It was after her block of flats burned down that Sadi Khan thought, finally, things could not get worse. She had married at 19, and for four years her husband had subjected her to horrific violence on an almost daily basis. She had been punched and kicked, financially controlled and constantly told she was stupid; once, a friend arrived at her flat and found her lying unconscious after an attack. So the day she accidentally set fire to her flat while cooking was simultaneously the day she lost everything and the day she started again. “He’s beaten me, I’ve lost everything,” she says. “What more can go wrong?”
Her father arrived the following day, and wanted to take her home. “I think that was the turning point,” says Khan. “When my dad was in front of me, saying: ‘Come home, let me look after you.’ I thought: ‘No, I don’t need looking after. I’m still alive. I burned the flat down, I’m still alive. I’ve been beaten up, I should have been dead five times over, but I’m still alive.’”
Her resilience, she believes, got her through all that, as it would two divorces, a master’s degree, single parenthood, a cancer diagnosis and setting up a successful cultural training company, Noble Khan, which people told her would never work. She puts it all down to being encouraged as a child. “From a young age, my dad would say: ‘Try, try again. If you fail, get up again.’” As well as a natural tendency to look for the positives in a situation. “The flat burned down, but that meant I could move out. I lost everything, but it gave me an opportunity to buy stuff I actually wanted, not what was his.” Her faith also helped “massively. I would say: ‘What is the lesson in this?’” There are still days when she feels down, “and then all of a sudden, it’s like: ‘Yeah, and look – you’ve got through it.’”
Over the past decade, resilience has become a buzzword – touted as a protective talisman against the effects of trauma, which individuals, communities and whole economies are told to cultivate. Schools are being taught how to encourage resilience in children; armies are trained in it at enormous expense. During the Covid-19 pandemic, resilience is being tested on a global scale – not just in how countries, economies and healthcare systems cope, but in how each of us gets through the day.
So how are we doing? “I think people have adapted pretty well,” says George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology who heads the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, and who is one of the leading resilience researchers. The crisis “has already been going on for a long time; we’ve been adapting”. This is not a surprise to him. His research has consistently shown that about two-thirds of people who are exposed to adverse events cope well. It doesn’t mean that people breeze through, but for most of us, it is within our ability to endure.
There is a tendency to use “resilience” as a vague synonym for strength or health, he says, but to him the term means “being able to continue functioning relatively normally” in adversity. “People struggle, but they basically continue to show a stable trajectory of health – mental and physical.”
Is there a limit to resilience? Will one more adverse event push you over the edge? “There is very little data,” says Bonanno, “but we did one paper where we found it didn’t make much difference whether it was one event or multiple events. We found that people who were going to be resilient were going to be resilient. The outcomes are about the same.” However, he admits that, without more research, “I wouldn’t say that’s a rock-solid conclusion.”
Chronic stress, however, is harder to cope with than a single event – and the ongoing pandemic is a chronic stressor. “An acute isolated event happens, it’s over, and you have this period where you adapt to it. Chronic stress wears us out and I think that’s happening to a lot of people during the Covid crisis. It’s a simmer, but it’s been going on for months, and it’s starting to wear us out. And our capacity to adapt begins to break down.”
Of course, the pandemic has hit some people much harder than others – for some, it has meant the deaths of family members and friends, the destruction of livelihoods, or increased exposure to unsafe environments, such as domestic violence. But even if you are lucky enough to have been unscathed so far, many of us have felt a sense of loss during Covid, says Lucy Hone, adjunct senior fellow at University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and a director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience. “We’ve lost our assumptive world, the world we think we should be living in. I think it is really important for people to look back as this year ends, on all that they have managed to do. A huge component of resilience is mental and behavioural agility, and so this has been the year where the globe demonstrated its capacity for resilience. Look what we have managed to do. It’s really important to notice that. One of the components of resilience is self-efficacy – the belief that you can navigate whatever you are facing.” Most people, she says, “have an inherent capacity to cope with tough times, and we’re seeing that in vast numbers”.
Which is not to say it can or should be easy, or that pain can be magicked away. “I think what resilience doesn’t look like is toughening up, not crying, soldiering on, stiff upper lip,” says Hone. “It involves all emotions – it can involve anger and tears, lying in bed one day and saying: ‘I just can’t do this.’ It certainly can involve saying at the office: ‘Can someone help me on this project? Because right now, we’ve got this going on at home and that is consuming so much of my energy that I am definitely going to need some support on this.’ And that is not being weak – it is being realistic. It also involves being able to dial down your inner critic and showing yourself sufficient compassion to let yourself get through.”
Many things create resilience, some within your control and some not. “Social support is really important,” says Bonanno. “There are factors in your life, like how much stress you have, how many resources you have – having money helps, having education helps, being older actually helps, but none of these things are a magic bullet. Even if you have all these things, which most people don’t, it still doesn’t quite make you resilient. That’s because every event is different and we have to work it out each time. It’s very clear that nothing works every time.” Different strategies work for different people – what results in resilience is entirely individual.
