Among the thousands of people whose houses were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, some are already bouncing back. They're out helping their neighbours, looking into rebuilding their homes and day by day, getting on with their lives. Others, however, may be traumatized for years to come.
The difference between the two groups is not mainly genetic, research suggests. Rather, the ability to cope with extreme stress involves a set of skills and habits that most people can acquire, according to psychiatrists Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, authors of the timely new book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges.
Southwick, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder at Yale University, explains what we can learn from emotionally healthy combat veterans, sexual-assault survivors and former prisoners of war.
What is resilience?
Most people see it as the ability to bend, but not break. And it's multidimensional. Someone could be highly resilient in their work lives, but not so much in relationships, and people can be more or less resilient in different stages of their lives.
Your book suggests 50 to 90 per cent of us will experience a traumatic event. What are the most common?
Serious automobile accidents. Disasters – we saw [Hurricanes] Sandy and Katrina. Sudden unexpected loss of a loved one can be very traumatic. If you ask most people, during the course of their lives, something pretty bad happens to them.
Why do some people cope better than others?
I think probably the most important thing is the social network that you have. In the U.S. Special Forces, they are truly covering one another's back. If someone in one of their families is having difficulty, other families from the squad will go help that person. There is evidence now that giving social support may be a greater buffer against the negative effects of stress than receiving support.
What are the habits of highly resilient people?
Most resilient people are pretty darned disciplined. One area that we found to be extremely powerful is aerobic exercise, which can enhance physical and emotional resilience. It does that by increasing various chemicals that are associated with elevated mood: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine. Exercise, antidepressants and enriched environments, where you're stimulating the brain with various activities, these three things are known to enhance neurogenesis [birth of neurons] – exactly the opposite of what stress does.
What weakens our ability to cope?
Falling into a state of pessimism. Pessimism and optimism are largely habits – they are ways we explain things to ourselves. A pessimist might fail a test in algebra and say, "My god, I'm terrible in all my subjects, I'm never going to get into college, I'm going to be a failure." They have catastrophized and generalized. The optimist can flunk the same test and say, "This is not good, I need to study harder." The optimism that resilient people tend to express is called realistic optimism, not a Pollyanna, rose-coloured optimism. The realistic optimist sees as much of the negative as the pessimist does but knows how to disengage and not dwell on it. There is a therapy called learned optimism. It takes a lot of practice.
What is "stress inoculation"?
This is very important. You intentionally expose yourself to various stressors – anything that you find challenging, anything that you tend to be somewhat afraid of. It could be learning a new language. You approach it in a way that's analogous to training for a triathlon, ratcheting it up step by step. We typically have the idea that stress is bad for us but actually stress can be very good. Growth occurs primarily when we're outside our comfort zone.
Is resilience tougher when trouble comes in threes, for example, you have a car accident, your spouse files for divorce, then your mom is diagnosed with terminal cancer?
Yes, but that doesn't mean you can't deal with it. In those situations I feel you really need to continue as much as possible routines such exercise and calling on your friends.
Why does a book by two scientists have a chapter on faith?
Such a high percentage of the highly resilient people we interviewed called upon their spiritual and religious beliefs during times of real adversity. Those who are spiritual and religious often feel there's something bigger than themselves. It's not for everyone, but it's interesting that in religious and spiritual communities, there tends to be quite a few resilience factors that we wrote about – there's altruism, positive role models, social support.
How should someone go about imitating a "sturdy" role model?
You can facilitate the process by studying people you admire who are resilient and by breaking down what it is they are doing into segments that you can turn into rules for yourself. We interviewed a remarkable young woman who was born with spina bifida and had difficulty walking. She talked about U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was crippled from polio and couldn't really walk. Just the way that he dealt with that made him a real role model for her.
Is resilience something you can learn from a book?
You can get a start. Certainly by getting ideas from a book and perhaps starting to work on your own in various ways, whether that be meditation, exercise or joining groups of like-minded people, yes, you can become more resilient.