Interview with Raffael Kalisch

Crises are the best "resilience training"

RiskNET [Editor-in-chief]17.10.2017, 08:10

Engineers refer to a resilient system if failure of one part does not lead to complete failure of all technical systems. An ecosystem is said to be resilient if it returns to its initial condition after a disturbance, in other words it repairs itself. Lawyers talk about resilience when a legal system has the ability to absorb social events or to adapt. Societies are classed as resilient when they absorb and cope with external disturbances. Cities and communities have a resilient infrastructure if central functions can be maintained even if severe damage is sustained. Among humans, there are resilient – stress-resistant, robust – people and the exact opposite. In this case, resilience is mainly about the issue of how people overcome crises. Resilience means maintenance or rapid restoration of psychological health during or after adversity. Resilient people clearly have a high degree of psychological strength and tend to be immune to the attacks of fate, or they recover very quickly from extreme stress and crisis situations.

In this context, the question quickly arises of whether people are born resilient. Do some people have a "bouncebackability" gene and others not? Or does resilience grow out of each successive crisis? Why do extremely complex processes take place in one person and ensure they do not become sick, while this doesn’t happen with someone else? We spoke about these and other questions with Raffael Kalisch, Professor of Human Brain Imaging and founding member of  the German Resilience Centre (DRZ)  in the medical faculty of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

What motivates a scientist to put the latest findings from neurosciences and psychology into a compact, entertaining and generally intelligible book that can also be understood by readers outside the scientific community?

Raffael Kalisch: First of all, I’m delighted that you think my book is generally intelligible. That’s really the point of this kind of book. You want as many people as possible to be able to understand what you work on all day and why, and that this will give them a better understanding of our activities. Hopefully, this understanding will result in increased support for science in society – with today’s intensified ideological conflicts and increasing doubts about science, this can no longer be taken for granted. That’s why I always try my best to give readers an insight into scientific methods and to illustrate the important role that doubt and critical scrutiny and examination of results and theories can play as a continuous corrective. Scientists are certainly not infallible and a lot of what is currently considered the latest scientific knowledge may turn out to be mistaken in the future. This is part of the nature of science. If we never venture into unknown territory, follow up mad ideas or go out on a limb with a bold thesis, we will never discover anything really new. The courage to make mistakes is a crucial catalyst in scientific progress, and therefore scientific mistakes are not evidence that science is unsound or deficient – on the contrary, they are a sign of its vitality. Of course, I also want my book to stimulate interest in the subject of resilience and to pass on my own mistakes on the issue.

How would you explain to a child in one short sentence what a "resilient person" is?

Raffael Kalisch: A resilient person is someone who does not despair even if bad things happen to them. To an adult I’d say that it’s someone who, in spite of what happens to them, does not develop permanent stress-related illnesses such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Is whether or not a person is resilient a matter of luck or is it genetically defined?

Raffael Kalisch: We don't yet know for certain what leads to some people being able to get through even the toughest strokes of fate seemingly without batting an eyelid, while others are blown over by the smallest breeze. However, it is now quite clear that staying healthy in spite of setbacks almost always involves an extremely complex adaptation or learning process, in which random events – what additional stresses am I exposed to and when, what supporting resources am I able to call on, what positive influences am I exposed to – have a significant influence. By their nature, the development and end result of such complex and dynamic processes are very difficult to predict. So if we understand resilience as a dynamic adaptation process, it may well be that certain fixed factors, such as the genetic background, relatively stable personality traits or brain properties, will increase the probability of a positive final result, but the influence of these initial factors will always be limited. One of the key points of my book is to convince readers that the old static concept of resilience, where resilience is often understood to be an unchanging trait or – metaphorically speaking – a type of permanent suit of armour or shield that a person always has with them (or not), is no longer helpful.

"Power lies in crisis" is a nice phrase. Can we only learn and become more resilient because of crisis situations?

