Research shows there is a secret formula to resilience — with practice and training, almost anyone can learn to better adapt to high-stress situations.
Steven Southwick, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, and Dennis Charney, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Mount Sinai Hospital (who formerly worked at Yale), began researching resilience at Yale University 15 years ago. Their article in the Oct. 5 issue of Science Magazine enumerates the factors that allow people to lead successful lives even after experiencing extremely stressful situations.
“We were working with patients with PTSD and depression, and it occurred to us that we could learn from people who had also been under a lot of stress but who had not developed depression,” Charney said.
Southwick and Charney gathered information from interviews conducted with groups of people including prisoners of war, special forces and victims of abuse and natural disasters. The team also interviewed people living in poverty in inner cities and first responders to 9/11 calls, Charney said.
Each person interviewed experienced stressful situations but had not demonstrated any signs of mental illness. All had certain psychological and neurobiological features in common, Southwick said.
“We kept hearing the same things from all the different groups,” Charney said.
Charney said there are ten factors that make someone resilient. One of the most important qualities, he said, is realistic optimism — the ability to clearly identify challenges and overcome them.
“The real skill is learning to accept that which you truly can’t change and focus instead on what you can change,” Southwick said.
Another important aspect of resilience, Southwick said, is the presence of social support. Southwick and Charney’s research findings showed a very strong association between how extensive and supportive one’s social network is with one’s ability to manage stress and trauma. When faced with a stressful situation in the presence of trusted friends, Southwick said, harmful stress-related chemicals are muted by oxytocin, a compound related to attachment and other pro-social behaviors.
Southwick said stress is not necessarily bad — someone who is able to adapt to stressful situations is able to increase his or her resilience. In situations beyond one’s control, such as child abuse and combat, though, overwhelming stress tends to be toxic to the nervous system, he added.
Research participants who said they maintained control in unpredictable situations often were able to avoid developing PTSD and depression, he said. Those who were overwhelmed by uncontrollable stress, he added, were more likely to suffer from mental health disorders because they produced consistently high levels of stress-related chemicals, such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are harmful to the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
“Stress is part of our lives,” said Bruce McEwen, professor of neuroscience and neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University. “Early life experience with stress is very important — the more adversity that the child experiences, the more likely they are to develop mental health issues.”
Alternatively, McEwen said, children who grow up in an entirely stress-free environment may not able to build up the right tools to deal with hardship, and the feeling of empowerment in overcoming challenges is very important in developing resilience.
Southwick said there are simple ways to bolster resilience and deal with the negative effects of stress. Exercise, sleep, good nutrition, vacation and meditation can all help suppress toxic levels of stress chemicals. Studies have shown that after one year, a constant exercise regimen has the same effect as the antidepressant Zoloft in patients with mild to moderate depression, he added.
While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.
“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.
The research duo published a book called “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges” in July.