by Erin Shannon

This article weaves together my reflections on the word resilience, the history of Resilience Theory as it relates to Trauma Informed Art Therapy, and my observations of creative work currently being done in Cambodia.

I have been thinking about the meaning of resilience; the word comes up often when we speak of survivors of violent situations like human trafficking. I feel there is value in questioning how and why a word like resilience is used. It is a word worthy of respect. It is not the kind of word to drop casually, and especially not one to use in order to move quickly from discomfort. By exploring resilience I am seeking spaciousness between the horrible truths I learn and the urge to find a way – a word – to make them better, or make myself feel better.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned during my last 2 years as a graduate student of art therapy is to stay with things that make me uncomfortable. My teachers include close friends, art, professors, the unexpected death of a loved one, as well as meeting individuals in Cambodia whose lives are deeply touched by personal and historical trauma.

I am still learning how to sit in discomfort. It’s natural, right, to recoil from what stings. And there is great power and beauty in mustering the courage to stay. It makes the brightness on the other side that much brighter, sweeter, real.

I am spending time thinking about the meaning of the word resilience and how I want to use it. I don’t want to be quick to learn of someone’s experiences and head straight into the light. While resilience may very well be there, and be strong, I want to acknowledge the circumstances necessitating their resilience. I want to honor their full experience of being human, the struggle and the strength to survive it.

So please pause with me.

When you read the word resilience what does your mind conjure?

salmon swimming upstream

lichen growing above tree line

strength in the smallest packaging, the unlikeliest places

great great aunt Nolene

Texans rallying against the fated closure of abortion clinics

Arn Chorn Pond, genocide survivor rebuilding art in Cambodia (see Alexa’s blog)

mental health counselors who hear stories of trauma day after day and keep going back to work


Etymology reveals, resilience means “to rebound, recoil”                                  

from re + salire: “back” + “leap”

Webster defines Resilience as the power or ability to return to the original form, after being bent, compressed, or stretched. It is an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

I like George Valliant’s definition of resilience as the self-righting tendencies of the person, both the capacity to be bent without breaking and the capacity, once bent, to spring back (Goldstein, 1997).

At the core of Resilience Theory is a willingness to take a strengths-based approach, a lens through which I aim to guide my work as an art therapist. The concept of resilience began receiving attention in the psychological community with Werner’s well known longitudinal study of children deemed “at risk” for maladjusted adult lives. The population Werner followed into adulthood was comprised of children who experienced pre- or perinatal complications, were raised in poverty and in families troubled by chronic discord or parental psychopathology (Werner, 2005).

The results of this study and others like it began to shatter pathogenic beliefs because nearly half the children who “should not” develop into well-adjusted adults do in fact just that (VanBreda, 2001).  Researchers qualify “well-adjusted” in different ways, but are basically talking about children who do not develop behavior or learning problems or delinquency records, and grow into competent, confident, caring adults with lower rates of chronic illness, mortality, divorce and unemployment than their peers (Werner, 2005).

This is not to ignore the devastating impact of growing up under harsh conditions. A longitudinal study came out just this year showing the harmful effects of childhood exposure to violence (the study intended to show the effects of crack-cocaine exposure in utero which was actually trumped by the effects of growing up poor in America).

The study of resilience acknowledges people are harmed by traumatic situations and events, but in the hope of learning how to reduce that harm asks the question, What is it about certain individuals that allow them to rise above adversity and thrive despite the most challenging circumstances? This question has spurned decades of research into Resilience Theory which offers a myriad of explanations. Adrian Van Breda published a thorough literature review on the subject. Check out pages 10 & 11 to learn about what researchers find in resilient children, who are very clearly not defenseless against stressful life conditions (Van Breda, 2001).

Often people do more than bounce back to the way they were prior to experiencing something difficult. Ickovics & Park (1998) define thriving as “something more than a return to equilibrium following a challenge.. we propose a value added model whereby an individual or community may go beyond survival and recovery from an illness or stressor to thrive” (pp.237-238). Carver (1998) says thriving “refers to the acquisition of new skills and knowledge (learning about themselves, learning new coping skills), of new confidence or a sense of mastery, and enhanced interpersonal relationships” (p.247).  This again raises the question, What characteristics distinguish the individuals who thrive following a trauma or stressor from those who do not?

