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Relationship of resilience to personality, coping, and psychiatric symptoms in young adults

Laura Campbell-Sills
Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego
Sharon L. Cohan
Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego
Department of Psychology, San Diego State University
Murray B. Stein
Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego
Department of Psychology, San Diego State University
VA San Diego Healthcare System

Published in 'Behaviour Research and Therapy', 44, 585-599, 2006

This questionnaire-based study investigated the relationship of resilience to personality traits, coping styles, and the emotional and physical symptoms associated with psychological distress.  A sample of 132 undergraduate students took part in the study.  Most participants were female (72%) and the average age was 18-19 years.  

Resilience was assessed using a scale designed to measure peoples' ability to cope with stress and adversity and included items such as, 'I tend to bounce back after illness, injury, or other hardships' and 'I am able to handle unpleasant or painful feelings like sadness, fear, and anger'.  Respondents rated each item on a scale of 0 ('not true at all') to 4 ('true nearly all the time').  Three different coping styles were measured by asking participants the extent to which they used each one when faced with a stressful situation.  Coping strategies were 'task-oriented' (e.g. 'I focus on the problem and see how I can solve it'), 'emotion-oriented' (e.g. 'I blame myself for being too emotional about the situation'), and 'avoidance-oriented' (e.g. 'I take time off and get away from the situation').  Personality traits (i.e. neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) were measured using an instrument widely accepted and extensively utilised within psychological research and participants completed a questionnaire about the incidence of emotional and physical symptoms associated with psychological distress during the previous week.  They were also required to complete a self-report questionnaire assessing five types of childhood trauma: emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse.

The results demonstrated that resilience is significantly associated with well-established personality constructs and measures of coping, trauma, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.  Resilience was negatively associated with neuroticism (i.e. poor coping skills, difficulty controlling impulses, and the tendency to experience negative emotions).  People with low neuroticism scores are generally considered to be well adjusted, emotionally stable, and less vulnerable to emotional distress therefore it is not surprising that highly neurotic individuals are less resilient.  

Resilience was positively associated with extraversion and conscientiousness.  Extraversion reflects positive emotional style, high levels of social interaction and activity, and the capacity for interpersonal closeness.  The positive relationship between resilience and conscientiousness was explained by the use of task-oriented coping, as the determined approach of conscientious individuals is compatible with this style of coping.  The results therefore suggest that the tendency to respond to stressful situations with an active, problem-solving approach promotes resilience in conscientious individuals.

However, the authors suggest possible cultural differences in these associations, as the results indicated differing strengths in the contributions of conscientiousness and task-oriented coping to resilience between Caucasian participants and those belonging to ethnic minority groups.  The relationship was stronger for the ethnic minority groups and the authors suggest this may be due to conscientiousness being more highly valued by certain cultures thus less emphasis is placed on emotional reactions to adversity.  Clearly, further research is required in order to investigate these findings in more depth.

Resilience appeared to moderate the relationship between reports of childhood emotional neglect and current psychiatric symptoms.  Individuals who reported relatively high levels of childhood trauma also reported increased psychological distress, but only if they scored low on resilience.  One would expect the results to demonstrate that people who had experienced low levels of emotional neglect during childhood and scored high on resilience would exhibit the least psychiatric symptoms.  However, the lowest psychiatric symptoms were among individuals who scored high on resilience but also experienced significant emotional neglect as a child.  The authors therefore suggest that resilient individuals do not just recover from adversity but they grow and become stronger as a result of their traumatic experiences, more so than resilient individuals who have come from more stable environments.

As a result of these findings, the authors suggest that resilience shown in youth may act as a buffer against adult stress.  Furthermore, people may be able to learn how to become more resilient in the face of stress and adversity by developing task-oriented coping skills and by increasing their opportunities to experience situations that trigger positive emotions and/or social support.

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