By Nathan Brown
Dean of the School of Psychology, Family and Community

Photos by Jim Lott and The Associated Press

Dean Nathan Brown teaches that "learned optimism" helps people manage stress in their lives. As a Christian, he believes there is a sound basis for such optimism.

Resilience in the Christian Life

"I just don't understand. How can they both have gone through the same terrible things, and yet respond so differently?"

This was the tearful question posed by the mother sitting in my clinical office. The year was 1994, and the Northridge earthquake had occurred only a few weeks earlier. In fact, as I greeted her in my waiting room, the building swayed in the grip of a moderate aftershock.

But clearly this mother's mind wasn't on seismology. She was more concerned about the emotional and relational tremors her family experienced following a quake that had flattened their home, injured several close friends and left her two sons in very different emotional worlds.

As she told her story, a puzzle emerged. One of her sons, Jason, had responded to the devastation of the quake with clear-minded and adaptive intensity. While he forthrightly acknowledged the stress that the quake had brought into his life, it hadn't consumed him. Jason set about helping in the cleanup of their home, spent time connecting with his friends for support and recreation, and even volunteered at the nearby Red Cross emergency center.

Jared, however, responded quite differently to this tragedy. He had become increasingly timid, withdrawn and jittery. He was losing confidence academically and socially. Recently he was even complaining of severe headaches. While his brother seemed to be actually growing in the midst of tragedy, Jared was in a clear downward spiral of anxiety and physical distress.

Most of us can relate to this mother's confusion. In fact, after the recent earthquake in Seattle, some readers of Response may be asking themselves the same question: Why do some people seem to cope remarkably well with bad situations, while others are especially vulnerable? In particular, what factors promote the capacity of an individual to respond effectively to traumatic experiences of all kinds?

In short, what are the keys to resilience?

This is a crucial question that psychologists have been researching for well over two decades, and some very interesting findings on the nature of resilience have emerged.

Resilience is a biopsychosocial phenomenon.

"Biopsychosocial" is a lengthy word that reflects an ongoing revolution in psychology and the other mental health disciplines. Its meaning is actually quite simple: Most important characteristics of human beings cannot be reduced simply to a matter of genetics, nor can they be explained entirely by inborn personality traits, nor even fully understood in terms of social or environmental elements. Rather, a biopsychosocial view of persons carefully teases out the complex interaction of these factors in people's daily lives.

Jared's anxiety, for example, may have been a function of several interrelated factors that were triggered by the intense trauma of the quake: a biological predisposition toward physical sensitivity, learned patterns of dysfunctional thinking and poor social support.

The empirical research on resilience is clear. The ability to rise above traumatic experience and adapt in a healthy way is a complex and profoundly biopsychosocial phenomenon. Moreover, the research is equally clear that one's level of resilience is not fixed, and that it can even be increased. One key element of resilience that anyone can cultivate is learned optimism.

Learned optimism is a basic skill of resilient people.

There is a saying among psychologists that it is not the amount or intensity of stressors in a person's life that leads to emotional problems per se. Instead, what a person believes about those stressors and how he or she subsequently responds is key to adjustment. This principle has been borne out over and over again in the empirical research on stress. In fact, this is a finding of very practical significance, for it suggests that cognitive factors and behavioral responses to stress play a pervasive role in the development of stress-related conditions. This is important because we can do something about our habits of thinking and about our actions.

For example, a person who focuses attention on the aspects of life that he or she cannot control is likely to respond ineffectively to the world around him or her. Such a person has an elevated chance, over time, of developing stress-related conditions such as anxiety, depression, even physical stress disorders. This is a cognitive and behavioral pattern known as learned helplessness, and psychologists have linked it to a wide range of emotional and physical stress-related conditions.

On the other hand, a person who cultivates the habit of focusing attention on those aspects of a stressful situation over which he or she has some measure of influence (however small that influence may be), and who takes corresponding action, is more likely to demonstrate resilience under stress and thus experience fewer stress-related symptoms. Martin Seligman, a leading researcher on resilience, sees this characteristic as learned optimism, which he defines as "a set of skills for how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal setback" (Seligman, 1998, p. 207).

Christians have a profound basis for resilience.

