Build Up Your Resilience
Prevention Magazine . December, 2006
Learn to survive–and thrive–no matter what comes your way
I’ve seen people do all kinds of things to relieve anxiety. Some have a glass of wine at dinner. Others shop or eat. But these are troubling times—with hurricanes, tsunamis, war, and acts of terrorism—and if drinking, eating, or hitting the mall is your way of fending off anxiety over the state of the world, you should know that the bill will eventually come due. And I don’t mean just the credit card statement. Such coping methods do nothing to build your inner strength and resiliency. Fortunately, there are ways to nurture true inner peace when outer peace isn’t an option.
A few months ago, a woman I’ll call Nancy attended one of my seminars. Nancy had been through hard times: Three years earlier her house had burned down; then her husband’s National Guard unit shipped out to Iraq, and when he returned he was angry, depressed, and traumatized. The couple got therapy yet grew further apart until, finally, her husband asked for a divorce. Nancy realized she had a choice: She could drown in self-pity or move forward. After seeing how the trauma of war had torn up her husband, she wanted to make a difference with her life. So, at 35, she enrolled in nursing school.
I think even Nancy was surprised by her resilience. But her leap into a life of greater meaning came from a simple change in outlook. She shifted her focus from her own problems to the difficulties of others. And that one change brought her clarity and peace.
This time of global uncertainty challenges each of us to create our own sense of security. That doesn’t mean you need to follow Nancy’s lead into a nursing career, but keeping an eye on what really matters will help you maintain your balance when things around you seem to fall apart. Here are a few practical steps that can help you become more resilient.
Don’t Let Bad News Overwhelm You
Journalists are biased. I don’t mean politically—I mean that although good news rarely gets repeated, bad news is aired again and again in living color. But one exposure to mayhem is more than enough. Research by psychologist Turhan Canli, PhD, and his colleagues demonstrated that emotionally intense images get deeply etched in memory because they activate the amygdala. That’s the part of the brain that processes threats to our survival, and it’s involved in anxiety and panic. Why program it with frightening images that have staying power? Instead, during times of disaster, avoid being overwhelmed emotionally and physiologically by rationing TV, Internet, and radio news. You’ll get all the information you need in a few minutes; after that, it’s just more of the same. Place inspiring images where you’ll see them often, because you’ll remember them just as readily as distressing ones (and more easily than neutral photos).
Know What You Don’t Know
There’s an old story about a Ukrainian priest who walks to church each morning. One day, a Cossack stops him and asks imperiously where he’s going. “I don’t know,” says the priest. The Cossack is furious—after all, the priest always went to church—and hauls him off to jail. There, the Cossack asks why he lied. “I didn’t lie,” the priest replies. “I really didn’t know that I was going to jail.”
We really don’t know what will happen either. People who always expect the worst tend to be stressed-out and to suffer worse health than those who think more optimistically. But worry about a situation often turns out to be worse than the reality. Make plans to avert possible disaster, but repeat to yourself that you really don’t know anything other than what’s happening at this very moment.
Learn from the Super-Resilient
Dennis S. Charney, MD, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has investigated people who suffered extreme stress and emerged psychologically intact. With colleague Steven M. Southwick, MD, of Yale University, he studied 750 men, mostly pilots in the Vietnam War, who were held captive for up to 8 years and subjected to torture or solitary confinement—or both—but avoided depression. These men shared a number of characteristics.
Among other things, they were optimistic and altruistic, had a moral compass based on firmly held beliefs, used humor, had strong role models, and were guided by a sense of mission or purpose in life. You can nurture these traits in yourself. Look for ways to help others less fortunate than yourself, for instance, or strengthen your sense of right and wrong by reading biographies of inspiring men and women.
Explore Faith and Spirituality
Many of the POWs studied by Charney and Southwick said they prayed daily during their captivity; others didn’t. You don’t need to be religious to be resilient, in other words, but a sense that life has meaning does seem to help. Simply exploring different religious and philosophical traditions can deepen your sense of why you’re here and what you think the purpose of your life is. These qualities can help you to endure and bounce back from adversity.
People such as Nancy, who face difficulty and emerge stronger, rekindle the hope in all our hearts. My holiday wish for you is to remember the good and the beautiful that are the essence of life—and to resolve to keep a positive outlook in the year ahead. That way you can become more resilient and help create a better future for the generations to come.