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Why Developing Resilience Is Important For Well-Being

Updated: Jul 9

Why Developing Resilience May Be the Most Important Thing You Can Do for Your Well-Being Right Now.

Illness, fear, loss, grief, isolation, uncertainty, and unemployment are just a handful of the profound consequences of the pandemic — with many experiencing multiple issues simultaneously. And with cases still spiking across the country and likely worsening this winter, the current U.S. death toll of over 307,000 will just keep rising, and lockdowns and anxiety will persist. The pandemic has pushed us to our limits, but we’ve used our resilience to push back and keep going. As we near the end of this unthinkable year and look forward to a new year that we know will continue to present challenges, one thing we can do to help ourselves is to take some time to store up our resilience reserves.

Your Health and Well-Being Are Counting on Your Resilience Resilience is critical to our overall well-being. It affects everything from our mental and financial health to our intimate relationships to our ability to handle trauma and loss. Taking the time to bolster resilience is probably one of the single best things you can do to improve your health, relationships, and happiness levels. As Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board Member Nikita Gupta, MPH, director of the Grit Coaching Program at UCLA and a certified health education specialist in the Los Angeles, area puts it, “Life is hard. Life has changes we have to navigate. In order to persist through these things, we have to be able to face them.” Resilience affects psychological health, which is critical to our physical health. Resilience can therefore play an important role in determining how well we physically recover from adversity. Research shows that along with hope and social support, for example, resilience also has a positive effect on cancer survivors, according to a study published in February 2019 in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research.

And a study of more than 10,750 people between ages 51 and 98, published in June 2016 in The Gerontologist, found that those with higher resilience levels ⁠— as measured by a survey that assesses one’s ability to face setbacks, handle change, and find purpose in life ⁠— experienced less disability and fewer health ailments, especially later in life. Experts speculate that this is because resilient people are usually more physically active. Jennifer Ashton, MD, the chief medical correspondent for Good Morning America, credits the years she spent playing lacrosse and field hockey with helping her be more resilient after her ex-husband died by suicide.

“If your body caves in, it’s hard to maintain emotional or psychological resilience,” says Dr. Ashton, author of the memoir Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community After Unthinkable Loss and The Self-Care Solution: A Year of Becoming Happier, Healthier, Fitter — One Month at a Time (due out in December 2019). “I was familiar at a young age with what it means to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore and to keep pushing and actually do it and get stronger as a result.” But it’s not just about athleticism. Ashton has also had three operations. “I know what it feels like to be in pain and then recover,” she says. “You don’t have to be athletic to develop resilience with physical nature.

Resilience is also linked to happiness, says Anna Rowley, Ph.D., a corporate psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. Dr. Rowley believes that resilience is linked with more happiness — although, she stresses, happiness shouldn’t be the goal. “There’s this relentless drumbeat around being happy, and it’s very hard because it’s a nebulous concept,” she says. “Having it as an overarching goal of the human condition is selling everybody short because there are very important things we all strive for, which is feeling fulfilled and having purpose and finding meaning in what we do. Focusing people’s behavior on being happy doesn’t give people the capacity to learn and grow when they’re not happy.”

Learning to deal with adversity rather than focusing on happiness improves the chance that you will one day feel good again. As she puts it, “Resilience provides you with a personal foundation of strength and sense of safety.”

Studies have shown that characteristics associated with resilience, such as optimism, self-worth, and social support, can improve health outcomes in people with chronic conditions. On the other hand, low resilience has been linked to worsening disease activity and reduced quality of life. The following are just some examples of research examining the connection between resilience and specific conditions or disabilities:

Resilience: Powered by Motivation Our resilience is tested in small ways on a daily basis. Think about it this way: Any time you’d rather cower in bed with the sheets pulled over your head but somehow manage to dress and leave the house, you’re being resilient. Any time you choose the salad over the truffle fries, you’re being resilient. Any time you do one more pushup when you’re in so much agony it hurts to blink or practice that piano sonata when your fingers feel like they’re about to fall off, you’re being resilient. Why? Because you’re practicing self-control. Because you’re not giving up. You’re motoring through, powering on, even when that’s the last thing you want to do.