Resilience is difficult to quantify though many researches have made an attempt. O’Leary in Van Breda (2001) identifies individual resources such as hardiness, coping and a sense of coherence; cognitive resources such as accurate threat appraisal, self-efficacy and perceived personal risk; the ability to attribute and mould the meaning attached to life events; social support systems, and social processes or rituals which facilitate transitions in life.

A key element of resilience is appraisal, which means the way in which we interpret events. If an event is interpreted as a threat, it evokes fear responses, including activation of the amygdala, and a series of physical responses including release of cortisol and stress hormones. Yet if an event is interpreted as a challenge, it evokes a different series of responses, including interest, calm, relaxation, and adaptive coping (Hellerstein, 2011).

Something that comes up again and again in my research on Individual Resilience is the need for strong social support. Characteristics found in resilient children can be taught and the best environment for this learning to happen is in strong, consistent communities. This brings to mind the heart of Relational Therapy. People are hurt in relationship and therefore heal in relationship too.

This inquiry into resilience offers valuable insight though of course cannot be applied in a vacuum. We need to be aware of qualities found in resilient individuals and proactive in seeking ways to foster those qualities, especially in response to trauma. I think this must involve asking people if and how they identify resilient qualities in themselves and inquiring about culturally appropriate methods they may already use in order to thrive. We also need to be thinking about the institutions of racism and sexism that have created and sustain “adverse” situations like poverty. As art therapists devising ways of working with survivors, how can our work always be done in a context of social justice?


The further I dig into the meaning of resilience the more I realize how impossible it is to define. Having begun this inquiry, I feel a responsibility to anyone who is reading this to provide you with a clear set of rules. It would necessitate though an agreement on definitions of words like adversity and health. There is also the question of cross-cultural relevance in applying the tenets of Resilience Theory. The factors contributing to resilience vary across culture and from community to community.

The Resilience Research Centre is looking at communities around the world – Phnom Penh in Cambodia in particular – to find examples of culturally relevant programs fostering resilience. In The Art of Resilience Tim Johnson reports on their research efforts in Cambodia though the results of the study are still in press. Johnson’s article notes the success of Cambodian Living Arts – the visionary work of Arn Chorn Pond and others. “This is exactly the kind of program that has all the tools for success,” says Dr. Ungar [Co-Director of the Resilience Research Centre]. “They have come up with a very unique, culturally appropriate solution and it’s one the Resilience Research Centre could share with other marginalized groups.”

If you are seeking further insight into the ways communities thrive, I recommend reading Community Resilience: A Cross-Cultural Study. Revitalizing Community Within and Across Boundaries. This report was put together by the Woodrow Wilson International Center after convening a symposium of international scholars and practitioners. One contributor summarizes, “It is difficult to identify a specific set of conditions that foster community resilience. Yet the participants [of this symposium] continually returned to the following themes: the importance of civil society voice; the creation of space, physical and political; the assurance of safety and time, as well as the galvanizing aspects of conflict and leadership.”

Returning to the intention of spending time with Resilience, the circle – as is often the case – has expanded from a narrow to a much wider perspective, and now perhaps narrows back a bit as I think about the applications.


Drawing together learning about Individual Resilience, Community Resilience, and Trauma Informed Art Therapy, we’ll take a peek at an organization in Cambodia and see how it successfully fosters resilience and social action through art.

We’ve learned from Individual Resilience to activate strong social networks and adequate external supports, to be challenged, to learn, to look for meaning through involvement.

All of which happens when people make art.

Community Resilience teaches us that individuals and communities need to be heard.

This also is possible when we make art.

The NCAS-I team trained the staff at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC) to utilize Trauma Informed Art Therapy (TIAT). Children with few positive relationships during or after a trauma have a more difficult time reducing stress reactions and have more ongoing trauma symptoms over time. Overall, caring human relationships buffer the effects of stressful events and literally support the neural networks involved in bonding and social interactions. Expressive therapies (art, music, movement, and play) are particularly useful and tap both hands-on and creative capacities of individuals to express events and memories, to reduce distress, and to develop a relationship with a helping professional who provides these opportunities to create and communicate (Malchiodi, 2008).

