Have you ever wondered what keeps people sane and functioning at a high level during our most difficult times?
And what keeps us from developing stress-related conditions, such as depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and insomnia – and helps us recover quickly when these conditions develop?
I’ve had the privilege of interviewing resilient WWII combat survivors, U.S. Navy SEALS, and many regular people like you and me who have triumphed over adversities. From well-adjusted survivors we have learned so much.
For example, Leonard Robinson and his comrades held off the far superior Japanese invaders long enough to slow the Japanese advance in the Pacific. Diseased and malnourished, they then completed the brutal Bataan Death March. Those who stumbled were bayonetted or beheaded. Then Robinson was beaten and starved as he worked to exhaustion loading cargo on Japanese ships, surviving a heart attack and various diseases in the Japanese prison camps.
“What got you through?” I asked. He said, “As I child I’d memorized certain passages of scripture, such as “Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” Other POWs in the Japanese camps cited bonds of friendship, the examples of fine leaders, high moral principles, and the strong desire to return to loved ones.
Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee survived two wars at the same time, the World War and the war of prejudice, with dignity and grace. His quiet sense of equal worth and humility helped him endure. In fact, in studying resilient adults and children in many studies, fifteen strengths emerge repeatedly: calm focus, rational thinking, optimism, humility and self-worth, emotional intelligence/happiness, a sense of meaning and purpose, humor, love, moral strength, sociability, adaptability/persistence, faith, a long view of suffering, good health habits, and balance across the life span. Each of us has these strengths in embryo, capable of being nurtured and grown.
Why Is Resilience So Critical Today?
Despite our improved living standards, stress is exacting a great toll, and the toll is rising. For example, in the U.S., one out of two adults will suffer from a mental illness , primarily the stress-related conditions of depression, anxiety, substance/drug abuse, and impulse disorders (including problem anger). If we add suicide, domestic violence, sleep problems, concentration problems, stress-related medical illnesses, and PTSD, the toll of stress that we are not prepared to deal with casts a very wide net that touches us all, directly or indirectly. In Australia, the picture is very similar. Mental disorders constitute a leading cause of disability burden, accounting for about a fourth of the total years lost to disability.
We can feel a sense of security in storing supplies of food, water, and clothing for traumatic weather events. However, such events might expel us from our homes, leaving us with only our mental armor to shield us. So it is vital to be prepared inwardly.
Can We Really Increase Resilience?
Each of the fifteen strengths of resilience is linked to skills that can be mastered through practice , much as we grow our ability to play an instrument or a sport. At the University of Maryland, and elsewhere, we have found that teaching people the skills of resilience improved resilience, along with happiness, self-esteem, optimism, and curiosity (which is related to flow, the pleasant concentration and engagement with tasks). At the same time, resilience training reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. Perhaps weather related adversities, times of economic hardship, and rising violence can be our wake up call to prepare mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually.
How Is Resilience Learned?
Resilience starts with strengthening the brain “hardware.” We’ve learned many ways to grow and strengthen the neurons of the brain, which prepares the brain for acquiring the skills of resilience (the “software”) while optimizing performance. There are two broad categories of resilience skills; the first set of skills helps people cope with the strong distressing emotions that we all encounter from time to time. These skills involve down-tuning the arousal system of the body and learning to manage nightmares, guilt, grief and the like. Preparing emotionally in advance for difficult adversities (emotional inoculation) and having a plan for excessive stress symptoms are also part of this skill set.
The second set of skills raises happiness, called a force multiplier because greater happiness is linked to better mental fitness, higher productivity, more satisfying relationships, and a longer, healthier lifespan. This skills set includes many evidence-based strategies to increase self-esteem, optimism, humor, character strength, love/altruism, faith, meaning and purpose, social intelligence, balance, and mindfulness.
Resilience equips us to take care of ourselves and those we lead and love. As we learn to take better care of ourselves, we become better resources for others. In teaching those we lead and love the skills of resilience, we in turn strengthen those skills in ourselves.
In nature, trees that grow in windy environments become stronger in two ways: inner forces stimulate the roots to grow faster and deeper, and cell structures in the trunk and branches become thicker and more flexible. We are like those trees in that adversity can stimulate us to become stronger, more adaptable, and more deeply rooted.
Everyone can grow resilience by practicing the skills we’ve discussed. We might say that all of us would benefit from becoming more resilient, and the time to become so is now.
About Glenn R. Schiraldi
Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D., Lt. Col. (USAR, Ret.) is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. He has served on the stress management faculties at the Pentagon, the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. Among the books he has authored are: The Complete Guide to Resilience; The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook; The Resilience Warrior Before, During, and After War; and The Self-Esteem Workbook. Learn more at the Resilience Training International website.