Granted, some people are naturally more resilient than others. Life throws them a curveball and not only do they catch it, but they go on to win the World Series. That’s a metaphor, of course, but the point is that big and small hurdles don’t stop them; neither loss nor failure nor illness nor trauma deters them. They land on their feet. It’s not about a moral attribute (being nicer or more patient or a better eater), it’s making constant choices that support your overall well-being.

But it’s not just about the big wins. The true essence of resilience is how you show up during both small and big moments of adversity — like somehow, at some point, finding a way to get out of bed after losing a parent, a child, a partner, a sibling, a best friend. Given the circumstances, that’s a monumental win akin to winning the World Series.

Indeed, you don’t know what you’re capable of until challenged. Ashton, for example, always thought she was a resilient person. In medical school, she worked 90-hour weeks, sometimes staying up for 36 hours at a time while raising her two children. “I completed all of my classwork and graduated on time,” she says. “If you asked me if I was resilient, I’d have said ‘yeah.’”

But she had no idea just how strong she was until 2017, when her ex-husband, surgeon Robert Ashton Jr., jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Not only did she have to reckon with her own pain and guilt while caring for over 2,000 patients, but she was now a single mother to two grieving kids.

Ashton had inner reserves to call upon, but Sood says science has shown that anyone can increase their resilience. Even if you don’t naturally possess the resilience “gene,” he says resilience can be learned, developed, and acquired — and it doesn’t require a huge investment of time or financial resources.

In April of last year, Susan Cooper, 77, an entrepreneur in New York City, lost her husband, David, of 56 years. For her, resilience is action-oriented. David was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2012 and told that he had two to five years to live. “In 2013, his tests and chest X-rays had not changed that much.” He was okay, basically, until 2016, when he needed an oxygen tank. By 2016, he was using portable oxygen tanks and they began to keep small oxygen tanks in the house. “More than once, I was tempted to put a pillow over his face,” she says. “I didn't do it. I got bigger and better oxygen.”

After he died, Cooper — who says she adored her husband, raised two kids with him, traveled the world with him, and considered him her best friend — missed him terribly. She goes to a grief support group to help with the loss. But she also decided that Philadelphia, where they lived, was not the place for her to build a new life. “I needed to create a new community,” she says. She put their loft on the market three weeks later and moved into a Manhattan loft. “I needed to get on with my life,” she says. “Isn’t that resilience?”

It is. And although Cooper believes she was born with loads of it, she has also cultivated it. Carla Melby-Oetken, RD, a health and wellness coach at the University of Iowa in Iowa City who works with some 20,000 employees, prefers to use the word “skills” rather than “traits,” because trait implies something immutable. Skills, on the other hand, can be acquired and developed. In fact, you can take charge and build and strengthen your resilience much in the same way you build muscle by lifting weights.

According to Darlene Mininni, PhD, MPH, a learning and development health psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, “Resilience is built upon a collection of teachable skills that strengthen our mental flexibility, emotional awareness, and feelings of connection.” Dr. Mininni, who’s also a member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board, says that resilient people “use these skills to navigate the ups and downs of their lives, and they benefit with a greater sense of well-being, optimism, and life satisfaction.”

Sood has worked with over half a million people and conducted 30 clinical trials on resilience. He believes that only about half of resilience is innate, woven into our DNA, or nurtured during childhood; the other 50 percent can be cultivated. Investing just 10 minutes throughout the course of a day in two-minute increments can significantly increase happiness, improve your quality of life, reduce sick days, and lower anxiety, as he wrote in a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

“We have tried to strategically place resilience practices at transition points during the day, where investing two minutes of time can produce benefits of four to six hours,” he says. “Say you are going into a difficult meeting. You invest 10 seconds and remind yourself why are you grateful to the person you’re going to meet. The moment you’re reminded of that, your day changes.” According to Sood, we derive resilience in two different ways: from the inside out and from the outside in.

Resilience from the inside out is derived from your own inner resources: your conviction, self-love, and self-compassion. It comes from your faith, hope, positivity, courage, and gratitude.

