10 Steps to Emotional Resilience

How do people cope with psychological trauma? How in situations where some want to lie down and die, others demonstrate amazing resilience? American psychiatrists Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney have been studying people with an inflexible character for 20 years.

They spoke with Vietnamese prisoners of war, special forces instructors and those who faced serious health problems, violence and injuries. They collected their discoveries and conclusions in the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.

1. Be optimistic

Yes, the ability to see the bright side supports. Interestingly, in this case we are not talking about “pink glasses”. Truly resilient people who have to endure the most difficult situations and still go towards the goal (prisoners of war, special forces soldiers) are able to strike a balance between a positive forecast and a realistic view of things.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Realistic optimists take into account the negative information that is relevant to the current problem. However, unlike pessimists, they do not dwell on it. As a rule, they quickly abstract from problems that are currently unsolvable and concentrate all their attention on those that they can solve.

And not only Southwick and Charney have identified this feature. When American journalist and writer Lawrence Gonzalez studied the psychology of survivors of extreme situations, he found the same thing: they balance between positive attitude to the situation and realism.

The logical question is: how the hell do they do it? Gonzalez realized that the difference between such people is that they are realists, confident in their abilities. They see the world for what it is, but they believe that they are rock stars in it.

2. Look fear in the eye

Neurology says the only real way to deal with fear is to look it in the eye. That’s what emotionally stable people do. When we avoid scary things, we become even more afraid. When we face fears face to face, we stop being afraid.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

To get rid of the memory of fear, you need to experience this fear in a safe environment. And the exposure must be long enough for the brain to form a new connection: in this environment, the stimulus that causes fear is not dangerous.

The researchers suggest that fear suppression entails an increase in the activity of the prefrontal cortex of the brain and inhibition of fear reactions in the amygdala.

This method has proven effective when used to treat anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. Its essence is that the patient is forced to face fear face to face.

Medic and Special Forces instructor Mark Hickey believes that confronting fears helps to recognize them, keeps them in good shape, develops courage, enhances self-esteem and control over the situation. When Hickey is scared, he thinks, “I’m scared, but this test will make me stronger.”

3. Set up a moral compass

Southwick and Charney found that emotionally stable people have a highly developed sense of right and wrong. Even when in a life-threatening situation, they were always thinking about others, not just about themselves.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

During the interview, we realized that many resilient individuals had a keen sense of right and wrong, which strengthened them during times of great stress and when they were coming back to life after shocks. Selflessness, caring for others, helping without expecting a reciprocal benefit for oneself – these qualities are often the core of the value system of such people.

4. Turn to spiritual practices

The main feature that unites people who were able to survive the tragedy.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Dr. Amad discovered that religious faith is the very powerful force by which the survivors explain both the tragedy itself and their survival.

But what if you are not religious? No problem.

The positive effect of religious activity is that you become part of the community. So you don’t have to do anything you don’t believe in, you just have to be part of a group that builds your resilience.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

The link between religion and resilience can be partly explained by the social aspects of religious life. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religare – “to bind”. People who regularly attend religious services gain access to a deeper form of social support than is available in a secular society.

5. Know how to give and receive social support

Even if you are not part of a religious or other community, friends and family can support you. When Admiral Robert Shamaker was captured in Vietnam, he was isolated from other captives. How did he keep his composure? Knocked on the cell wall. The prisoners in the next cell knocked back. Ridiculously simple, but it was these tappings that reminded them that they were not alone in their suffering.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

During his 8 years in prisons in North Vietnam, Shamaker used his sharp mind and creativity to develop a unique method of tapping communication known as the Tap Code. This was a turning point, thanks to which dozens of prisoners were able to contact each other and survive.

Our brains need social support to function optimally. During communication with others, oxytocin is released, which calms the mind and reduces stress levels.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Oxytocin reduces amygdala activity, which explains why support from others reduces stress.

And it is necessary not only to receive help from others, but also to provide it. Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months than you can in two years if you are interested in people and not trying to interest them in you.”

However, we cannot always be surrounded by loved ones. What to do in this case?

6. Emulate strong personalities

What supports children who grow up in miserable conditions but continue to live normal, fulfilling lives? They have role models who set a positive example and support them.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Emmy Werner, one of the first psychologists to study resilience, observed the lives of children who grew up in poverty, in dysfunctional families where at least one of the parents was an alcoholic, mentally ill or prone to violence.

Werner found that emotionally stable children who became productive, emotionally healthy adults had at least one person in their lives who really supported them and was a role model.

