Resiliency: More than a buzzword?


By Rona M. Macdonald & Emily Nalder

Resilient food systems; resilient cities; resilient communities; resilient individuals: the age of resiliency is upon us. As we search for ways to respond and to find meaning amid the COVID-19 lockdown and unprecedented social change, just how resilient are you feeling today? Now that talk of resiliency envelopes us, is this truly a good thing?

When individuals or as members of a collective are showing resiliency, being resilient, or demonstrating resiliency, this assurance may be especially welcome in challenging times regardless of whether we are feeling resilient or not. Indeed, it seems that resiliency is: (a) something that is shown, demonstrated, or felt; (b) a quality located somewhere inside a person; and, (c) a positive affirmation. But are understandings of resiliency clear-cut?

Given the wide-ranging debates about the nature of resiliency within and across diverse disciplines, and about concerns as broad as the planet’s health down to the individual’s sense of well-being, the answer is no. Resilience/resiliency can be understood in many ways in everyday conversation and in scientific research. Here we use the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘resiliency’ interchangeably.

As researchers of resiliency in occupational therapy, we are exploring how rehabilitation care can be improved by considerations of resiliency. A central part of our work is to ask fundamental questions about what resiliency is and how different people might understand resiliency (e.g., people living with a traumatic brain injury [TBI]).

Because history and culture strongly shape understanding, we start with a short reflection on the origins of terms before exploring how thinking about resiliency as a phenomenon has changed. We close on a point of concern―that “weaponization” of resiliency―could be used against the individual.

Image source: Johnhain (pixabay)

History and Culture, Origins and Images

What ideas and images come to mind when you hear the word ‘resiliency?’ The meaning of words can appear obvious. But all words have histories, a kind of “cultural baggage” (1) which work to shape assumptions.

The Latin root resilīre in resilience and resiliency refers to “movement in the form of jumping, springing back, or rebounding” (2). This idea of movement or change is carried into the definition of resilient within the health context: the “quality or fact of being able to recover quickly or easily from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, illness” (2). Being resilient also suggests a form of hardiness, easy adaptability, or bouncing back. The word origins shape our images or ideas of resiliency as something being overcome quickly and easily, a swift and robust bouncing back to wellness.

Although some people in rehabilitation do recover quickly, this is not always the case. Instead, progress and recovery from illness and injury can be slow, hard work, less about jumping, springing, and rebounding than one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. The association of resilience with ‘bouncing back’ also implies attainment of previous levels of wellness, as though people are unchanged by their significant illness experience.

The word history of resiliency is therefore misleading and could set up unrealistic expectations around how people respond to illness (e.g., a fall, stroke, TBI). When considering the role resiliency might play in rehabilitation, we must be aware of and critical about our assumptions about resiliency. We must also understand how resiliency has been shaped by different research traditions.

The word history of resiliency is therefore misleading and could set up unrealistic expectations around how people respond to illness.

Shifting Understandings of Resiliency

Scientific research has added to our everyday understanding of resiliency. The health and psychological literature have tended to approach and treat resiliency as a mental/cognitive capacity, trait, or characteristic; in other words, resiliency is assumed to be located somewhere inside people. Resilience is thereby taken to be a quality that can be developed, recognized, and measured through the performance of certain behaviours or in response to challenging events. Resiliency is commonly viewed as a positive capacity, as the following examples illustrate: “Resilience card: Build resilience seek support keep going” (3), and “Fostering a resilient medical community” (4).

However, it is also common to view resiliency as an exceptional quality that not everyone can possess or demonstrate. For instance, in a keynote address to occupational therapists titled “Resilience and human adaptability: Who rises above adversity?” Fine (5) explores the puzzle of why some people and not others “rise above adversity”. In the ‘exceptional’ view of resiliency (i.e., resiliency shown by only the exceptional few), Fine understands resilience as a form of personal fitness or capacity that allows some people “to endure the unendurable”, who have the “strength to bounce back to normal or even supernormal levels of functioning.”

It is true, of course true, that we have all been moved by stories of remarkable individuals, who, apparently against all odds and with considerable grit and determination, have been able to re/construct their lives and make meaning of their disabilities. In rehabilitation, exceptional stories of resiliency are cause for celebration, and yet the idea that resiliency is associated with exceptional people is restrictive and ethically concerning. What about those of us who are not exceptional, who do not bounce back to normal or to “supernormal levels of functioning?”

The idea that resiliency is associated with exceptional people is restrictive and ethically concerning. What about those of us who are not exceptional, who do not bounce back to normal?

Are people who do not spring back from illness and trauma lacking in resiliency? Or do we need a broader and more inclusive set of ways to see and think about resiliency? The contemporary understandings of resiliency are more democratic.

Exceptional to Ordinary, Simple to Complex

The ‘exceptional’ view of resiliency has been upended in the academic realm following ground-breaking psychological research by Ann Masten. Masten (6,7) demonstrated that resiliency was not something extraordinary, but instead, the capacity of every person, or as “ordinary magic”. Therefore, resiliency is seen less as a trait inside a person but with more nuance as the processes and interactions that happen between individuals and their environment.

To the TBI resiliency collective, resiliency is an umbrella term for a set of processes and relationships such as: (a) individual characteristics (e.g., feelings of hope and inner strength); (b) support networks (e.g., family, friends, services); and (c) features of the broader environment (e.g., having a living space, financial resources, transportation, learning opportunities).

Resiliency therefore ceases to be something unitary, fixed, and predetermined, but instead becomes something fluid, ever-changing, and potentially plural (resiliencies); there are multiple pathways through which individuals ‘bounce back’ or find new meanings following adversity (8). For example, Ungar (9,10) discusses resiliency as processes of navigation toward resources/supports needed to maintain well-being, and the negotiation of supports and resources that are experienced in relevant and meaningful ways.

A key implication for rehabilitation is to pivot the focus of services towards strengths-based (versus deficit-based) approaches to care (11,12) with focus on building supportive environments that foster resiliency. The prospect of developing resiliency-informed care approaches in rehabilitation is therefore important and ground-breaking. However, one particular challenge must be carefully addressed: the risk that resilience in rehabilitation could be weaponized.

Image source: OpenClipart-Vectors (pixabay)

The Weaponization of Resiliency

Although complaints about the weaponization of resiliency are currently found in educational settings (13), such objections are nevertheless concerning within health contexts. A preliminary exploration suggests that charges of weaponization stem from ways of thinking or talking about resiliency that add stress to people in situations of vulnerability. Instead of being meaningful supports and services tailored to the individual, resiliency is being implemented in ways that are perceived to be oppressive.

The weaponization controversy is an important reminder that rehabilitation research is not neutral or apolitical, especially in the context of health policies and practices that place the onus on individuals (and their families/friends) to take sole responsibility for health.

Like how we all need supports and resources to respond with resiliency to the COVID-19 lockdown, if the promise of resiliency-informed rehabilitation is to be realized, people impacted by complex illness must be able to have the right supports and resources to be healthy and well. If, as Gibson (14) states, rehabilitation is “an enterprise dedicated to helping people not only survive but thrive”, then sustained critical attention must be paid to the weaponization of resiliency. Only then will the development of strengths-based services through a focus on resiliency be sustained.

So then, is resiliency more than a buzzword?  It can be.

To hear more from this author and her award-winning doctoral thesis, listen to CBC Radio on Demand: Ideas with Nahlah Ayed, “The Rise of the Glorified Spinster.”


Featured illustration by Garrett MacLaren for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Macdonald RM, Nalder E. Resiliency: More than a buzzword? rehabINK. 2020:9. Available from:

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