Resilience from the outside incomes from the people around you: those who love, value, and support you, including our family, neighbors, and colleagues. As we get older, we have the ability to develop this inside-out approach to resilience. Not that you don’t need to surround yourself with supportive people, but it’s the internal dialogue that matters more.

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“I was invited to a keynote talk and they said ‘Oh, we’re happy to have you but we can’t pay anything,” Sood says. “My inner dialogue was, ‘maybe I’m not that valued, maybe they’re against me, maybe I have an accent so they don’t like me’ versus me saying ‘this is an organization that’s struggling, it has limited resources, I can help.’ The dialogue I have in my head changes how I perceive things.” It’s called reframing (or “spinning,” in political circles). But the idea is to reframe a thought or idea toward a more neutral stance. “I think the truth has two sides to it, and it all depends which side you focus on,” he says. “’ I lost my wallet but I am grateful it didn’t have any credit cards in it.’ Or ‘I have a flat tire but am grateful I have a spare.’ When you’re driving, you can end up in a ditch or get up on the highway. Reframing gets you back on the highway.”

For children, external resilience is more important to cultivate than internal, “Because kids’ brains are like freshly poured concrete,” he says. “You scratch a line in it and it becomes a scar. They don’t have the resources to overcome critiques or abuse. So children depend a lot on family, community, teachers, and society at large. They still have their individual dispositions, but it’s largely the outside world that affects them.”

Another reason we can develop resilience over time is because of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change throughout life, says Bruce McEwen, PhD, the Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and head of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at the Rockefeller University in New York City. The brain is especially sensitive to stress. Animal studies have shown that there are branches in the brain that either retract or expand under stress, and cells shrink in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Shrinking cells cause the animal to perform poorer in memory tests and self-regulation, according to an article published in October 2015 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. “The animal, and actually some human studies as well, show that people become more inflexible in decision-making,” Dr. McEwen says. But “If you turn off the stress and give time without stress, these neurons are resilient and grow back to normal or shrink back to normal.”

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Say you’ve discovered, quite by accident, that you’re allergic to peanuts — after nearly dying from anaphylactic shock. Quite naturally, you’ll become afraid and anxious every time your throat feels a little tight. Yet despite the depression or trauma that resulted from this experience, you ultimately found a way to recover. Why do some people bounce back, while others develop post-traumatic stress disorder or even depression? “One way of looking at that is that the brain can get 'stuck': This is a lack of resilience, a lack of the normal ability of nerve cells, even after they have shrunken, to grow back — or after they’ve grown, to shrink back to their normal state,” says McEwen.

“Doctors can then help promote resilience using behavioral therapies, including increasing physical activity,” says McEwen. Sometimes pharmacological agents are used in conjunction with these other methods, he explains, but the importance of behavioral therapies cannot be overlooked. “Physical activity seems to open windows in which resilient plasticity can occur.”

Studies have shown that the brain can change at any age. “When you practice some of these ideas, then the prefrontal cortex increases, and the amygdala, the fear part of the brain, becomes less active,” says Sood.

The brain is also malleable in kids. The Strong African American Families program was a random trial of 667 African American parents and their children that was published in January 2017 in JAMA Pediatrics. The seven-week program was designed to build better communication between parents and children, and also help prevent drug abuse, alcohol, and cigarette use. The children were studied from ages 11 to 13 and 16 to 18. At 25, their hippocampi and amygdalae — the parts of the brain involved in control and aspects of memory, as well as emotional regulation — were measured in an MRI machine. While they had gotten smaller in children who hadn’t been in the program, they remained stable in those who had. “Ten to 15 years later, there’s also evidence that not only their kids have retained a certain amount of plasticity in their brains, but also that there’s less diabetes,” says McEwen. “Promoting better relations between adolescents and parents, and building self-esteem and agency enables the child to be resilient as they go forward in life to fight to bully and to be self-controlled in making healthy choices, not only in diet and physical activity but in relationships and priorities for the school.”

