Toughening Up

Resilience is the hot topic of the day. Since New York implemented programs to enhance resilience in schools to help children manage the stress and trauma of 9/11 almost fourteen years ago, ‘resilience-building’ programs are popping up everywhere. These programs, which aim not only to help people recover from trauma but also to better deal with day-to-day stresses, claim to make people more resilient – that is, to increase their ability to navigate difficult circumstances without lasting psychological damage.

But can you really train the mind to be tougher?

Scientific studies have shown that people whose bodies respond quickly to a threat but who then promptly bounce back tend to cope better with stressful situations and jobs. A study of US Special Forces soldiers by Dennis Charney, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the National Institute of Health suggests that the reward systems in resilient people’s brains may be less affected by stress or adversity than those in normal people’s brains.

Charney and Steven Southwick, a professor from the Yale School of Medicine, have identified 10 psychological and social factors that they believe enhance resilience either alone or in combination:

  1. Facing fear
  2. Having a moral compass
  3. Drawing on faith
  4. Using social support
  5. Having good role models
  6. Being physically fit
  7. Making sure your brain is challenged
  8. Having ‘cognitive and emotional flexibility’
  9. Having ‘meaning, purpose and growth’ in life
  10. ‘Realistic’ optimism

In her article, Young also discusses ‘mindfulness,’ a technique that may especially help people deal with both major traumas and daily stresses. The concept, which involves purposefully paying attention to the present and non-judgmentally examining the experience, helps to cultivate the factors that Charney and Southwick identified.

But how do you practice mindfulness? In some school resiliency programs, teachers conduct lessons on mindful meditation, such as ‘body scanning,’ to teach students to focus their attention on the present. In others, such as Martin Seligman’s Penn Resiliency Program, students learn to detect ‘inaccurate’ thoughts and challenge their accuracy by considering alternative explanations, as well as techniques for assertiveness, negotiation, decision-making, problem-solving and relaxation.

There are many different ways to build up adaptability. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution; for instance, some people may require more emotional regulation while others do not. The best way to increase your resilience is to adopt several approaches and see what works best for you.


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