For psychologists, learned optimism is a promising and powerful tool for helping people in distress. As a Christian who is a practicing psycholo- gist, I am interested in what a faith perspective brings to this coping principle. In fact, I believe that as followers of Christ we have a potent reality on which to base learned optimism. Let me suggest four ways in which the Christian faith can be vitally relevant to the practice of learned optimism:

Cultivate new habits of thinking. Scripture tells us that we are not our own. We belong to a loving God who calls us to be good stewards of our minds as well as our bodies. As a Christian, if I find myself immersed in negative, hopeless thoughts about myself and my circumstances, then I must recognize that as a matter of stewardship God calls me to re-examine those habitual thoughts, and to seek to see myself and my situation through God's eyes.

Remembering that we are God's and not our own can transform the way we think about the uncontrollable aspects of a bad situation. Christians do not believe in a random and impersonal universe, but in a God who is intimately involved in our affairs and who acts in love for us, even in those circumstances that we can neither understand nor control. This belief allows us to focus on those aspects of a bad situation we can have influence over, and when we face the things that are in fact out of our control, we can move beyond learned optimism and commend those things to God.

Take God's promises to heart — and mind. As Christians we have a solid basis for optimism and hope. This does not mean that we are called to be Pollyannas in the midst of genuinely hard times, always pretending that everything will be OK. Sometimes in this world, things just don't get better. God has not promised us escape from trauma and pain.

Instead, God's promise to us came in the form of his Son, who experienced pain on our behalf, whose Spirit is with us in the midst of the pain of our own lives, and who continually draws us to himself. The promises of faith we find in Scripture provide a potent framework for positive thinking, not only about ourselves but also about the distress in which we may find ourselves.

Draw upon the resources of the community of faith. Another cornerstone of resilience in the psychological literature is social support. Many people tend to withdraw from relationships in the midst of stress and trauma, and this withdrawal reduces their ability to cope effectively. As Christians we belong to a Body. Imperfect as it is, the Church can be a source of great comfort and healing in hard times.

Engage in service to others. There are few antidotes for stress more effective than choosing to serve others in the midst of our own pain and suffering. There is a healing and renewing perspective that comes from serving those in greater need than oneself that even the secular literature on stress affirms.

I believe that the Apostle Paul was thinking of faith as a foundation for resilience when he wrote these encouraging words to Timothy: "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love and a sound mind." We have been given power to respond effectively to stressful circumstances, love to connect with the people of God and to serve others, and a sound mind to adopt healthy habits of thinking about ourselves and the setbacks we all face. These are gifts of faith that build resilience as we face the inevitable earthquakes in our lives.

Suggestions for further reading:

Backus, William and Chapian, Marie. Telling Yourself the Truth. Bethany House, 2000.

Burns, David and Beck, Aaron. Feeling Good: A Guide to the New Mood Therapy. Harper Collins, 1999.

Seligman, Martin. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Seligman, Martin. What You Can Change ... and What You Can't. Fawcett Books, 1993.

Nathan Brown's experience with earthquakes and resilience is not merely academic. In 1994, just as he and his family were in the process of moving from California to Seattle, the San Fernando quake severely damaged his own home, rendering it uninhabitable. He describes the process of coping with this disaster, and his family's subsequent journey to the Northwest, as "God's interesting way of nudging me onto an unexpected path that ultimately led to a new calling at SPU."

Today, Brown is dean of the new School of Psychology, Family and Community at Seattle Pacific University. A faculty member at Seattle Pacific since 1996, he led the development of the doctoral program in clinical psychology, the first Ph.D. offered in the University's history.

Brown holds a master's degree in theology as well as a doctorate in clinical psychology from Fuller Seminary's Graduate School of Psychology. His clinical specialties include the treatment of anxiety, depression and stress-related conditions. He is also active in research, and is currently involved in a project in India investigating the cross-cultural aspects of stress and burnout in the fields of ministry and missions.

Please read our disclaimer. Send any questions, comments or correspondence about Response to
or call 206-281-2051.
Copyright © 2001 University Communications, Seattle Pacific University.

Seattle Pacific University
Office of University Communications
3307 Third Avenue West
Seattle, Washington 98119-1997
United States of America