The Essential Role of Resilience during Crisis

“Resilience isn’t something that’s innate or God-given. It’s not like eye color or height,” said Batten Professor Tim Davis, addressing an online audience through Facebook Live on Wednesday. “Resilience, or emotional fortitude, is an amalgamation of behaviors and choices.” 

His remarks inaugurated Batten’s expert chat series focused on the current health crisis. Through engaging conversations with online viewers everywhere, Batten professors and their collaborators are sharing research-based knowledge that can help us better understand and respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Davis opened his brief lecture with a description of his “circuitous route” to becoming a professor; he joined the faculty at Batten after working first in marketing management at Procter & Gamble Company and later as a clinical psychologist and counseling center director.

“In those environments, I got restless for how to scale up our efforts to support the emotional development of young people—and build out their leadership potential,” Davis said.

That desire led him to Batten, where he created a course titled “The Resilient Student: Transition, Thriving, and Leadership.” The class explores a collection of competencies drawn from scientific research on how people respond to setbacks. Among the 10 foundations of resilience that Davis teaches are investing in supportive relationships, setting meaningful goals, engaging in spiritual practices such as meditation, and cultivating gratitude.

One foundation that’s particularly relevant for our present moment is optimism, which Davis was careful to distinguish from naivete. “It’s not a Pollyanna-ish, smiling-at-all-costs mentality,” he explained. “It’s a matter of deliberately and strategically focusing on the things that are first, in your control, and second, have the potential for positive outcomes.”

While optimism is important during this period of extreme uncertainty, it’s also vital that we thoroughly acknowledge any negative emotions that might come up, Davis said. When a commenter asked him to discuss how he was encouraging resilience in his own children, Davis shared his daughter’s devastation at losing things like her senior soccer season and her graduation ceremony. He emphasized that we all need to make space for anxiety, sorrow, and stress.

“Being resilient doesn’t mean pushing away negative feelings,” he said. “It actually means being able to experience those feelings fully—and also not getting mired in them.”

While a global pandemic might seem like a difficult time to think about how we can be strong and flexible in the face of change, Davis noted that research suggests we actually need a certain number of negative life events to learn “optimal resilience.”

 “Resilience develops during hard times,” he explained. “It’s forged in crisis, not forged in comfort. We need stress in order to develop into the people we aspire to become—and to fulfill our potential as individuals and as leaders.”

Davis invited viewers to ask themselves what their intention might be for this turbulent period. 

“Do you want to be more patient? More tolerant of ambiguity? Do you want to learn to lead more often with love or to give up control?” he asked. “Whatever you practice gets stronger, and that’s supported by every bit of new affective neuroscience you can find. I invite you to practice whatever it is that will make you a more effective person—for yourself and for those around you. That’s what we’re encouraging our students at UVA to do, and I hope you’ll join them.”