Special Report: Why Developing Resilience May Be the Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your Well-Being Right Now
Editor's Note: It’s safe to say that most of us entered 2020 without a clue that the new year would usher in the first global pandemic in more than a century. Now in the 10th month of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, all of our lives have been radically altered in one or more ways. And while any semblance of “normalcy” is still months away, there’s now a legitimate end in sight as the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed across the country this week.
Illness, fear, loss, grief, isolation, uncertainty, and unemployment are just a handful of the profound consequences of the pandemic — with many experiencing multiple issues simultaneously. And with cases still spiking across the country and likely worsening this winter, the current U.S. death toll of over 307,000 will just keep rising, and lockdowns and anxiety will persist. The pandemic has pushed us to our limits, but we’ve used our resilience to push back and keep going. As we near the end of this unthinkable year and look forward to a new year that we know will continue to present challenges, one thing we can do to help ourselves is to take some time to store up our resilience reserves.
Though it may seem as if we had a window into the future during the fall of 2019 when we spoke to some of the country’s top resilience researchers, we promise that was not the case. In addition to the experts, we also talked to people living — and thriving — with incredible challenges, including mental illness, physical disabilities, stage 4 cancer, trauma, death of a family member, and loss of a loved one by suicide. We wanted to know: Is resilience at the core of their ability to cope and thrive? The answer was overwhelmingly "Yes."
To see what the rest of the country thought about resilience, we put together the comprehensive report, below, partnering with wellness experts and researchers at The Ohio State University to conduct a national online survey: The State of Resilience. A total of 3,583 people ages 13 to 73 took our online survey to help us better understand how Americans define resilience, what challenges our resiliency, and what makes us resilient.
The biggest "aha" insight our survey takers revealed? The majority of Americans overestimated their own resilience — by a lot. In fact, 83 percent of Americans polled thought they had high levels of mental and emotional resilience, when in fact 57 percent scored as resilient. Why is this important? Because growing research shows higher levels of resilience are directly related to better outcomes when living through a crisis, managing chronic disease and chronic pain, and improving emotional and physical health.
To see where you stand and what you can do to become even more resilient, read this report by award-winning writer Abby Ellin, and then take the Everyday Health Assessment: Get Your Resilience Score. The assessment is based on 15 years of scientific research from one of the country’s top resilience experts, Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board Member Amit Sood, MD. Dr. Sood is the executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being, creator of the Resilient Option Program, and former professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.
At the end, you can sign-up for our free Resilience Toolkit, which includes a download of our seven-page Resilience Workbook, “Discover the Resilient You,” written by Sood and medically reviewed by Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, RN, vice president for health promotion and chief wellness officer?at The Ohio State University. You’ll learn how to strengthen your self-confidence and self-control, two skills you need to cope with any situation.
We also have an in-depth guide, "What Is Resilience?: Your Guide to Facing Life’s Challenges, Adversities, and Crises," written by Katie Hurley, licensed clinical social worker, and reviewed by?Allison Young, MD, a psychiatrist and member of Everyday Health’s medical review board. You’ll learn how to cultivate resilience and hear from celebs like Randy Travis, Jennifer Hudson, and soccer superstar Lionel Messi on how they did the same. You’ll get our recommendations on the top TV shows, books, and films for inspiring and learning about resilience; learn how to teach kids and teens resilience; and find out whether gender affects resilience.
We feel so strongly about what we’ve learned the past six months about resilience — namely its connection to your physical, mental and emotional, social, and spiritual well-being — that we believe taking steps to learn how to become more resilient will help you get through this crisis and see beyond to the other side. The payoff for putting in the extra time and effort to become more resilient? Less of the stuff you don’t want: fear, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, depression, sadness, and hopelessness. And more of the stuff that can benefit you in times of crisis and in everyday life, including a sense of hope and satisfaction with yourself, your relationships, your work, and your life overall.
—?Maureen Connolly, Editor in Chief?
Key Survey and Research Findings
Here are some of the highlights from our 49-question online survey (PDF):
- Eighty-three percent of Americans polled thought they had high levels of mental and emotional resilience, when in fact only 57 percent scored as resilient after taking an assessment to measure their personal resilience.
- Ninety-one percent of the most resilient Americans believe mental health is as important as physical health. Yet only 33 percent of Americans are likely to ask for help or counseling when faced with a negative situation that is emotionally taxing.
