It is not news that most of us won’t escape this life without facing some form of major life trauma. And how we get through these events lays the groundwork for who we are, how we face challenges, and how resilient we are in the face of them.
In their new book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, 2nd Edition, Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney draw upon inspiring stories and the latest science to provide a roadmap to overcome adversity, build resilience, and enhance physical and emotional well-being.
“Traumatic events throw our lives in turmoil in unpredictable ways; no two people will respond to them in exactly the same manner,” write Southwick and Charney.
People can also be resilient in one area of their lives while struggling to cope with adversity in another area of their lives.
What often makes the difference — and what is typically measured through the Dispositional Resilience Scale — are three things: being fully engaged, having a sense of control over events, and being able to view adversity as a challenge.
“To truly understand [resilience], researchers must approach it from multiple perspectives and examine it through a number of different scientific lenses,” the authors write.
By interviewing POWS, Special Forces Instructors, and civilians from many areas of life, Southwick and Charney found ten resilience factors: realistic optimism, facing fear, moral compass, religion and spirituality, social support, resilient role models, physical fitness, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and meaning and purpose.
However, resilience today is in short supply. Southwick and Charney write, “The lack of resilience is so striking that it has been framed as a national security weakness.”
At the heart of resilience is our attitude toward stress, and most of us have been taught to believe that stress is bad and something we must reduce or avoid.
Actually the opposite is true. The authors write, “When stress can be managed, it tends to be very good and even necessary for health and growth. Without it, the mind and body weaken.”
When we learn to make use of stress — to inspire growth, strength, and the cultivation of wisdom — we also open the door for the neuroplastic development that effectively changes the structure and function of the brain.
Southwick and Charney quote Deepak Chopra and Harvard University neuroscientist, Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., who said, “Neuroplasticity is better than mind over matter. It’s mind turning into matter as your thoughts create new neuronal growth.”
And while optimism often provides the energy necessary for resilience, blind optimism leads us to overestimate our abilities, fall into the trap of illusory superiority, and as former POW Admiral James Stockdale says, becomes “the bane of existence to one under stress.”
However, when optimism acknowledges the presence of negative emotions and doesn’t rely on their exclusion, it acts to broaden our attention and build resources to help us cope with stress.
The authors write, “Those who frequently experience positive emotions generally have the ability to step back from the maelstrom and observe stressful situations from multiple perspectives.”
Optimism also helps us to reframe a situation, utilize effective coping strategies, and find a sense of meaning and purpose in our experiences.
How we view fear also plays a fundamental role in our ability to develop resilience. Here, the authors draw upon the wisdom of the special forces instructors to offer some helpful techniques: view fear as a guide, view fear as an opportunity, focus on the goal or mission, acquire information about what is needed, learn and practice the skills necessary to master the fear, face fear with friends or colleagues, face fear with spiritual support, and get someone or an organization to push you.
Without fear, there can be no courage. Courage, the authors tells us, is the “measure of a man’s ability to handle fear” and “must be exercised in the presence of fear.”
Courage is also witnessed in our moral behavior, our sense of virtue, compassion, altruism, and dignity in the face of suffering and has strong evolutionary roots. Southwick and Charney quote author Michael Shermer, who points out, “As a species of social primates, we have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate selfishness and free riding.”
The act of facing our fears and exposing ourselves to stress in a progressive way that pushes us out of our comfort zone without overwhelming us — much like building physical fitness — is how we build resilience. For this reason, endurance training can provide a helpful model for the stamina and perseverance needed to face, find meaning in, and eventually overcome and perhaps be made stronger by life’s biggest challenges.
In a world rife with adversity, resiliency is indispensable, and we often don’t appreciate it until it is needed most. Reading Resilience will not only change the way you look at resilience, but give you the essential information and exercises needed to cultivate it.
Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, 2nd Edition
Cambridge University Press, May 2018
Paperback, 330 pages