate's ongoing "Road to Resilience" public education campaign, launched to help people after Sept. 11, 2001, and since broadened to aid with both major crises and daily stressors.

The campaign includes a documentary, "Aftermath: The Road to Resilience," and an educational packet, which APA and its members have been using to inform the public. Members who spoke at the Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice-sponsored session described how they've used the campaign materials to help their communities, and themselves.

"Out of tragic life events, positive things can come," said session chair Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, of Boston's Children's Hospital. "It's wisdom that's been collected in the APA materials. It's an example of APA working for you."

Besides the message that resilience is not automatic, said Henderson Daniel, other key points the campaign emphasizes are:

  • Resilience is a personal journey, but it affects the lives of others.

  • Everyone experiences resilience--it's ordinary, not extraordinary.

  • Resilience requires time, effort and personal improvement through small steps.

Strengthening communities

Even though resilience requires personal work, noted Henderson Daniel, community support is a critical aspect. She advised psychologists to mold resilience messages to the needs of different cultures and communities.

Putting that advice into action is private practitioner Josephine Johnson, PhD, a former president of the Michigan Psychological Association. She described how she's adapted the APA resilience model for adolescents in substance abuse treatment in Southgate, Mich. Many of the teens, she said, have experienced abuse, neglect, parental alcoholism or family violence--all contributors to their drug use.

Johnson seeks to help them "rebound," a word the teens prefer to resilience, by translating its lessons into their vernacular:

  • Make connections. Find a positive group or someone whose head's on straight.

  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. "Stuff" happens; step over it.

  • Accept that change is a part of living. Realize that some things change forever; change the things you can.

  • Move toward your goals. Accomplishing something little is a big thing.

  • Take decisive actions. Do something!

  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery. Troubles can make you stronger.

  • Nurture a positive view of yourself. Even if you aren't convinced, "Fake it 'til you make it!"

  • Keep things in perspective. Maybe everything isn't as big a deal as you make it.

  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. Visualize what you want; expect the best.

  • Take care of yourself. Exercise your body; nurture your spirit.

Similarly, Michael C. Roberts, PhD, director of the clinical child psychology program at the University of Kansas, has been using resilience concepts in projects in his community. He and his students aim to improve the prospects of at-risk children and families through local programs.

For example, they've been providing resilience-oriented activities and measuring change at the Alvin Ailey Dance Camps for inner-city children in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan. Their aim is to augment the confidence-building dance skills and self- discipline children learn. And research they've conducted on the camps reveals that, indeed, children show higher resilience behaviors after camp completion.

Faculty and students also work with Kansas-based Success by Six, a parenting training program. In addition, Roberts promotes the use of multisystemic family therapy--which builds on families' strengths to help them cope--in the area's community mental health center.

A personal story

Finding ways to cope is just as important on a more individual level, said Col. Larry C. James, PhD, of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who described his recovery after he was deployed in support of the global war on terrorism.

During his service overseas, his mother became ill, several relatives died and he sustained a hairline fracture to his hip. He faced volumes of mail and e-mail on his return, which only added to his stress.

To handle it all, James drew on materials that APA had prepared for the military community, and posted on the Web at http://apahelpcenter.org/resilience/homecoming.html, to create his own acronym for resilience's key components--"an army way of conceptualizing things," he said:



--Spiritual needs.


--Looking for ways to be positive.

--Involved in your care.

--Evolving process.

--New ways of coping.

--Care for your needs.

--Every day.

Using those strategies, James allotted himself plenty of time for family, bed rest and exercise. It was, he said, "an existential journey through which I found new ways of being effective."

Further Reading

Interested in educating the public about resilience, or infusing it into psychologists' education and training? Tap the APA resilience campaign materials at http://apahelpcenter.org/resilience.