Raffael Kalisch: Crises are definitely the best "resilience training". I can certainly attempt to prepare myself internally for every eventuality and develop all the possible skills, habits, attitudes or characteristics that I think will make me less susceptible to crises. But there is no substitute for the experience of knowing that I made it through tough times – maybe by the skin of my teeth, but nevertheless I made it somehow. It is the source of a kind of realistic optimism and healthy self-confidence (psychologists would say a high perceived self-efficacy) which is likely to get me through difficult situations. It's a bit like learning to swim – theory is only of limited value. That’s why it’s so important for children not to be over-protected and have every single stress taken away from them. By attempting to prepare for crises purely theoretically – perhaps in a seminar, with a coach or guided by a self-help book – I think there is also a risk of focusing too much on negative scenarios instead of using your time and energy productively, for example for things that are important to you and that give your life meaning. People who do those things will no doubt experience crisis but they will also know what is worth fighting for.

In your book "The Resilient Person" you write that optimism and a high level of perceived self-efficacy are the two most important individual resilience factors. Should schools teach our children to have more optimism?

Raffael Kalisch: Obviously, but how? Certainly not by telling them they should be optimistic or by persuading them they can deal with anything. Explicit messages are rarely absorbed. Belief or trust comes from experience. That’s why I find pedagogical approaches such as that used in the Winterhude district school in Hamburg particularly exciting. They expose middle school pupils to particular challenges over a three week period. For example, they can be crossing the Alps on foot without a mobile phone with just ten kilograms of luggage, or a placement all on their own in an unfamiliar town staying with a different family, or a very ambitious artistic project. The crisis is then almost preprogrammed. That’s how people grow.

In international studies, Germany has a particularly high proportion of pessimists ("German angst"). Does this mean we can come up with a positive correlation with lower resilience of people living in Germany? Are there any international studies about people’s resilience in different cultural spheres?

Raffael Kalisch: There are no satisfactory studies that compare different cultural spheres in terms of people’s resilience. But it is certainly the case that the cultural environment in which a person grows up and lives shapes evaluation patterns, such as that of pessimism or optimism. It also has an influence on how much perceived self-efficacy I have. Perhaps we Germans are actually more pessimistic on average, but I am fairly sure that, on the other hand, we have quite a lot of confidence in ourselves, not just in making cars and playing football. But resilience is only really brought to light when a crisis comes along. In our response to the refugee crisis, which affected a very rich and secure country, I often found myself wondering whether we don’t in fact tend to catastrophise – in other words make an excessively negative evaluation and assessment of situations.

The "United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network" publishes the World Happiness Report every year. Criteria include gross domestic product, life expectancy, mental health, self-perception of inhabitants, strength of social environment, trust in the government and companies and unemployment. Could we use this to obtain an indication of resilience?

Raffael Kalisch: You’re asking me the difficult question about the resilience of societies, which is a research topic in its own right and is studied by other disciplines than mine and initially has relatively little to do with the resilience of individuals – unless you put forward the thesis that resilient individuals are a precondition for resilient societies and perhaps vice versa. I’d be delighted if there were any opportunities to follow up this question scientifically.

Let’s stay with individuals then. Research by psychologists shows that pessimists have a more stark view of reality and develop alternatives for crisis situations more quickly. Does this not slightly contradict the PASTOR theory (positive appraisal style theory of resilience), according to which a more generalised, positive appraisal style protects against the development of stress-related illnesses?

Raffael Kalisch: Stress responses, in other words responses to crises, are initially useful and important because they protect us. That is why I, along with my colleagues Marianne Müller and Oliver Tüscher, repeatedly emphasise that a realistic appraisal style, which makes it easier to see things as they really are and use this as a basis for producing the appropriate crisis responses, is something very helpful. What should be avoided is predominantly excessively negative assessments – the catastrophising I already mentioned, because it leads to excessive crisis responses that require more time and energy than really necessary and may possibly involve more harm than benefit. Anyone who constantly overreacts is using up a huge amount of physical, mental and social resources until at some stage they can't do it any more. Attempting to equip yourself with resilience training for every crisis situation that might possibly arise is essentially a kind of catastrophisation response. You expend too much time and money instead of doing things that fulfil or help you. However, it is important to add that our crisis appraisals are always accompanied by a great deal of uncertainty. We never know exactly what will happen and what effects our actions will have. Therefore, it is almost never possi- ble to objectively determine what a realistic appraisal of situation actually is. Under conditions of fundamental uncertainty, it is often more motivating – and represents a kind of self-protection – for us to assume that things will ultimately work out well somehow or that we will somehow get to grips with the situation. Without this optimism and perceived self-efficacy, we find it difficult to not allow our courage to ebb away. This – by no means an illusionary or naive appraisal – is what is meant by "positive appraisal style".