- Less resilient people have a passive, “it is what it is” mindset. They also spend time overthinking or overanalyzing issues and shy away from in-person interactions. Resilient people “keep their challenging situations in perspective.” Sixty-three percent “don’t sweat the small stuff versus overthinking things.”
- Boomers and Gen Xers share the same self-reported resilience ratings: Sixty-seven percent of boomers and 62 percent of Gen Xers rate themselves as “more resilient” compared with 37 percent of Gen Zers.
- Gender and ethnicity matter. Sixty-two percent of black or African Americans say they’re resilient while just 46 percent of Asian Americans say the same. And when it comes to gender, 59 percent of men in our survey were resilient compared with just 54 percent of women.
- Good news: In general, the majority of Americans (89 percent) know what it takes to be physically well. Not so good news: A disconnect between financial health and emotional wellness. Only 50 percent of respondents believe financial wellness affects personal wellness, yet financial insecurity is a big driver of stress today.
- Going through a tough time? The most common responses people said they hear are “Are you okay?”, “How are you doing?”, and “Everything will be okay.” But the top three statements people said they like hearing the most are “I’m so sorry, I love you”, “Remember that time when … ?" (telling stories of lost loved ones), and “Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
- When looking at the associations among resilience levels, disease, and mental health, those who scored as less resilient reported a higher prevalence of asthma and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and were also significantly (51 percent) more likely to report a diagnosis of clinical depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, OCD, or an eating disorder.
- Resiliency role models for people of any age? Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and Nelson Mandela topped the list — in that order.
The evidence on resilience, which is often defined as the ability to cope or adapt when confronted with adverse life events, is mounting. Thousands of studies over recent decades show that people of all ages who are resilient tend to have better health and well-being outcomes than those who do not possess resiliency.
I have devoted my career to developing and testing cognitive behavioral intervention programs to improve mental health outcomes in children, teens, and young adults at risk for or suffering from depression and anxiety. Findings from my body of 17 studies, including a large clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Nursing Research, support that COPE, or Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment (also known as MINDSTRONG for college students at The Ohio State University), is effective in enhancing self-esteem, resiliency, and coping skills to prevent or lessen mental health problems.
My own research along with other studies support the idea that individuals can learn techniques to build resilience. These include learning cognitive behavioral skills to turn negative thoughts into positive ones; taking good self-care; reading five minutes every morning from a positive book; engaging in positive self-talk; naming people and things for which you are grateful every day; viewing crises or stressful challenges as “character builders” instead of intractable problems; staying connected to others and sharing feelings with them; learning to accept change as part of life; and keeping things in perspective.
This report adds new and exciting insights into resiliency across multiple generations, based on solid research findings that extend what is known on this topic. I encourage you to take your time in reading it, think critically about how you can further build resiliency, and make a commitment to put into daily practice some key strategies to enhance your own resilience.
Remember, it takes practice and time to build resilience, so don’t give up. Keep trying, as the result will be well worth it.
Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, RN
Vice President for Health Promotion and Chief Wellness Officer at The Ohio State University;?Executive Director for the Helene Fuld Health Trust National Institute for Evidence-based Practice in Nursing and Healthcare; Dean and Professor at?The?OSU?College of Nursing
I t was supposed to be the happiest time of my life: I had moved from New York City to Washington, DC, to enroll in a graduate program in international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. My career was on track. My health was good. And oh, yes: I was engaged to a kind, brilliant, charming, and honest man, a Navy doc who was opening hospitals for pediatric cancer patients in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Life was rocking — except for my gnawing suspicion that the sweet, noble doctor might not be as sweet (or noble) as he’d purported to be. Was he really a former Navy SEAL? Could he really have rescued his ex-wife when she was held hostage in Iran? I questioned almost every utterance that came out of his mouth; he, in turn, attacked me for having “trust issues.” I began second-guessing everything about myself, my beliefs, and my perceptions; not only could I not trust him, but I could no longer trust myself.
Twelve months into the relationship, I left. I couldn’t live in that liminal space between fact and fiction and not know which was which. I then promptly beat myself up for being such a horrible, mistrusting commitment-phobe. Why did I have to be so suspicious? Why couldn’t I have a normal relationship like other people?
Besides the emotional despair, there were logistical issues. The future I’d anticipated was suddenly derailed. I’d given up my place in Manhattan, I had no money, and nowhere to go. Plus, I still had classes and work to deal with. Now what was I supposed to do?