“The idea that there’s a window of opportunity even before early trauma, that allows the child, with the help of the parent, to build a better sense of themselves and develop the resilience that they need to handle themselves in the culture, is the only way to explain this. They’ve developed the ability to handle problems. It’s not innate.” Resilient people tend to be optimistic and positive, with a sense of humor. They are motivated. They have courage, hope, and perspective, says Sood. “They are intentional about what they choose to focus on,” he says. “I can choose to live in the present, or the past or future, but I get to choose. If I’m getting a colonoscopy a week from now, I’m happy to live in the present. We don’t keep irrational worries, like that a horse may fall on my house.”

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Another big difference between resilient people and less resilient people is the way they frame situations in their head, adds Melby-Oetken. When something bad happens, do they view it as a trauma that unmoors them, or something to overcome, conquer, and grow from?

Sydney Heersink had to face such a situation at a young age. She had just graduated from college and was planning to pursue a master’s degree when the unimaginable happened. “I learned that I had stage 4 endometrial cancer that had metastasized to my colon, liver, lung, and uterus,” she wrote in a blog post last December about her experience.

When she was 14, Sydney lost her mother to breast cancer. To reduce her own risk, she opted to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy last year. But in August, just a couple of months following the surgery, horrendous stomach pains sent her to the ER. She spent the next 17 days undergoing multiple ultrasounds, CT scans, and, finally, exploratory surgery. Then came the diagnosis. Sydney endured multiple rounds of radiation, continual chemotherapy, and brain surgery to remove a metastasized tumor.

“To say it’s unfair would be an understatement,” she wrote. “In truth, I believe it’s hard to explain why cancer happens to one person and not another. And the unfairness of it is impossible to rationalize. So I don’t try.” Tragically, Sydney passed away on September 4. She was 22. But Sydney lived her life in a way that exemplified resilience. “I have learned that being brave, being a warrior, and being strong do not mean fearlessness,” she wrote. “Coping with a cancer diagnosis is about standing in that fear and saying, ‘I choose to live a beautiful, passionate, impactful life.’”

People who know Sydney say that her ability to reframe adversity — even while dealing with a terminal illness — came naturally to her. And while not all of us possess a natural ability to reframe negative things, the good news, say, researchers, is this mindset can be developed. “Positive psychology has shown that our brains are more flexible than we thought,” Melby-Oetken says. “It comes down to practice. A lot of us develop some negative thinking strategies; I see that all the time. But if people are aware of that and able to observe those thoughts and ask themselves, 'Is this helping me — or do I want to try to practice new, healthier habits that will help move me forward?'”

Those who are less resilient tend to be weak, fearful, and withdrawing, experts say. They don’t take opportunities and frequently run away at signs of distress. Among the less resilient, “Negative self-talk is a huge challenge,” says Melby-Oetken. “’ Oh my god, I’m never going to overcome this, this is the worst thing that can possibly happen. Why should I put effort into it if it’s not going to change?’ Any negative thinking patterns kill energy and make people feel hopeless.”

Melby-Oetken tells her clients to focus on the narrative they tell themselves, and then revise it. Say you’re going through a divorce. Rather than lamenting a horrible situation for you and your children, she advises you to “rewrite” the story. Instead of beating yourself up, you’d acknowledge that while the scenario is hardly ideal, it’s where you are right now. So your best option is to tell yourself it’s an unfortunate circumstance, accept it for what it is, and move on from there.

“Part of your brain is just experiencing that again as you tell that story,” she says. “You can rewrite it and even change how you feel. It’s allowing a little sliver of optimism. That may be something good can come out of this.” Clearly, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. In general, most of us possess a ‘negativity bias — meaning, we’re more attuned to negative situations than positive, says Sood. “If I ask you how many people have hurt you in life, you can tell that quickly,” he says. “They occupy a disproportionate real estate in our head. You have 50 square feet for people who love you and 500 square feet for people who hurt you. The idea is to focus less on the negative experiences and more on the positive. It’s about shifting your attitude.”