Our study found a similar connection: many of the people we interviewed said they had a role model—a person whose beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors inspire them.

Sometimes it’s hard to find someone you want to be like among your friends. This is fine. Southwick and Charney found that it’s often enough to have a negative example in front of you—a person you don’t want to be like in any way.

7. Keep fit

Again and again, Southwick and Charney found that the most emotionally stable people had the habit of keeping their body and mind in good shape.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Many of the people we spoke with were regular exercisers and felt that being physically fit helped them through tough situations and during recovery from injury. Some even saved their lives.

Interestingly, maintaining physical fitness is more important for emotionally more fragile people. Why?
Because the stress of exercise helps us adapt to the stress we will experience when life challenges us.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Researchers believe that during active aerobic training, a person is forced to experience the same symptoms that appear in moments of fear or excitement: rapid heartbeat and breathing, sweating. After some time, a person who continues to exercise intensively can get used to the fact that these symptoms are not dangerous, and the intensity of fear caused by them will gradually decrease.

8. Train your mind

No, we do not encourage you to play a couple of logic games on your phone. Resilient people learn throughout their lives, constantly enrich their minds, strive to adapt to new information about the world around them.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

In our experience, resilient people are constantly looking for opportunities to maintain and develop their mental abilities.

By the way, in addition to stamina, the development of the mind has many more advantages.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Cathy Hammond, in her 2004 study at the University of London, concluded that continuous learning has a complex positive impact on mental health: it provides good health, the ability to recover from psychological trauma, the ability to cope with stress, a developed sense of self-esteem and self-sufficiency, and much more. other. Continuous learning developed these qualities through pushing boundaries, a process that is central to learning.

9. Develop cognitive flexibility

Each of us has a way in which we usually deal with difficult situations. But the most emotionally resilient people are distinguished by the fact that they use several ways to cope with difficulties.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

Resilient people tend to be flexible, looking at problems from different perspectives and responding to stress in different ways. They do not stick to just one method of dealing with difficulties. Instead, they switch from one survival strategy to another depending on the circumstances.

What is the surest way to overcome difficulties that definitely works? Be tough? No. Ignore what’s going on? No. Everyone mentioned humor.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

There is evidence that humor helps to overcome difficulties. Studies involving combat veterans, cancer patients, and surgical survivors have shown that humor reduces stress and is associated with resilience and the ability to tolerate stress.

10. Find the meaning of life

Resilient people don’t have a job—they have a calling. They have a mission and purpose that give meaning to everything they do. And in difficult times, this goal pushes them forward.

“Unbending: The Science of Withstanding Life’s Challenges”

Quoted from Stephen Southwick and Dennis Charney.

According to the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s theory that work is one of the pillars of the meaning of life, the ability to see your calling in your work increases emotional stability. This is true even for people doing low-skilled jobs (like cleaners in a hospital) and for people who fail to do their chosen job.

Summary: What can help build emotional resilience

  1. Feed optimism. Do not deny reality, look at the world clearly, but believe in your abilities.
  2. Look fear in the eye. By hiding from fear, you make the situation worse. Look him in the face and you can step over him.
  3. Set up a moral compass. A developed sense of right and wrong tells us what to do and pushes us forward, even when our strength is running out.
  4. Be part of a group that believes strongly in something.
  5. Give and receive social support: even tapping on the cell wall is supported.
  6. Try to be a role model or, on the contrary, keep in mind the person you do not want to become.
  7. Exercise: Physical activity adapts the body to stress.
  8. Lifelong learning: your mind must be in good shape to come up with the right solutions when you need them.
  9. Cope with difficulties in different ways and remember to laugh even in the most terrible situations.
  10. Fill life with meaning: you must have a calling and a purpose.

We often hear about post-traumatic mental disorders, but rarely about post-traumatic development . But it is. Many people who have been able to overcome difficulties become stronger.

“The Path to Prosperity. A new understanding of happiness and well-being”

Quote from Martin Seligman.

Within a month, 1,700 people who survived at least one of these nightmarish events passed our tests. To our surprise, people who experienced one terrible event were stronger (and therefore more prosperous) than those who did not experience any. Those who had to endure two difficult events were stronger than those who had one. And those people who had three horrifying events in their lives (for example, rape, torture, holding against their will) were stronger than those who survived two.

It looks like Nietzsche was right when he said, “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” And one of the interlocutors of Southwick and Charney said this: “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.”

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