As the pandemic stretches on, our collective ability to weather adversities and bounce back to emotional stability is being challenged daily. Many of us have suffered significant trauma from illness, hospitalization and death. Many more have experienced job loss, economic uncertainly and financial instability. And everyone has had to cope with an unprecedented uprooting of social and emotional support networks.
Are we, as human beings, built to withstand such pressures?
Decades of research says the answer is “yes,” said psychiatrist Dr. Dennis Charney, who is the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and coauthor of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.”
And if we aren’t quite up to it yet, he said, we can learn to be.
Charney and coauthor Dr. Steven Southwick, a professor emeritus of psychiatry, PTSD and resilience at Yale School of Medicine, have spent years analyzing people who have suffered intense trauma, such as rape victims and prisoners of war.
Charney also knows about resilience from personal experience. He joined the ranks of the traumatized in 2016 when a disgruntled ex-employee shot him as he left a bagel shop early one morning. The shotgun blast entered his right side, puncturing his lung and liver and sending him into a prolonged recovery.
“I still have 15 pellets in me,” Charney said. “And since I had studied resilience, I started to think during my recovery, ‘Well, now we’re gonna find out if I’m resilient.’ And I discovered a lot of the tools and traits we found in our research held up and made a difference for me.”
Here are some of the top traits and behaviors resilient people used to survive the worst life had to throw at them — and thrive.
1. Strive to be positive
Being an optimist is a key trait of those who are resilient, Charney said, but this is not some rosy, “I can do anything,” type of positivity. Instead, strive to be a “realistic optimist.”
“Realistic optimists pay close attention to negative information about the problems they face. However, unlike a pessimist, these people do not remain focused on the negative,” Charney said. “They cut their losses and move on to what they can solve.”
2. Learn from your challenges
Science has found that there are genes for optimism and resilience, but “genes are not destiny,” Charney said.
“Some people do have the capacity to handle stress better than others, but experience is important,” he said. “Even though you may not have faced the exact challenge that is in front of you now, by having other challenges in your life in which you have been successful, you can use that experience in dealing with your present traumatic situation.”
This important trait can be taught — to both adults and children, he emphasized.
“You don’t want your children to have a stress-free life where they don’t face challenges. Now, that doesn’t mean you traumatize them,” Charney added.
“But you want to have them experience things that are out of their comfort zone, a little bit at a time, and be successful. They go on to do something else out of their comfort zone, and they’re successful,” he said. “And before you know it, they have a ‘psychological toolbox’ to handle problems in their life.”
3. Have role models of resilience
Identifying people that you can admire for their perseverance in overcoming challenges, even traumatic ones, was another key trait in people who are resilient, Charney said. It can be a family member, friend, teacher, pastor, community leader — the list is endless. You don’t even have to have met these people to learn from their example.
“One of the people we got to know in our research was born with a congenital medical problem,” he said, “and one of her heroes and role models was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obviously, she never met him, but she read a lot about how he dealt with polio and became the president and all of that was very meaningful to her.”
4. Find your moral center
Having a moral compass was important to many of the most resilient people Charney studied over the years.
“As Mark Twain said, you can’t go wrong by doing the right thing,” he said.
A moral center can go hand in hand with religion or a sense of spirituality, he said, but it doesn’t have to: “There are atheists who have a strong moral compass of what they need to do the right thing,” Charney said.
5. Have a purpose in life
In addition to a moral compass, research has shown having a passion or purpose in life is important to developing resilience.
Having a sense that “What I’m doing with my life is very important, I feel I have to do it. It’s morally important to me that I do it,” is a key to resilience, Charney said, but you can also foster that with volunteerism.
“Altruism is a very important trait in resilient people,” Charney said. “You’re helping others and that gives you a strong sense of purpose, which can expand to other parts of your life.”
6. Use humor
Humor can be very helpful during times of serious stress, Charney said, pointing to research he and Southwick did with Vietnam prisoners of war.
“They were severely traumatized for six to eight years, many of them solitary confinement, heavily tortured and so forth,” Charney said. “And over and over again, they told us that humor was very helpful, even in the darkness. It was a way to connect to other people, and get pleasure even in the worst of times.
“You know they called the prison they were held in the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ right? That’s a very humorous nickname,” he added.
7. Develop a ‘tap code’
Having a supportive social network of friends or family is key to fostering resilience, research has shown. Charney likes to call it a “tap code,” after the technique used by the Vietnam POWs to mentally and emotionally survive being locked in solitary cells.
By tapping a certain code for letters into the walls of their cells, prisoners could communicate — albeit slowly — with other POWs on the other side of cell walls.
“If they didn’t have the ability to communicate with the person who was in solitary in the next cell, it would have been extremely difficult to psychologically survive,” Charney said. “So we make the point that everybody needs a tap code, everybody needs that kind of support during tough times.”
8. Foster flexibility
You can build your resilience muscles by practicing flexibility, which is the ability to use different tools and techniques to overcome a challenge, said George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology and the director of the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia University.
“There is a way of thinking which I call the flexibility mindset, which leads to the flexibility sequence. It’s like the nuts and bolts,” said Bonanno, who authored “The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience is Changing the Way We Think About PTSD.”
“It’s actually a series of three mental steps that we go through to actually work out what to do in this situation, or at least for this moment,” Bonanno said.
First, Bonanno said, ask yourselves questions to focus your mind: “What’s happening to me? What do I need to do here?” Next, take stock of the “tools” in your toolbox.
“To handle challenges in one’s life, you’re always learning — from role models, from prior experiences — and that’s part of developing a ‘psychological toolbox’ to use to face the current challenge,” Charney explained.
And finally, Bonanno said, “it’s time to decide which of all my options am I actually able to do, do it, and then we monitor it and if it’s working great, good. If it’s not working, then we either modify it a little bit or try something else. That’s flexibility.”
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