Come up with a plan. Figure it out.
So I did. I wrangled a magazine assignment about Washington hotels, which I clearly had to test out in person. I commuted to DC once a week by bus and continued my studies at Hopkins. I sold my engagement ring (which, for the record, I tried to return to my ex but he told me to keep) and even began dating again. In short, I turned lemons into lemon meringue pie. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pleasant, but I refused to let some guy bring me down, even if he was a war hero.
A year and a half after I left him, he was arrested for writing fraudulent prescriptions for narcotics. Not only had he forged the names of his colleagues at the Pentagon (where he actually did work), but also those of his deceased relatives, his former father-in-law, a smattering of fictional counterparts — and me. He had not been a SEAL nor any kind of special operative; he met his ex-wife in medical school. After the shock wore off, elation set in. I’d been right to dump him; the dude was bad! (The woman he was engaged to — while he was engaged to me — agreed.) He spent the next two years in prison, and I ended up writing a book about deception, based largely on that experience.
What I went through was traumatic and, clearly, psychologically damaging. But I did learn a few things from it, most notably how resourceful I am. Rather than flee the country in humiliation and despair, I figured a way out of a hole. I didn’t give up on my goals; I just rejiggered them.
In a strange way, it was very similar to what is going on today with the coronavirus: Nobody really knows what the real story is, or who is giving us the straight facts, or how everything is going to play out. Our heads are all spinning. On the other hand, no one died in my story. And I didn’t have to self-isolate (though I wanted to). My small world was spinning out of control, yes. But it didn’t feel like the?end?of the world.
The word for this is “resilience,” derived from the Latin word resilire, meaning to rebound. And it’s a skill — yes, skill — we need to develop.
Because even if you aren't in the middle of a global pandemic or your fiancé isn’t forging prescriptions under your name, the world is pretty challenging. One day you’re just fine, and the next you’re getting a call from your doctor about something suspicious on your?mammogram, or hearing about blood work that looks off, or being denied coverage on a whopping medical claim that you’re being told is your responsibility. Or perhaps it’s all going rather well on the home front, but living in today’s world means you never know what’s going to get served up on your Facebook or Twitter page, or when you walk out the front door. Meanwhile, the media is only too happy to relay the grim possibilities. More shootings. Corporate fraud. This doesn’t include the daily vitriol spewing from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Indeed, being a person in the world today requires extraordinary fortitude, gumption, and resilience, what Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board Member Dr. Sood describes as “the core strength you use to lift the load of life.”
“Resilience is doing well when you shouldn’t be doing well,” says Sood, the executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being in Rochester, Minnesota, and creator of Mayo Clinic Resilient Mind. “It’s your ability to withstand adversity and bounce back and grow despite life’s downturns.”
Growth in the face of adversity can be life-changing in many ways. “There are costs to surviving and to recovering — physiological, psychological, emotional,” says?Arline T. Geronimus, ScD, professor of health behavior and health education at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “There can be growth or new direction to your life. For better or worse, you are not the same.”
Your Health and Well-Being Are Counting on Your Resilience
R esilience is critical to our overall well-being. It affects everything from our mental and financial health to our intimate relationships to our ability to handle trauma and loss. Taking the time to bolster resilience is probably one of the single best things you can do to improve your health, relationships, and happiness levels.
As Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board Member Nikita Gupta, MPH, director of the Grit Coaching Program at UCLA and a certified health education specialist in the Los Angeles, area puts it, “Life is hard. Life has changes we have to navigate. In order to persist through these things, we have to be able to face them.”Resilience affects psychological health, which is critical to our physical health. Resilience can therefore play an important role in determining how well we physically recover from adversity. Research shows that along with hope and social support, for example, resilience also has a positive effect on cancer survivors, according to a study published in February 2019 in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research. (2,3)
And a study of more than 10,750 people between ages 51 and 98, published in June 2016 in The Gerontologist, found that those with higher resilience levels ?— as measured by a survey that assesses one’s ability to face setbacks, handle change, and find purpose in life ?— experienced less disability and fewer health ailments, especially later in life. (4) Experts speculate that this is because resilient people are usually more physically active. (5)
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Jennifer Ashton, MD, the chief medical correspondent for Good Morning America, credits the years she spent playing lacrosse and field hockey with helping her be more resilient after her ex-husband died by suicide.
