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This site is for student nurses or nurses starting out. Letters to a Young Nurse are blog posts written like letters to help you find your way and make your journey as a nurse less difficult. 


Adversity and Resilience

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

30 years ago, my partner and I drove across the country when we moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. Along the way we stopped at a roadside gas station in Wyoming. I noticed the oddest sight when I got out of the 27-foot rickety U-Haul moving truck. Next to the highway was a tree growing out of a rock. Upon further inspection I discovered that the only way this tree continues to grow is from the generosity of truckers and other motorists along Interstate 80. I show you this image because it is the epitome of adversity and thriving. This tree's age is unknown; however, this type of Limber Pine has been documented to live for over 2,000 years. And the most significant fact about this tree is the fact that this species thrives in adverse conditions. The gate was put around it to keep tourists off the rock which has become fragile over time. The rock had to have a cable secured around it to keep the tree from splitting it completely. This tree, in the middle of nowhere, growing out of a solid rock, continues to grow and thrive. It has resilience.

According to Southwick and Charney (2018) who wrote an excellent book called Resilience, report that 90% of us will experience at least 1 traumatic event in our lives. The trauma does not have to be horrific like incest or rape, it can be yelling and violence in the home, mental illness in the home, lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, and so many other innocuous factors. If a child is told, on a daily basis, that they are worthless and will never amount to anything, that child will develop scars that run deep and last a lifetime. If you read the blog on ACEs, then you understand there is scientifically documented evidence that childhood trauma can lead to chronic conditions in adulthood.

"Trauma" can cause one person to become dependent on drugs or alcohol, others will develop PTSD and have horrific memories, some will become depressed and hypervigilant which leads to all sorts of chronic conditions. But how does one rise above those traumas and adversity? The answer is RESILIENCE.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a trauma with insight and growth. Post traumatic stress disorder is well-documented. But what about the opposite, post traumatic growth? Resilience IS post-traumatic growth. Victor Frankl, (2006) a psychologist who was a Holocaust survivor and wrote Man's Search for Meaning after he survived one of the worst concentration camps during WW 2 said, "the forces of fate that bear down on man and threaten to break him also have the capacity to ennoble him". (Frankl, 2006) Resilience is akin to a young twig. You can bend it in all different directions, but it never breaks and springs back to its original shape (almost). Research is showing that being exposed to significant sources of stress at work, home or in the community can change brain circuits causing significant negative effects on people.

We have all experienced "trauma" at work. From the angry patient who calls you stupid, to the co-worker who ate your lunch, to the family member taking out their frustration on you, to the charge nurse who adds another patient to an already full schedule. Emergency nurses and healthcare personnel are attacked and harassed in greater numbers than in the history of medicine. Healthcare organizations are cutting costs by eliminating staff to an already understaffed population. We are told to do more with less and to take less money for twice the work. That is trauma which is causing nurses to leave the profession in unprecedented numbers.

How does one create resilience and not become a victim of adversity?

Southwick and Charney (2018) have a Ten-Step Prescription to foster resilience. They explain that you don't wake up one day and find that you have resiliency, it takes practice, and also making lots of mistakes to hone the characteristics of resiliency. Just like an athlete who practices the same move over and over, and tweaks parts of the routine, we must do the same when faced with trauma and adversity.

  1. Keep a positive attitude.

  2. Reframe or change your thoughts and perspective about the event.

  3. Develop your moral compass - know your beliefs and values and stick to them.

  4. Find a resilient role model in your life - it is usually someone who has been through a similar trauma and has mastered resiliency.

  5. Face your fears - without risk nothing would have been attempted. Go back to Step 1 and have a positive attitude about the event or situation.

  6. Develop active coping skills - what has worked in the past? what has not worked in the past?

  7. Establish and nurture a supportive social network - social isolation kills!

  8. Prioritize physical well-being - go to the gym or walk outside - any amount of exercise helps to clear the brain of the negative loop that occurs during stressful situations.

  9. Train your brain - emotions are data, not directives!

  10. Play to your strengths - what brings you pleasure and feels good in your body and soul?

Resilience, in the end, comes down to staying true to your values and your moral compass with a positive attitude. Being flexible when appropriate and finding meaning and purpose in the relationships at work and at home also help in creating resiliency for yourself.

I have a drawing of the tree growing out of the rock that a dear friend did for me. It is above my bed and every morning and every night I think of that tree and wonder if I am thriving through the trauma and chaos that is life as well as that tree? Am I allowing the events of my days to keep me on the ground, never getting up and going forward? And am I doing it with compassion for not only my patients, families, staff and my family, but also for myself. Resilience changes the negative loop to positive by finding the silver linings in adversity.

Susan David says it perfectly, "Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life."


David, S. (2017). The gift and power of emotional courage.; TED Talks.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press. Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. (2018). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

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