While researchers tend to focus on studying the few people who are harmed by an inability to handle stress, most people remain healthy even in high-stress environments. Understanding what makes most people resilient might help develop strategies for people who tend to be vulnerable to stress.
Resilience is the rule
In his study on resilience under military operational stress, Paul T. Bartone (2006) noted that research conducted on military personnel in Iraq focused on the 17% of US veterans who reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, without acknowledging or exploring the “remarkable resilience to… very severe or traumatic stress” (p. S132). Bartone argued that most survivors adjust “extremely well” without formal mental intervention and that most post-disaster psychological interventions result in “failure” and “appear to increase rather than decrease the incident of later psychological problems” (p. S132).
Granted, understanding that almost all road trips by car are uneventful while very few end in crashes does not diminish the need to implement transportation safety measures. Likewise, understanding that very few people who experience extreme stress suffer damage does not justify pulling attention away from helping those who suffer trauma. However, understanding the factors that contribute to resilience in most might help to develop strategies that can amplify resilience in those who are vulnerable to stress. Such lessons could benefit those in the boardroom or classroom, as well as those in the war zone.
Stressors in the battlefield
Very few people directly experience the stress of combat, including most active-duty military personnel. Many can only imagine such strenuous environments through tertiary means, like at movies and in the news. Regardless of the severe nature of combat, following a contemporary stress reduction strategy is unrealistic. Bartone (2006) identified the following as primary stressors soldiers face in combat:
- Isolation in a strange land.
- Ambiguity, meaning unclear and changing mission and rules of engagement, with multinational coalitions that have different cultures, missions, and rules of engagement.
- Powerlessness with few options for personal choices and strong restrictions on behavior when soldiers from other branches are not under the same restrictions; rules may also prevent soldiers from providing locals with necessary help.
- Boredom from extended downtime between movements; lack of meaningful work or constructive activities.
- Continuous exposure to danger that can cause injury or death.
- Exposure to seriously injured and dead colleagues.
- Workload from extended 24/7 deployments with little sleep or rest.
Building hardiness through purpose
To facilitate functional coping and strengthen resilience to these stressors, military leaders attempt to develop soldier hardiness. Hardy people tend to have values and characteristics honed from the wisdom of the ancients, the science of systems thinkers, and the philosophy of humanist psychology. They recognize stress as a natural part of life that can help them grow, are open to challenge and change, and have a high sense of control over self and life. To the hardy, stress may sometimes seem absurd, but working through and growing out of hardship provides meaningful purpose. The hardy person “lives a vigorous and proactive life, with the abiding sense of meaning and purpose, and a belief in his own ability to influence things” (Bartone, 2006, p. S137).
Leadership practices for fostering resilience
Applied to soldiers, Bartone (2006) cites extensive research showing that hardiness protects people from harmful effects of stress, and serves as a significant buffer to stress, including extreme stress. To foster resilience in individuals and groups in high-stress environments, Bartone proposed that leaders do the following:
- Shape how followers experience, interpret and respond to stress.
- Model correct attitudes and behaviors.
- Engage in developing positive construction and reconstruction of shared stressful experiences.
- Foster a social environment through which the group can interpret and share stressful experiences.
Bartone, P. T. (2006). Resilience under military operational stress: Can leaders influence hardiness. Military Psychology, S131-S148.