“If your body caves in, it’s hard to maintain emotional or psychological resilience,” says Dr. Ashton, author of the memoir Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community After Unthinkable Loss and The Self-Care Solution: A Year of Becoming Happier, Healthier, Fitter — One Month at a Time (due out in December 2019). “I was familiar at a young age with what it means to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and to keep pushing and actually do it and get stronger as a result.”
But it’s not just about athleticism. Ashton has also had three operations. “I know what it feels like to be in pain and then recover,” she says. “You don’t have to be athletic to develop resilience with a physical nature.
Resilience is also linked to happiness, says Anna Rowley, PhD, a corporate psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. Dr. Rowley believes that resilience is linked with more happiness — although, she stresses, happiness shouldn’t be the goal.
“There’s this relentless drumbeat around being happy, and it’s very hard because it’s a nebulous concept,” she says. “Having it as an overarching goal of the human condition is selling everybody short, because there are very important things we all strive for, which is feeling fulfilled and having purpose and finding meaning in what we do. Focusing people’s behavior on being happy doesn’t give people the capacity to learn and grow when they’re not happy.”
Learning to deal with adversity rather than focusing on happiness improves the chance that you will one day feel good again. As she puts it, “Resilience provides you with a personal foundation of strength and sense of safety.”
Studies have shown that characteristics associated with resilience, such as optimism, self-worth, and social support, can improve health outcomes in people with chronic conditions. On the other hand, low resilience has been linked to worsening of disease activity and reduced quality of life.
The following are just some examples of research examining the connection between resilience and specific conditions or disabilities:
- Studies have shown that optimism and perceived social support help improve quality of life for rheumatoid arthritis patients. (6)
- Research published in March 2018 in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found an association between traumatic experiences, low resilience, and reduced quality of life in psoriasis patients. Improving resilience through early psychological intervention helps facilitate management of the disease. (7)
- A study published in 2015 in the journal Cogent Psychology, which looked at resilience and chronic diseases such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, supported the idea that physical resilience can reduce the adverse effect that stressors have on the immune system. (8)
- Resilience is thought to be a protective factor against psychiatric disorders, and researchers found that patients who had attempted suicide had significantly lower resilience scale scores than patients who never attempted suicide. (9)
- Studies, including one published in 2017 in the journal Archives of Public Health, have suggested that resilience strategies may help improve blood sugar management in people with type 2 diabetes. (10)
- Research?published in June 2017 in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation?showed that resilience plays a unique role in quality of life issues among people with physical disabilities. (11)
Resilience: Powered by Motivation
O ur resilience is tested in small ways on a daily basis. Think about it this way: Any time you’d rather cower in bed with the sheets pulled over your head but somehow manage to dress yourself and leave the house, you’re being resilient. Any time you choose the salad over the truffle fries, you’re being resilient. Any time you do one more pushup when you’re in so much agony it hurts to blink, or practice that piano sonata when your fingers feel like they’re about to fall off, you’re being resilient. Why? Because you’re practicing self-control. Because you’re not giving up. You’re motoring through, powering on, even when that’s the last thing you want to do.
Granted, some people are naturally more resilient than others. Life throws them a curveball and not only do they catch it, but they go on to win the World Series. That’s a metaphor, of course, but the point is that big and small hurdles don’t stop them; neither loss nor failure nor illness nor trauma deters them. They land on their feet. It’s not about a moral attribute (being nicer or more patient or a better eater), it’s making constant choices that support your overall well-being.
But it’s not just about the big wins. The true essence of resilience is how you show up during both small and big moments of adversity — like somehow, at some point, finding a way to get out of bed after losing a parent, a child, a partner, a sibling, a best friend. Given the circumstances, that’s a monumental win akin to winning the World Series.
Indeed, you don’t know what you’re capable of until challenged. Ashton, for example, always thought she was a resilient person. In medical school, she worked 90-hour weeks, sometimes staying up for 36 hours at a time while raising her two children. “I completed all of my classwork and graduated on time,” she says. “If you asked me if I was resilient, I’d have said ‘yeah.’”
But she had no idea just how strong she was until 2017, when her ex-husband, surgeon Robert Ashton Jr., jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Not only did she have to reckon with her own pain and guilt while caring for over 2,000 patients, but she was now a single mother to two grieving kids.