The counselors at the crisis center reported hope that the Trauma Informed Art Therapy interventions we worked on together would be useful strategies for reducing their vicarious traumatization and that they could envision incorporating similar modalities when working with clients. TIAT works by regulating the nervous system, building safe relationships and providing avenues for communication.

Trauma Informed Art Therapy is a framework for using art to build resilience in individuals and I believe it can also be used to build resilient communities, as I saw during the final let of my journey.

After completing our month with NCAS-I, traveling, working, and learning about applying TIAT, Bethany and I had the incredible pleasure of going to the circus! There we witnessed more evidence of Resilience Theory and Art Therapy in action. Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) is a Social Center and Art School in Battambang, Cambodia. The name stands for the Brightness of Art and was founded by young Cambodians returning from refugee camps where they learned about using art as a means of coping with trauma. At this school, children and adolescents are welcome to learn visual art, traditional music, dance, theater, graphic design or circus performance. Many of the instructors were once students themselves. There is food served to those who need it and social workers on site who work with the families of the children who attend. Students perform locally and internationally as a way to tell their stories.

I feel confident saying Phare Ponleu Solpak is using art to successfully foster community resilience in ways relevant to Cambodian history and culture. Many participants live in harmful situations, and all live under the context of Cambodia’s historical traumatization. During my brief time learning about the school and watching a performance it seemed the students were thriving. I believe gaining free access to the arts is tantamount to their ability to do so. While making art, students are learning and being challenged, finding meaning through involvement, regulating stressed nervous systems, and finding outlets to be seen and heard. They are connected in a strong community. It was an honor to witness the work being done at PPS. I am grateful for the milieu of ways my work and travel in Cambodia revealed power and potential in my profession.

As you watch the acrobats in this video, keep George Valliant’s definition of resilience in mind: the self-righting tendencies of the person, both the capacity to be bent without breaking and the capacity, once bent, to spring back.

By exploring the word resiliency, my hope was to deepen my understanding of its context and meaning, to feel the full weight of the use of my words, and to infuse my work with knowledge and integrity. Thank you for spending time with me thinking about what makes people and communities resilient. May we foster these qualities when trauma necessitates it; may we use art and everything in our power to fight institutions creating hardship worldwide.

Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings. So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs. And please feel free to add your perspective too.


Carver, C.S. (1998). Resilience and thriving: Issues, models, and linkages. Journal of Social Issues,  54(2), 245-266.

FitzGerald, Susan. (2013, July 22). Crack baby study ends with unexpected but clear result. For The Inquirer. Retreived from

Goldstein, H. (1997). Victors or victims? In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (2nd ed. pp.21-36). New York, NY: Longman.

Hellerstein, David (2011). On Trauma and Resilience a Decade after September 11, 2001.

Ickovics, J.R., & Park, C.L. (1998). Paradigm shift: Why a focus on health is important. Journal of Social Issues, 54(2), 237-244.

Johnson, Tim. (2012, August 7). The art of resilience: How Michael Ungar is applying his research to alleviate adversity and provide alternatives to drugs and crime in one of Asia’s toughest slums. University Affairs. Retreived from

Malchiodi, C. (2008). Creative interventions with traumatized children. New York: Guilford Publications.

Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Van Breda, A.D. (2001). Resilience theory: A literature review. Pretoria, South Africa: South African Military Health Service.  Available:

Werner, E. (2005). Resilience and Recovery: Findings from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Focal Point: Research, Policy, and Practice in Children’s Mental Health: Resilience and Recovery, 19(1), 11-14.

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009). Community Resilience: A Cross-Cultural Study. Revitalizing Community Within and Across Boundaries. Retreived from


Sue Wallingford

3 thoughts on “re·sil·ience

  1. Erin, many thanks for your beautifully crafted post on resilience, and your thoughtful and creative use of my work on resilience in a setting that is quite different from mine. I particularly liked your first paragraphs in which you speak of resilience as the courage to face the suffering in life, rather than to flee from it. There is deep wisdom in that.

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