Resilience, According to Dr. Vanessa Kennedy | Interviewed by Paul Manley

“As human beings, we experience difficult emotions—sadness, anger, disillusionment—when faced with a traumatic experience. Giving ourselves permission to feel these emotions and seeking support to help us cope with them are important tools to develop resilience.”


Resilience is one of many psychological concepts that has been given a great deal of attention in recent years. All you have to do is Google “resilience,” and the first article that appears organically is “Building Your Resilience,” written by the American Psychological Association (APA), followed by many other how-to articles. Since mental health has become commonplace conversation and something that even some public figures are opening up about, self-empowerment through resilience has become ubiquitous. The strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity is an enigma that we as human beings long to understand. Our very own Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, told us what resilience means to her, some examples from her personal experience, and five myths she commonly sees associated with the subject. Her thoughts were also featured in a FAST COMPANY article.

PM: How would you define resilience?

VK: Resilience is the process of coping well with adversity and moving forward in an adaptive way. When we face challenges, loss, or traumatic experiences in our lives, we may subscribe to some common myths about resilience when struggling to make sense of our overwhelming mix of emotions.

Q: How could one practice resilience within their own life?

VK: Resilience involves coping with the aftermath of an event, but it is also about preventive care and wellness. Cultivating positive thoughts and supportive relationships goes a long way in helping us to deal with challenges when they arise. When we can focus on solutions, immerse ourselves in activities we enjoy, build trust in our relationships, and have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we have laid the groundwork for handling a difficult experience.

PM: Do you have a quote to sum up resilience?

VK: A mindset that empowers us to look at adversity as an opportunity to grow and change is beautifully demonstrated by the Latin phrase "succisa virescit," which when translated states "that which gets cut down, grows back stronger."

PM: Can you give any examples of resilience from your personal or professional life?

VK: I worked at the Menninger Clinic for 8 years in Houston, TX, where I was born, raised, and attended college. My parents live in a suburb of Houston, as did two of my siblings and much of my extended family. My whole life was essentially rooted there. Selling our house in Houston and moving to Austin, TX, with my eight-month-old baby boy, an eight-year-old stepdaughter, and a new job with a residential treatment center that wasn’t even officially open yet definitely required resilience! I needed to feel the stress mixed with excitement mixed with sheer terror of helping to get a new program off the ground and create something meaningful. I relied on established support from friends and family back home cheering me on, as well as the hope, creativity, and enthusiasm of the new team of caring individuals I met, who wanted to build a unique place that would benefit others. I feel very grateful to have adapted to a major transition in my life. I’ve been able to cultivate work relationships with new people who helped me to grow and change, and the experience has allowed me to evolve into a more versatile and independent version of myself.

PM:What are the common myths about resilience you see?


1) “I need to be strong.”

The process of resilience involves distress. As human beings, we experience difficult emotions – sadness, anger, disillusionment – when faced with a traumatic experience. Giving ourselves permission to feel these emotions and seeking support to help us cope with them are important tools to develop resilience.

2) “You either have it or you don’t.”

Resilience is not a genetic trait. While research suggests that confidence in your abilities and problem-solving skill are key ingredients in developing resilience, these elements can be learned and cultivated through the encouragement we receive from others, the actions we take, and the way we choose to think about our distress.

3) “I should be able to do this on my own.”

Research shows that resilience is just as much about having supportive relationships as it is about our internal strengths. Opening up about how we are doing, allowing others to help us, or watching how others have coped with adversity can remind us that we are not alone.

4) “I should feel better by now.”

Having resilience is not like turning on a light switch. It may be more like strengthening muscle groups in the body – there may be some areas of life that improve while others may take more time or effort. For example, a person who loses their home to a fire may furnish a new home, but it may take much longer to emotionally accept the loss or help family members adapt.

5) “I want things to be like they used to.”

Some adverse or stressful events may change things so that they do not go back to "normal." Adapting involves developing a “new normal” in which we can evolve and even thrive. Divorce, moving to a new place, obtaining a life-altering injury, or losing a loved one are examples of events that change our world permanently, but can present an opportunity for growth.