Ashton had inner reserves to call upon, but Sood says science has shown that anyone can increase their resilience. Even if you don’t naturally possess the resilience “gene,” he says resilience can be learned, developed, and acquired — and it doesn’t require a huge investment of time or financial resources.
In April of last year, Susan Cooper, 77, an entrepreneur in New York City, lost her husband, David, of 56 years. For her, resilience is action-oriented. David was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2012, and told that he had two to five years to live. “In 2013, his tests and chest X-rays had not changed that much.”
He was okay, basically, until 2016, when he needed an oxygen tank. By 2016, he was using portable oxygen tanks and they began to keep small oxygen tanks in the house. “More than once, I was tempted to put a pillow over his face,” she says. “I didn't do it. I got bigger and better oxygen.”
After he died, Cooper — who says she adored her husband, raised two kids with him, traveled the world with him, and considered him her best friend — missed him terribly. She goes to a grief support group to help with the loss. But she also decided that Philadelphia, where they lived, was not the place for her to build a new life. “I needed to create a new community,” she says. She put their loft on the market three weeks later and moved into a Manhattan loft. “I needed to get on with my life,” she says. “Isn’t that resilience?”
It is. And although Cooper believes she was born with loads of it, she has also cultivated it. Carla Melby-Oetken, RD, a health and wellness coach at the University of Iowa in Iowa City who works with some 20,000 employees, prefers to use the word “skills” rather than “traits,” because trait implies something immutable. Skills, on the other hand, can be acquired and developed. In fact, you can take charge and build and strengthen your resilience much in the same way you build muscle by lifting weights.
According to Darlene Mininni, PhD, MPH, a learning and development health psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, “Resilience is built upon a collection of teachable skills that strengthen our mental flexibility, emotional awareness, and feelings of connection.” Dr. Mininni, who’s also a member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board, says that resilient people “use these skills to navigate the ups and downs of their lives, and they benefit with a greater sense of well-being, optimism, and life satisfaction.”
Sood has worked with over half a million people and conducted 30 clinical trials on resilience. He believes that only about half of resilience is innate, woven into our DNA or nurtured during childhood; the other 50 percent can be cultivated. Investing just 10 minutes throughout the course of a day in two-minute increments can significantly increase happiness, improve your quality of life, reduce sick days, and lower anxiety, as he wrote in a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. (12)
“We have tried to strategically place resilience practices at transition points during the day, where investing two minutes of time can produce benefits of four to six hours,” he says. “Say you are going into a difficult meeting. You invest 10 seconds and remind yourself why are you grateful to the person you’re going to meet. The moment you’re reminded of that, your day changes.”
According to Sood, we derive resilience in two different ways: from the inside out and from the outside in.
Resilience from the inside out is derived from your own inner resources: your conviction, self-love, and self-compassion. It comes from your faith, hope, positivity, courage, and gratitude.
Resilience from the outside in comes from the people around you: those who love, value, and support you, including our family, neighbors, and colleagues.
As we get older, we have the ability to develop this inside-out approach to resilience. Not that you don’t need to surround yourself with supportive people, but it’s the internal dialogue that matters more.
“I was invited to a keynote talk and they said ‘Oh, we’re happy to have you but we can’t pay anything,” Sood says. “My inner dialogue was, ‘maybe I’m not that valued, maybe they’re against me, maybe I have an accent so they don’t like me’ versus me saying ‘this is an organization that’s struggling, it has limited resources, I can help.’ The dialogue I have in my head changes how I perceive things.”
It’s called reframing (or “spinning,” in political circles). But the idea is to reframe a thought or idea toward a more neutral stance. “I think truth has two sides to it, and it all depends which side you focus on,” he says. “’I lost my wallet but I am grateful it didn’t have any credit cards in it.’ Or ‘I have a flat tire but am grateful I have a spare.’ When you’re driving, you can end up in a ditch or get up on the highway. Reframing gets you back on the highway.”
For children, external resilience is more important to cultivate than internal, “Because kids’ brains are like freshly poured concrete,” he says. “You scratch a line in it and it becomes a scar. They don’t have the resources to overcome critiques or abuse. So children depend a lot on family, community, teachers, and society at large. They still have their individual dispositions, but it’s largely the outside world that affects them.”