It’s why he thinks many resilience training programmes can be useless, or even harmful. “Almost everything that we can identify that correlates with resilient outcomes – all the predictors of resilience – are very small effects; they move the needle a little bit. You could spend a lot of time trying to become more of one of these things, and it’s going to make you maybe a little bit more likely to be resilient.” We know, he adds, that “on average, two-thirds of the people exposed to highly adverse, potentially traumatic events come out showing this resilient pattern. If that’s the case, then doing a prophylactic intervention to make people resilient is going to include people who are already resilient, and maybe you’ll actually interfere with whatever they’re doing. You may make them self-conscious or confuse them.” He says he is not opposed to the idea of training resilience, “but rarely is it done with much thoughtfulness and much attention to the research”.
Instead, Bonanno, who is writing a book called The End of Trauma, prefers to think about teaching people to be flexible, rather than resilient, which involves “teaching people how to actively deal with stressors, so they can take advantage of whatever resources, whatever traits, whatever strengths they have. If they’re flexible, they can learn how to use those in a way that fits the particular situation. The flexibility idea is that you figure out what’s the best thing to do right here in this moment.” There is no simple solution, he says, where, for instance, learning to meditate will protect you should a calamity happen. “Mindfulness meditation might help for a particular type of problem, but it’s not going to help for another type of problem.”
The good news, he says, is we’re pretty good at adapting and often we do it without even knowing we’re doing it. We learn some aspects as small children – for instance, a parent or teacher will tell us how we’re expected to behave in a certain situation. Bonanno calls that “context sensitivity”. “It’s reading the context, reading what’s happening and decoding it so you know what you need to do.” When a flexible response works well, he says, “the outcome is resilience”.
Hone believes you can put yourself in a better position to create resilience, though she cautions there’s a limit to it. “Resilience comes from nature, nurture and culture. I think it is important to think of it from those three different levels.” It’s all very well expecting individuals to be responsible for their own resilience, but it doesn’t take into account huge external factors such as social inequalities, structural racism or underfunded support services.
Within the areas that we do have some control over, there are things we can do, including maintaining supportive networks and communities, learning to manage emotions, and “finding something to be connected to that is bigger than yourself, whether that is helping other people, or faith or religion, or having a mission or a cause like Black Lives Matter, or the environment, that you truly believe in and helps give your life purpose”.
Hone has been studying resilience since she became annoyed at its use as a buzzword. “I thought: ‘Does anyone know what this word actually means?’” She defines it as “steering through adversity and learning from it”. She doesn’t like the term “bouncing back”, which she knows from her own experience can be unrealistic and crass. In 2014, Hone’s 12-year-old daughter Abi was killed when a car crashed into the car she was travelling in with a friend, Ella, and her mother, Sally (who was a good friend of Hone). “After the girls died, I definitely didn’t feel very bouncy, but I was able to navigate, adapt, steer through adversity.”
As a resilience researcher, she uses her knowledge to help her endure the loss of her daughter. “I definitely had some factors in my favour – a strong, supportive family, a close-knit community, and I’m pretty optimistic by nature. I’d already experienced some adversity, so I was aware of the things that worked for me. But having the training definitely helped – things like being able to tell people what you need, being able to say: ‘Actually, just don’t hug me today.’ And then the next day, being able to say: ‘All change – please give me a hug.’”
She would also ask herself: “Is what I’m doing helping or harming me?” She says: “In my quest to survive Abi’s loss, that really helped. I would use that all the time – if I was sitting late at night looking through her photos, if I was hanging out in her bedroom, I’d think: ‘Seriously, is this going to help you, or is it going to harm you?’ It is such a powerful question.”
It can be helpful to us all, whether facing such a huge life-changing loss or something much less traumatic. “I used it a lot again in March, when the world was shutting down,” says Hone. “Immediately I quit my news notifications because having them crashing into my life and telling me how terrible things were in the world all the time was just not helping me. It’s really important to know you have a choice over the input into your world.”
Of the clients that Roberta Babb, a clinical psychologist, sees, those who struggle to be resilient “have quite a fixed mindset”. Those who are displaying resilience during this pandemic seem more willing and able to adapt and “have a realistic appraisal of the situation and accept what it is without judgment, and also mourn and let go of [the idea of the] future you thought would happen. And a sort of painful realisation that this is the new normal, and when you redefine this, you can let go of a hope that it will be better, and recognise that it’s just different.” She echoes much of Hone’s advice about nurturing support systems, asking for help and having a purpose. Facing your fears can be liberating, she says, because then “you can really focus on what you can control”.
The seeming relentlessness of the pandemic has been wearing. Babb suggests setting small goals. “I think that’s one thing with the pandemic – there’s no sense of achievement or completion.” Working towards and achieving a goal can bring a sense of accomplishment and progress, marking time when everything otherwise seems to stretch out, “and helps people maintain a hopeful outlook because you’ve got to think that good things will happen, and that can also help you feel gratitude”.
These are all things Khan put into place naturally. “My mindset is what I focus on,” she says. “I monitor my self-talk and I stop any negative talk. When it’s really tough and I want to give up, I remember all those who supported me in those dark years. I focus on the lesson to be learned when things go wrong, and look for the positive from a bad situation.” Remarkable though she is, the comforting thought – according to Bonanno’s research – is that most of us have the capacity to get through terrible times too.
• This article was amended on 26 November 2020. An earlier version referred to the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia University. To clarify: it is at Teachers College, Columbia University. Teachers College is affiliated with Columbia but is an independent, autonomous institution.