Nearly all of us will be struck by one or more major traumas during our life, like the death of a loved one, a serious accident, illness, divorce, job loss or natural disaster. But no two people respond to trauma in the same way.
Some of us become derailed by depression or symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Others are more resilient. They find effective ways to meet the challenge, go on with their lives and grow stronger.
What explains the difference? Does it depend on genetics? The way we were raised? Is it chemical differences in our nervous systems? Or can it be credited to specific, learned coping mechanisms?
(MORE: 5 Ways to Push Past Your Regrets)
Resilience is the complex product of genetic, psychological, biological, social and spiritual factors. For our book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, we investigated the subject from multiple scientific perspectives. We also interviewed dozens of highly resilient people — including former prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors and survivors from all walks of life — and found that while their circumstances differed greatly, they all tended to use similar coping strategies, which they described as crucial and even life-saving.
Building resilience requires the same commitment and persistence as excelling at a sport or mastering a fitness regimen. We know from neurologic research that each of us has the power to strengthen specific areas of our brain. Following are six of the most important ways we can train our brains to become more resilient. Start by bringing one or two of these actions into your life and consistently practice them, adding more over time:
1. Produce positivity. You can learn to develop a more positive approach to evaluating and dealing with stress. But while it's important to embrace a positive outlook, it's also crucial to maintain a realistic appraisal of the negative. Pay more mindful attention to your thoughts and work to insert positive expectations in your thinking ("I can handle this situation") while filtering out or refuting, exaggerated or irrelevant negative thoughts ("I am not capable of handling stress so I will always be a failure").
2. Count on friends. It's crucial to establish a strong, supportive network of friends and colleagues you can rely on to come to your aid in difficult times (and whom you will help as well). This may require some effort on your part, but the payoff is enormous. Very few resilient individuals go it alone. Research links high levels of social support with optimism, self-esteem, a sense of predictability and overall better mental and physical health, including enhanced immune function and reduced cardiac and stress hormone responses to adversity. In other words, knowing there are people you can lean on helps your mind deal with adversity more calmly and confidently.
3. Get fit. Aerobic exercise increases neurotrophic factors, proteins that promote the growth and repair of neurons in multiple areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory and the regulation of our stress response. Regular aerobic exercise improves mood, reduces anxiety and enhances cognitive abilities like focusing, planning and decision-making. It also helps to protect the brain from the damaging effects of chronic stress on our neurons. It may even improve your sex life and slow the rate of age-related memory decline.
4. Change your perspective. When we can broaden our outlook and find opportunity or meaning in adversity, we can limit negative emotions and boost our resilience. Brain-imaging studies show that learning to cognitively reappraise negative events stimulates the prefrontal cortex, our brain’s rational executive center, which can then inhibit the influence of the more emotion-based limbic system. So if we can evaluate setbacks and put them in a more opportunistic light, we can help our brain make room for positive emotions and coping strategies. Science has repeatedly shown us the benefits of staying positive. It contributes to creativity and learning, improves our relationships and fosters better physical and emotional health.
5. Know what you stand for. Your core values and beliefs can get you through crises, but first you need to devote the time to defining and connecting with them. Former prisoner of war James Stockdale has called a person’s integrity "something to keep him on the right track, something to keep him afloat when he is drowning." When we develop our own moral courage and integrity, we can more confidently stand up for our most deeply held values, even in the face of adversity. Candidly assess your values with questions like, "What are my most important principles?" and "Am I living by these beliefs?" Discuss these questions and your responses with someone you admire for their ethical stance and practice applying your values more affirmatively in everyday situations as well as challenging circumstances. By living your values more fully now, you'll better prepare yourself for those times you most need to do what is right.
6. Face your fears. If we're to become more resilient, we need to be prepared to face our fears. Special Forces instructors have told us to do so by acquiring information about what we're afraid of and learning the skills needed to overcome it. Practice those skills, develop a plan to confront fear, then tackle those anxieties, preferably with friends and colleagues at our side. Whether your fear is driving, flying or aging, there's ample evidence that you can overcome it with the right effort.
As we get older we will inevitably face losses: our youthful energy and physical strength, professional identity, mental clarity and even our family and friends. By enhancing our resilience today, we can better meet the challenges ahead and, in the process, grow emotionally stronger and wiser.