Yes, You Can Rewire Your Brain to Become More Resilient
A nother reason we can develop resilience over time is because of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change throughout life, says Bruce McEwen, PhD, the Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and head of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at the Rockefeller University in New York City.
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The brain is especially sensitive to stress. Animal studies have shown that there are branches in the brain that either retract or expand under stress, and cells shrink in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Shrinking cells cause the animal to perform poorer in memory tests and self-regulation, according to an article published in October 2015 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. (13) “The animal, and actually some human studies as well, show that people become more inflexible in decision-making,” Dr. McEwen says. But “If you turn off the stress and give time without stress, these neurons are resilient and grow back to normal or shrink back to normal.”
Say you’ve discovered, quite by accident, that you’re allergic to peanuts — after nearly dying from anaphylactic shock. Quite naturally, you’ll become afraid and anxious every time your throat feels a little tight. Yet despite the depression or trauma that resulted from this experience, you ultimately found a way to recover. Why do some people bounce back, while others develop post-traumatic stress disorder or even depression?
“One way of looking at that is that the brain can get 'stuck': This is a lack of resilience, a lack of the normal ability of nerve cells, even after they have shrunken, to grow back — or after they’ve grown, to shrink back to their normal state,” says McEwen.
“Doctors can then help promote resilience using behavioral therapies, including increasing physical activity,” says McEwen. Sometimes pharmacological agents are used in conjunction with these other methods, he explains, but the importance of the behavioral therapies cannot be overlooked. “Physical activity seems to open windows in which resilient plasticity can occur.”
Studies have shown that the brain can change at any age. “When you practice some of these ideas, then the prefrontal cortex increases and the amygdala, the fear part of the brain, becomes less active,” says Sood.
The brain is also malleable in kids. The Strong African American Families program was a random trial of 667 African American parents and their children that was published in January 2017 in JAMA Pediatrics. (14) The seven-week program was designed to build better communication between parents and children, and also help prevent drug abuse, alcohol, and cigarette use. The children were studied from ages 11 to 13 and 16 to 18. At 25, their hippocampi and amygdalae — the parts of the brain involved in control and aspects of memory, as well as emotional regulation — were measured in an MRI machine. While they had gotten smaller in children who hadn’t been in the program, they remained stable in those who had.
“Ten to 15 years later, there’s also evidence that not only their kids have retained a certain amount of plasticity in their brains, but also that there’s less diabetes,” says McEwen. “Promoting better relations between adolescents and parents, and building self-esteem and agency enables the child to be resilient as they go forward in life to fight bullying and to be self-controlled in making healthy choices, not only in diet and physical activity, but in relationships and priorities for school.”
“The idea that there’s a window of opportunity even before early trauma, that allows the child, with the help of the parent, to build a better sense of themselves and develop the resilience that they need to handle themselves in the culture, is the only way to explain this. They’ve developed the ability to handle problems. It’s not innate.”
What Resilient People Have That Nonresilient People Don’t
R esilient people tend to be optimistic and positive, with a sense of humor. They are motivated. They have courage, hope, and perspective, says Sood.
“They are intentional about what they choose to focus on,” he says. “I can choose to live in the present, or the past or future, but I get to choose. If I’m getting a colonoscopy a week from now, I’m happy to live in the present. We don’t keep irrational worries, like that a horse may fall on my house.”
Another big difference between resilient people and less resilient people is the way they frame situations in their head, adds Melby-Oetken. When something bad happens, do they view it as a trauma that unmoors them, or something to overcome, conquer, and grow from?
Sydney Heersink had to face such a situation at a young age. She had just graduated from college and was planning to pursue a master’s degree when the unimaginable happened. “I learned that I had stage 4 endometrial cancer that had metastasized to my colon, liver, lung, and uterus,” she wrote in a?blog post?last December about her experience.
When she was 14, Sydney lost her mother to?breast cancer. To reduce her own risk, she opted to undergo a prophylactic?mastectomy?last year. But in August, just a couple of months following the surgery, horrendous stomach pains sent her to the ER. She spent the next 17 days undergoing multiple ultrasounds,?CT scans, and, finally, exploratory surgery. Then came the diagnosis.
Sydney endured multiple rounds of radiation, continual chemotherapy, and brain surgery to remove a metastasized tumor.
“To say it’s unfair would be an understatement,” she wrote. “In truth, I believe it’s hard to explain why cancer happens to one person and not another. And the unfairness of it is impossible to rationalize. So I don’t try.”