In your book you refer to the fact that engagement with literature, art, religion or philosophy has positive influence on appraisal – between an incentive and an emotional response. Can you explain this in more detail?

Raffael Kalisch: The critical point of the entire theory is that our responses are not primarily determined by the objective circumstances in our environment but by how we perceive them. The response is always preceded by the filter of our mind – in other words our appraisal. What is hardly worth talking about for one person can shake someone else to their foundations or lead them to a storm of enthusiasm. And, as we have already discussed, our typical appraisal patterns – our appraisal style – is shaped to a great extent by our cultural environment. This environment includes everything that we feed our minds with. I think that the question of how we deal with the dark sides of life is one of the major themes of literature, art, religion and philosophy, if not the central theme, and that we can therefore find lots of examples or alternatives for productively dealing with crises in these areas (including the insight that many other people before us have been badly affected by things and we are not the only ones who have been dealt a bad hand by life). I also think that they can also help us to develop fundamentally productive attitudes to life, which strengthen us. One very impressive example is that of Viktor Frankl, one of the founding fathers of resilience research who dealt with his experience of the holocaust in a scientific and philosophical way by "...still saying yes to life".

I find it very hard to imagine how someone can get through existential crises without a fundamentally affirmative and positive basic attitude. That’s why the only advice I allow myself to cautiously give in the book is that people should develop an affirmative attitude, find meaning and act reasonably. They should combine this basic attitude with the courage and curiosity to go out into their lives. Ultimately, behind all the philosophy, only real life allows people to gain the experience of overcoming things that gives them confidence and trust.

In risk management, prevention of risks plays a dominant role. Does resilience research provide any preventive methods to achieve greater resilience?

Raffael Kalisch: Of course we are trying to develop these, and we would like to know more about the actual mechanisms of resilience. It is always good to be familiar with the system you want to improve. But I think the future lies in making less of stresses in advance and more in supporting people who find themselves in acutely stressful situations. Thus active support tailored to the needs of the individual. Of course, to do this we need to know something about the people at risk and their situation – in other words we need data – and we need computer models that provide us with good predictions about an individual’s psychological stability and tell us the best way to help them in a specific situation. We need to have individualised models of psychological health and then, based on simulations, to push those buttons – for example through targeted psychological or social intervention – that give us the greatest probability of preventing the highly complex and dynamic system of a person from becoming unstable.

Are there occupational groups that have a higher (trained) resilience?

Raffael Kalisch: Scientists. They can only withstand all the frustrations if they have been hardened in the furnace.

[The questions were asked by Frank Romeike, responsible chief editor of the competence portal RiskNET]

Would you like to get to know Raphael Kalisch personally and to discuss with him about resilience from a neurosciences perspective? Meet Professor Raffael Kalisch at the RiskNET Summit 2017, which will take place on 24th and 25th October 2017 in the Schloss Hohenkammer near Munich. He will give a lecture on "The Resilient Person. How we can experience and manage crises". For more information on the RiskNET Summit 2017, see

Raffael Kalisch, geb. 1972 in Offenburg, ist Professor für Bildgebung des menschlichen Gehirns und Gründungsmitglied des Deutschen Resilienz-Zentrums (DRZ) an der Universitätsmedizin der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.

Raffael Kalisch, born 1972 in Offenburg, is Professor of Human Brain Imaging and founding member of the German Resilience Centre (DRZ) in the medical faculty of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. He is the head of the department for genetic and network mechanisms in resilience. He is also the vicechair of the special research group in "Neurobiology of resilience at the German Research Foundation (DFG) and chair of the International Resilience Alliance (intresa). Raffael Kalisch uses methods from neurosciences and psychology to research how people overcome stress. Since the spring of 2016, he and his colleagues at the German Resilience Centre have been supporting young adults’ transition into their working lives as part of a long-term study. They want to find out what internal processes help people to better overcome this difficult life phase between youth and adult life.

[ Source of images: © eelnosiva - ]

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