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Robert Johnson, Cuyahoga Community College

Robert Johnson.jpgIn today’s society, we are faced with many challenges concerning life experiences, including natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, acts of terrorism such as the September 11th attacks, and life altering health issues such as HIV/AIDS.  As human beings, we all possess a variety of adaptive and recuperative abilities. It appears, however, that some people fare better than others when faced with life stressors, disasters and loss. Resilience has been identified as a fundamental explanation for this difference.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Help Center stated that “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors” (2004). The APA Help Center (2004) noted that some ways to build resilience include:

  • Make connections. Advisors can help students use support systems – including family, friends and social organizations – to talk about feelings and life’s situations; it can be constructive. 
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Advisors should help students appreciate that bad things happen to everyone. It is how we respond to life’s downturns that can make all the difference. 
  • Accept that change is a part of living. Due to adversity, students may have to alter goals with the understanding that circumstances have changed. The ability to acknowledge that circumstances have changed allows an opportunity to choose new directions.
  • Move towards goals. Students should create goals that can be achieved, but with small incremental steps or stages. Advisors should recognize achievements even when they are not substantial.
  • Take decisive actions. Help students recognize that as difficulties occur it is best to deal with them instead of ignoring them or hoping the issues will go away.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery. Many find that adversity presents opportunity for introspection and personal growth. Help students embrace their opportunities.
  • Nurture a positive viewpoint. Help students work on believing that they have the ability to work out the issues life presents.
  • Keep things in perspective. When something negative happens, help students keep the particular problem within perspective.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. Be optimistic; it helps encourage the belief that good things will happen.
  • Work on self-care. When we are in good health we are better prepared to address and cope with life changes. Advisors and students alike should work on self-care.  

Rossi, Bisconti and Bergeman (2007) cited the results of a study about dispositional resilience and described three qualities that a person may exhibit when demonstrating dispositional resilience:

  • Commitment– Involvement with people, rather than isolation or alienation.
  • Control– Influence over outcomes, rather than powerlessness.
  • Challenge– Learning from experience, rather than avoiding threat.

Moody and Arcangel (2001) point out that stress is a normal part of the human existence. Moody and Arcangel (2001) indicate that stress is innate and an involuntary response as the body reacts to change.  Stress in itself is not harmful as it functions as a mechanism to alert the body to prepare for action or adjustment; each individual’s biological and psychological responses to stress are unique (Moody & Arcangel, 2001).

Grief reactions

Worden (2002) indicated “normal grief” reactions are emotions experienced as a result of loss such as sadness, anger, guilt, and helplessness (p. 10).  Worden (2002) also described physical sensations experienced as a result of loss that include shortness of breath.

Cognitions may be affected such as disbelief and difficulty with concentration (Worden, 2002).  Behaviors may be affected after loss.  A person may have trouble sleeping or withdraw from family and friends.

A person who has an “abnormal grief reaction” may continue to experience feelings of extreme sadness around anniversaries of their loved one’s death or birthdays though many years have passed (Worden, 2002, p. 83).  Also, a person may report they are experiencing physical symptoms such as pain or report engaging in behaviors that are out of character and cannot provide a logical reason for it (Worden, 2002).  If an advisor has reason to believe a student is having difficulty due to loss or death, he or she should be referred for grief counseling services. 

Strategies and interventions

Rack, Burleson, Bodie, Holmstrom and Servaty-Seib (2008) suggested, “it is important to examine the communication strategies that ordinary people use in the effort to manage the grief experienced by others in their social networks”(p. 401).  Rack et al. (2007) pointed out that emotions influence how messages are received and interpreted and that grief emotions may impede effective communication regardless of the intent of the message or content.

Advisors may use knowledge of the role of resilience, stress and anxiety and communication processes [such as discussed by Kem in the article which follows] to help the student to gain a better understanding of his or her distinct circumstance in order to increase the likelihood of renewal and progress through the process of grief.

Robert Johnson
Counselor/Assistant Professor
Cuyahoga Community College, Western Campus
[email protected]


American Psychological Association.  (2004). The road to resilience. APA Help Center. Retrieved on August 8, 2008, from www.apa.org/helpcenter

Moody, R. A. & Arcangel, D.  (2001). Life after loss: Conquering grief and finding hope.  New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Rack, J. J., Burleson, B. R., Bodie, G. D., Holmstrom, A. J. & Servaty-Seib, H.  (2008). Bereaved adults’ evaluation of grief management messages:  Effects of message person centeredness, recipient individual differences, and contextual factors. Death Studies, 32, 399-427.  Retrieved on August 8, 2008 from Academic Search Premier.

Rossi, N. E., Bisconti, T. L. & Bergeman, C. S. (2007).  The role of dispositional resilience in regaining life satisfaction after the loss of a spouse. Death Studies, 31, 863–883.

Sanders, C. M. (1992). Surviving grief and learning to live again.  New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Worden, J. W. (2002). Grief counseling and therapy: A handbook for mental health practitioners (3rd ed.).  New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Cite this article using APA style as: Johnson, R. (2009, December). Dispositional resilience. Academic Advising Today, 32(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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