Tragically, Sydney passed away on September 4. She was 22.
But Sydney lived her life in a way that exemplified resilience. “I have learned that being brave, being a warrior, and being strong do not mean fearlessness,” she wrote. “Coping with a cancer diagnosis is about standing in that fear and saying, ‘I choose to live a beautiful, passionate, impactful life.’”
People who know Sydney say that her ability to reframe adversity — even while dealing with terminal illness — came naturally to her. And while not all of us possess a natural ability to reframe negative things, the good news, say researchers, is this mindset can be developed. “Positive psychology has shown that our brains are more flexible than we thought,” Melby-Oetken says. “It comes down to practice. A lot of us develop some negative thinking strategies; I see that all the time. But if people are aware of that and able to observe those thoughts and ask themselves, 'Is this helping me — or do I want to try to practice new, healthier habits that will help move me forward?'”
Those who are less resilient tend to be weak, fearful, and withdrawing, experts say. They don’t take opportunities, and frequently run away at signs of distress. Among the less resilient, “Negative self-talk is a huge challenge,” says Melby-Oetken. “’Oh my god, I’m never going to overcome this, this is the worst thing that can possibly happen. Why should I put effort into it if it’s not going to change?’ Any negative thinking patterns kill energy and makes people feel hopeless.”
Melby-Oetken tells her clients to focus on the narrative they tell themselves, and then revise it. Say you’re going through a divorce. Rather than lamenting a horrible situation for you and your children, she advises you to “rewrite” the story. Instead of beating yourself up, you’d acknowledge that while the scenario is hardly ideal, it’s where you are right now. So your best option is to tell yourself it’s an unfortunate circumstance, accept it for what it is, and move on from there.
“Part of your brain is just experiencing that again as you tell that story,” she says. “You can rewrite it and even change how you feel. It’s allowing a little sliver of optimism. That maybe something good can come out of this.”
Clearly, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. In general, most of us possess a ‘negativity’ bias — meaning, we’re more attuned to negative situations than positive, says Sood. “If I ask you how many people have hurt you in life, you can tell that quickly,” he says. “They occupy a disproportionate real estate in our head. You have 50 square feet for people who love you and 500 square feet for people who hurt you. The idea is to focus less on the negative experiences and more on the positive. It’s about shifting your attitude.”
Sood believes that resilience is a skill that can be developed by focusing on five principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness. To build resilience, we can reframe the way we think about each one.
Certain practices, like gratitude, compassion, sense of purpose, and focus, can help build resilience, says Sood, when used to handle life’s challenges. For example, says Sood, “Can we find gratitude for what went right within what went wrong? Can we have self-compassion for our struggles instead of self-judgment for our mistakes? Can we choose to accept that with two-thirds of the Earth covered with clouds, it’s going to rain on our backyard some day? Each of the five principles engages the brain’s higher cortical areas and quiet the reactive parts (this change correlates with resilience), helping you live a happier and more fulfilled life.”
But it’s also important to recognize that only so much is within your control. Rather than worry about the horrific possibilities, focus on what is. “Life is like a long drive not knowing how much gas is in your car. No one knows,” he says. “So don’t think about what is going to happen six months from now. Make a plan for it, but live day by day.”
Support Builds Motivation: A Key Factor for Resilience
M elby-Oetken has had her own resilience tested. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After the initial shock wore off, she dusted herself off and tried to figure out how to get through it. “I thought, I have to accept it, work through it to the best of my ability, gather up support, use it, and then move on,” she says.
That’s what resilient people do: They surround themselves with strong support systems. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people climbing a hill felt it was less steep if they were surrounded by friends than if they were climbing it alone. (15)
“We have to stop thinking about and defining resilience as solely a quality of the individual,” says Dr. Geronimus, who is a member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board. “It’s more about what else you have to deal with in your life; who can help you deal with it; the nature of the society in which you live; your cultural history; and whether you can access some kind of motivating wisdom to keep going.”
“Your ability to move forward despite considerable restraining forces is based, in large part, on what is happening around you,” says Ross Ellenhorn, PhD, a sociologist and psychologist, and author of the forthcoming book Why We Change. “Your sense of being valuable to others, your experience that you have purpose in life, and whether you feel you have a network of people supporting you … these, among many other social resources, have a powerful effect on your tenacity in the face of difficult odds.”
