Resilience may come more easily to some, but anyone can learn the skill
Attitude is everything: Don't see yourself as a victim, do see a way out
Take care of yourself and take comfort in friends
Why is it that some people can bounce back from a tough event, while others never quite seem to get their mojo back? While it’s true that resilience comes more easily to some of us than others, the good news is that anybody can learn to be more emotionally hardy.
Resilience—the capacity to respond and recover when life wallops you upside the head—is a pretty essential ability to have, especially in these unpredictable times. Being able to handle minor daily setbacks helps prime you for bigger-picture curveballs such as a job loss or the death of a loved one. “We need stress to grow,” explains resilience expert Mary Steinhardt, Ed.D., professor of health education at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s like working out: You’re not going to get stronger unless you stress the muscle. And if you don’t work out, you’ll atrophy.”
It seems what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. A recent study from the University at Buffalo found that people with chronic back pain were able to get around better if they had experienced serious adversity (such as illness, divorce, or living through a natural disaster), whereas folks who had sailed through life without any major problems became more impaired. Super resilient people, it turns out, do five things right—and these are skills anyone can learn. Ahead, the moves that make all the difference.
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1. Choose to be a survivor
When we’re confronted with bad news, it’s hard not to jump to extreme conclusions. (I’ll never work again! It’s definitely a tumor!) But resilient people steer clear of this kind of catastrophic thinking, which makes you spiral downward, ramps up stress levels, and blocks purposeful action. Plus, Steinhardt says, “most of our worst fears don’t come true, anyway.”
Bounce-back women do what Nora Ephron famously recommended (“be the heroine of your life, not the victim”) and avoid “negative scripts,” say Robert Brooks, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., of the University of Utah School of Medicine, authors of The Power Of Resilience.
Following a negative script means going with the same counterproductive course of action time after time (“my good work speaks for itself, so why should I have to ask my boss for a promotion?”) when you have the power to change things for the better (by making a case for that promotion, say, or finding a new job). Brooks and Goldstein say that a major step toward resilience is to recognize that we are the authors of our lives, able to change the action.
Bottom line: You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude and enact change when bad times hit.
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2. View setbacks as temporary
The most resilient people have what shrinks call an “internal locus of control” — in other words, they believe that the actions they take will affect the outcome. So they don’t take losses personally or lump defeat into bigger, scarier patterns. They realize that a setback such as a layoff or conflict at home can be a challenge and an opportunity, notes New York psychotherapist Jeffrey B. Rubin, Ph.D., author of The Art of Flourishing. “Success is often an obstacle to learning,” he says. “When everything is going well, we continue to do what worked, and we don’t learn much. But a crisis can lead to a breakthrough.”
So when you’re blindsided, write down your options. Think of friends you can call (resilient people see things from multiple perspectives, and if you are having trouble doing so, well, that’s what friends are for). List books you can turn to. Decisive action creates a feeling of control, which is vital. According to many studies, the most resilient people are those who believe they have control over their emotions and state of mind.
Also take a conscious moment (or a few!) to remember how you’ve dealt before. You’ve gotten through other crises, right? You’re still here—correct? San Diego psychologist Mark Katz, Ph.D., who created the Resilience Through the Life Span Project, asks participants to identify setbacks and “turning point experiences,” having them recall the factors—like a kind-hearted mentor—that helped them overcome.
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3. Think out of the oh-no box
An unforeseen mishap causes many of us to freeze, paralyzed by indecision and fear. But flexibility is one of the core characteristics of highly resilient types. To get un-stuck during a crisis, train yourself to ask—and answer—these questions, says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania.
• What other things might have contributed to this problem?
• If I shared this issue with my friend, what would he/she see as having caused it?
• What parts of the problem can I directly control? Influence? Leverage?
• What solutions have I not tried?
In fact, if you make a concerted effort now to consider alternate approaches, you’ll be better equipped to improvise during the next difficult patch. So when you have a minor problem, brainstorm with a friend to open up your thinking. If you tap into your inner MacGyver and get into the habit of devising new ways of doing things, “you’ll be able to solve problems more easily when you do get stressed,” says Bobbi Emel, a psychotherapist in Los Altos, California, and author of the Bounce blog.
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4. Dote on yourself
Physical health is a pillar of resilience. Before and during a crisis, it’s essential to have healthy habits such as eating well, exercising, and avoiding mood changers like alcohol and other vices. (Interestingly, a 2007 study of residents living near the 9/11 attacks in New York City found that the people who coped best—meaning they showed the fewest signs of post-traumatic stress disorder—were the least likely to smoke cigarettes or use marijuana.)
In tough times, rest can be the first thing to go, so bring it on with sleep-promoting habits like exercise (another crucial building block for resilience, because it controls levels of cortisol, the stress hormone).
When it comes to coping, yoga is especially beneficial. A recent study from Harvard Medical School tracked a group of students over the course of 11 weeks. One group did a standard gym regimen, while the other one practiced yoga. At the end of the study, the yoga students reported that they were better able to calm themselves down when they felt upset. “Yoga promotes self-regulation, which is the ability to step back from a situation and not be reactive,” says Jessica J. Noggle, Ph.D., one of the researchers.
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5. Don’t go it alone
One of the myths about the highly resilient is that they possess unique internal strength that they rely on in the face of adversity. Not necessarily: The Teflon types are actually likely to reach out to others for help. A 2007 study by University of Chicago psychologists bears out this fact. It found that socially isolated people have a significantly more difficult time recovering from life challenges. “The more you hide your problem, the more power it has over you,” Emel explains. “Other people remind you of who you are and reflect back that you’re still that same person.”
You can even boost your resilience by picturing others and wishing them well. In 2008, researchers at Emory University discovered that those who practiced compassion meditation (in effect, meditation while wishing others happiness and freedom from suffering, starting with loved ones and proceeding to enemies) had lower emotional distress levels in response to stress tests.
But connection is really the key. So in order to fortify your coping skills, it’s important to build up as many meaningful relationships as possible. A 2010 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that participants who plunged their hand in icy water were able to keep it there twice as long if they thought of five of their social groups (as opposed to others, who were told to picture one group they belonged to). This, along with previous research, led the researchers to conclude that being part of many different groups—work friends, neighbors, volunteer gatherings—is critical.
Being interconnected gives us the strength to handle challenges by helping us develop a sense of belonging and purpose—which, when it comes to getting through the tough stuff, may be the most important component of all.