DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Coping Theory/Resilience Theory

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

by Jessica Praphath (Fall 2016) & Ashwin Anand (Spring 2015)

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Coping and resilience theories have multiple facets, but can generally be characterized as an individual’s ability to positively adapt to stress and pressure, particularly in the presence of adverse situations (1). These adversities include everyday stressors, as well as life-changing events. Coping can be defined as how one thinks, feels, and acts in response to stressors; and resilience can be thought of as a ratio of protective factors or strengths and hazardous circumstances. Resilience focuses on an individual’s developed strengths rather than the weaknesses or hazardous circumstances impacting a person.


The theory also represents a world-view that all people possess the ability to overcome adversity and succeed despite life circumstances. Resilience theory focuses on providing support (i.e. protective factors) that promotes one’s opportunities for success rather than merely eliminating risk factors (2). 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
User-uploaded Content
DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Figure 1. An ecological model of factors affecting resiliency

[Reproduced from (2)].

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Resilience theory also be best understood using an ecological model to contextualize how an individual behaves and interacts with environment. The model above is specific to visualizing resiliency factors in children.


Because treating individuals as isolated units is a limited approach, this model takes into account external factors that impact an individual’s experienced. Individual factors including biology/genetics, skill and internal beliefs and values sit in the middle of the model, embedded within the context of interpersonal relationships, the larger institutional environment that impacts them and the broader society. In this way, resilience can be thought of not as an individual attribute, but as a characteristic of families and communities.



Resilience theory was first coined by Emmy Werner in 1970, when she studied children from Kauai and found that some children developed destructive behaviors, while others did not (called the “resilient” group). As the theory evolved, many researchers looked at young people, and found that they were able to overcome adverse circumstances, spurring them to focus their research on protective factors that helped individuals “bounce back” from adverse situations (2). In summary, the theory focuses on positive aspects of a person’s life (resources, strengths, opportunities) rather than negative aspects (risks, deficiencies, adverse circumstances) to describe how individuals react to various circumstances in life.



Resilience is most applicable when targeting people most “at-risk” for adverse health outcomes, who require greater coping strategies. In a global health setting, resilience theory could be directly applied to people in disaster and refugee settings, such as those fleeing Somalia.


Over the last two decades, Somalia has been torn apart by civil war, political unrest, and the negative consequences of climate change. Despite two decades of humanitarian aid, Somalia remained unable to bounce back from the 2011 famine.  In 2015, Somalia suffered a drought which left more than forty percent, or five million Somalis, without sufficient food (7). In 2011, FAO, UNICEF, and WFP collaborated to create the Joint Resilience Strategy, which seeks to build community resilience through enhanced productive sectors, access to basic social services, and safety nets for social protection. Rather than focusing on how to solve the civil unrest, the Joint Resilience Strategy (JRS) focuses on providing Somalis opportunity and resources to better cope with it (8).


Studies have been done to better understand resilience in Somali culture during forced displacement. These findings can be condensed into the Somali Multidimensional Multilevel Resilience (SMMR) model, which can be used to assess individual, family, and cultural resources associated with resilience among Somali refugees. 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
User-uploaded Content
DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Figure 2. Somali Multidimensional Multilevel Resilience model

[Reproduced from (9)].


At the center of the model is the individual, where resilient Somali individuals were described as determined, future-oriented, assertive, and goal-focused. They also display high levels of interpersonal confidence, social and behavioral intelligence, and strong ability to cooperate with others (9). Intervening at the individual level, the JRS provided financial literacy trainings to 460 entrepreneurs.


Embedded within the relational sphere is the family, where individuals promote resource sharing, emotional and social support, knowledge of resources within the community, opportunities to contribute to that larger community, and a sense of security within that network (9). Somali communities formed in neighboring countries and refugees were able to access support through these networks.


The individual and family units are embedded within the cultural sphere, which for a Somali refugee, hinges greatly on spiritual identification. Culture provides the Somali refugee with a sense of belonging, purpose in life, a strong spiritual base and belief, and ethnic pride (9). Religious practices and places of worship are still cornerstones of Somali communities that have developed in neighboring countries.



Resilience theory has been criticized as being too focused on an idealized positive outcome, whereas coping theory focuses on the process of struggling (4). Resilience also has a breaking point, for most people. The accumulation of multiple risks and stressors can diminish resilience at the individual, interpersonal, or greater social level (4). For example, although a Somali refugee may be resilient at the individual level while residing in the U.S., they may depend greatly on the encouragement of their family and community in Somalia. If their family dies, the Somali refugee may turn to negative behaviors to cope, despite their individual strengths.



Works Cited:

(1) APA. The Road to Resilience. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx (accessed 3/17/2015).


(2) Mental Health Foundation of Australia. The Resiliency Model. http://www.embracethefuture.org.au/resiliency/resiliency_model.htm (accessed 3/17/15).


(3) WestEd. Resilience and Youth Development. http://chks.wested.org/using_results/resilience (accessed 3/17/15).


(4) Lemay R. Resilience vs. Coping. Child and Family Journal. 2004;8(2):11-14


(5) Western Australian Centre for Health Promotion Research. Resilience Theory. http://mypeer.org.au/planning/what-are-peer-based-programs/theory/resilience-theory/ (Accessed 3/17/15).


(6) Australian Guidance and Counseling Association. Resourceful Adolescent Program – Adolescent. http://mhws.agca.com.au/mmppi_detail.php?id=32 (Accessed 4/22/15)


(7) Reliefweb. Somalia: Drought – 2015-2016. http://reliefweb.int/disaster/dr-2015-000134-som (Accessed 10/20/16)


(8) Somalia Joint Resistance Strategy. http://resilienceinsomalia.org/about-us.html (Accessed 10/20/16)


(9) Robinson R.V. (2013) Pathways to Resilience in the Context of Somali Culture and Forced Displacement. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest


Useful Resources:

ResilienceNet. ResilienceNet Virtual Library. http://resilnet.uiuc.edu/library.html

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.