The proper term is "distress tolerance," and it refers to one’s capacity to withstand adversity. While part of that is innate, your life experiences also help shape that, Dr. Ellenhorn says.
Ashton, for example, developed a high threshold for stress in childhood. Her parents divorced when she was 4 — and then remarried a few years later, only to divorce again when she was 22. She went to a demanding high school, but her parents insisted she could handle whatever was thrown at her. “One parent was very nurturing and the other told me to keep raising the bar higher to see what I could achieve,” she recalls. “Together, it bred distress tolerance and resilience.” Playing sports also helped, because it made her able to deal with physical challenges.
Studies have found that white Americans tend to be less resilient than minorities. (16) Why? It’s complicated. But minority groups tend to have more experience with adversity, especially economic and social. So they’ve had more of a need to figure out how to handle stressors. To that end, research has found white Americans experience more depression and anxiety than black Americans, although some of this difference may be related to underreporting and increased stigma of seeking mental healthcare in black communities. (17)
“There is research saying that if stress is chronic but low dosage and never gets to extremely high levels, it builds resilience,” says Shervin Assari, MD, an assistant professor of family medicine at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles, who studies resilience across social groups. “Other [researchers] have shown that some level of stress in your life or adversity is good. The other part of research shows that even when stress is severe and not chronic, if people can make sense out of it and can get some meaning, it’s helpful.”
Studies of survivors of Hurricane Katrina yielded interesting results. Most people experienced mental distress and post-traumatic stress for years after the disaster. But a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that low-income, unmarried black female survivors showed enormous resilience after the storm. (18) While they did show an increase in psychological trauma, within three years they had managed to return to the pre-storm stress levels. About 30 percent of survivors experienced post-traumatic growth, meaning that they felt the disaster had made them stronger, more compassionate, and more empathetic. And what got them through? A strong support system: Friends. Families. Neighbors.
“People kind of see disasters on TV and say, ‘How are these people ever going to build their lives again?’” says study coauthor Jean E. Rhodes, PhD, the Frank L. Boyden Professor of psychology and director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “We see that the vast majority of people over time bounce back.”
Most of them do so by choosing possibility over complacency. They reframe their thoughts to look at the brighter side. They rely on the kindness of friends, family, and strangers to support them. And when you do this, you feed the human spirit, which in turn fuels the physical, cognitive, environmental, and social-emotional self — the recipe for resilience.
Additional Contributors: Kim Kovacs, Tom Carr, Dakila D. Divina, Maura Corrigan, Elizabeth DeVita Raeburn, Denise Maher, George Vernadakis, Ingrid Strauch, Melinda Carstensen, Amy Kraft, Sarah DiGiulio, Carolyn Fagan, Brianna Wesley-Majsiak, Anna Brooks, Jamie Putman, Margot Slade, Scott Moore, Justine Angelis, Beth Silvestri, Tiffany Szalay, Bethany Rouslin, Kristen Hom, Amanda Long,?Nicole Vegliando,?and Thomas Gavin.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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- Gallagher MW, Long LG, Richardson A, D’Souza JM. Resilience and Coping in Cancer Survivors: The Unique Effects of Optimism and Mastery. Cognitive Therapy and Research. November 2018.
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- Crosta ML, De Simone C, Di Pietro S, et al. Childhood Trauma and Resilience in Psoriatic Patients: A Preliminary Report. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. March 2018.
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- Wilson AL, McNaughton D, Meyer SB, et al. Understanding the Links Between Resilience and Type-2 Diabetes Self-Management: A Qualitative Study in South Australia. Archives of Public Health. September 21, 2017.
- Battalio SL, Silverman AM, PhD, Ehde DM, et al. Resilience and Function in Adults With Physical Disabilities: An Observational Study. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. June 2017.
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- Chattarji S, Tomar A, Suvrathan A, et al. Neighborhood Matters: Divergent Patterns of Stress-Induced Plasticity Across the Brain. Nature Neuroscience. October 2015.
- Brody GH, Bray JC, Yu T, et al. Protective Prevention Effects on the Association of Poverty With Brain Development. JAMA Pediatrics. January 2017.
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- Lowe SR, Rhodes JE. Trajectories of Psychological Distress Among Low-Income, Female Survivors of Hurricane Katrina. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. April–July 2013.