There is interesting research showing that how securely we attach to our caregivers as young children plays an important role in our resilience as adults. Children who develop a secure attachment to their mother (or other caregiver) tend, as adults, to be resilient in the face of challenges.
Does this mean that your level of resilience became a settled matter when you were little, and nothing can be done about it now? We don’t think so.
Attachment style is developed in very early childhood, and has been extensively studied. Usually there are deemed to be three basic styles, Secure, Anxious-Ambivalent, and Avoidant. This attachment style developed in early childhood appears to stay with us throughout our lives.
Those who are “Secure”, apparently had a good fit between their inborn temperament and parental responses that enabled them to build inner resources. These inner resources enable them to connect well with others, and to feel confident in potentially scary, unfamiliar environments. Both the Anxious-Ambivalent and the Avoidant people are less effective in dealing with such environments.
Avoidant people appear to be comfortable without close relationships, and avoid dependency on others. This is viewed as a defense, and can, under enough distress, break down.
Avoidant people may seem to be secure unless the environment is too challenging, and under those circumstances, they can seem more like those who are Anxious-Ambivalent.
Anxious-Ambivalent people long for emotionally close relationships, but tend to feel uncomfortable with them. It is hard for them to trust or depend on others.
For our purposes here, we can look at those who are just “Secure” or “Non-Secure”.
Mario Mikulincer and Victor Florian have summarized the research on how Secures and Non-Secures react to a wide range of demanding circumstances, and have consistently shown that Secures are more resilient than Non-Secures.
Their review includes studies of reactions to significant life challenges. Very consistently they indicate that Secures handle such challenges better than Non-Secures. Here are examples:
- In the military training, Anxious Ambivalents perceived more threat, felt a greater sense of personal inadequacy and helplessness in dealing with the training.
- When facing the threat of death, Secures had less fear.
- In time of war, when threatened with missile attacks, Secures sought more support from others and had fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Prisoners of War who were Secures had fewer symptoms of PTSD than Non Secures.
- Secures handled loss of significant others better than Non-Secures.
- In experiments testing reactions to personal failure, Secures handled the failures better.
- Women facing the challenges of new motherhood who were secure handled them better than non-secures.
- Mothers with handicapped children dealt with the extra challenges better if they were Secures.
- People coping with chronic pain who are secure react much more effectively than those who are insecure.
So, here is more evidence that resilience helps us deal with life’s challenges. But, if attachment style is determined when we are no more than toddlers, doesn’t it seem we are either blessed or doomed by early experiences to be resilient or not?
One interesting fact in the work of Mikulincer and Florian provides considerable room for hope. In Israel, during the first Persian Gulf War, some people had to deal with Scuds missile attacks. They had to face the possibility of instant death, and had no personal control over the source of that threat.
Yet the less resilient people reacted the same way as those who were resilient. Why? Presumably because public service messages consistently told them to check on each other during and after the attacks. With these instructions, anxious ambivalent and avoidant people reacted by reaching out to others, just as secure people would likely have done without the instructions.
So mere instructions from the government were able to override the knee jerk reactions of insecures to either hem and haw (anxious-ambivalents) or deal with the threats solely on their own (avoidant).
We can reasonably expect that real resilience training can be even more effective than mere instructions.