Sood believes that resilience is a skill that can be developed by focusing on five principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness. To build resilience, we can reframe the way we think about each one. Certain practices, like gratitude, compassion, sense of purpose, and focus, can help build resilience, says Sood, when used to handle life’s challenges. For example, says Sood, “Can we find gratitude for what went right within what went wrong? Can we have self-compassion for our struggles instead of self-judgment for our mistakes? Can we choose to accept that with two-thirds of the Earth covered with clouds, it’s going to rain on our backyard someday? Each of the five principles engages the brain’s higher cortical areas and quiet the reactive parts (this change correlates with resilience), helping you live a happier and more fulfilled life.”

But it’s also important to recognize that only so much is within your control. Rather than worry about the horrific possibilities, focus on what is. “Life is like a long drive not knowing how much gas is in your car. No one knows,” he says. “So don’t think about what is going to happen six months from now. Make a plan for it, but live day by day.” Melby-Oetken has had her own resilience tested. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After the initial shock wore off, she dusted herself off and tried to figure out how to get through it. “I thought, I have to accept it, work through it to the best of my ability, gather up support, use it, and then move on,” she says.

That’s what resilient people do: They surround themselves with strong support systems. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people climbing a hill felt it was less steep if they were surrounded by friends than if they were climbing it alone.

“We have to stop thinking about and defining resilience as solely a quality of the individual,” says Dr. Geronimus, who is a member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board. “It’s more about what else you have to deal with in your life; who can help you deal with it; the nature of the society in which you live; your cultural history; and whether you can access some kind of motivating wisdom to keep going.”

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“Your ability to move forward despite considerable restraining forces is based, in large part, on what is happening around you,” says Ross Ellenhorn, Ph.D., a sociologist and psychologist, and author of the forthcoming book Why We Change. “Your sense of being valuable to others, your experience that you have a purpose in life, and whether you feel you have a network of people supporting you … these, among many other social resources, have a powerful effect on your tenacity in the face of difficult odds.”

The proper term is "distress tolerance," and it refers to one’s capacity to withstand adversity. While part of that is innate, your life experiences also help shape that, Dr. Ellenhorn says.

Ashton, for example, developed a high threshold for stress in childhood. Her parents divorced when she was 4 — and then remarried a few years later, only to divorce again when she was 22. She went to a demanding high school, but her parents insisted she could handle whatever was thrown at her. “One parent was very nurturing and the other told me to keep raising the bar higher to see what I could achieve,” she recalls. “Together, it bred distress tolerance and resilience.” Playing sports also helped, because it made her able to deal with physical challenges. Studies have found that white Americans tend to be less resilient than minorities. Why? It’s complicated. But minority groups tend to have more experience with adversity, especially economic and social. So they’ve had more of a need to figure out how to handle stressors. To that end, research has found white Americans experience more depression and anxiety than black Americans, although some of this difference may be related to underreporting and increased stigma of seeking mental healthcare in black communities.

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“There is research saying that if stress is the chronic but low dosage and never gets to extremely high levels, it builds resilience,” says Shervin Assari, MD, an assistant professor of family medicine at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles, who studies resilience across social groups. “Other [researchers] have shown that some level of stress in your life or adversity is good. The other part of research shows that even when stress is severe and not chronic if people can make sense out of it and can get some meaning, it’s helpful.” Studies of survivors of Hurricane Katrina yielded interesting results. Most people experienced mental distress and post-traumatic stress for years after the disaster. But a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that low-income, unmarried black female survivors showed enormous resilience after the storm. While they did show an increase in psychological trauma, within three years they had managed to return to the pre-storm stress levels. About 30 percent of survivors experienced post-traumatic growth, meaning that they felt the disaster had made them stronger, more compassionate, and more empathetic. And what got them through? A strong support system: Friends. Families. Neighbors.

“People kind of see disasters on TV and say, ‘How are these people ever going to build their lives again?’” says study coauthor Jean E. Rhodes, Ph.D., the Frank L. Boyden Professor of psychology and director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “We see that the vast majority of people over time bounce back.”

Most of them do so by choosing possibility over complacency. They reframe their thoughts to look at the brighter side. They rely on the kindness of friends, family, and strangers to support them. And when you do this, you feed the human spirit, which in turn fuels the physical, cognitive, environmental, and social-emotional self — the recipe for resilience.

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