Instead, the tools common to resilient people are optimism (that is also realistic), a moral compass, religious or spiritual beliefs, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and social connectedness. The most resilient among us are people who generally don’t dwell on the negative, who look for opportunities that might exist even in the darkest times. During a quarantine, for example, a resilient person might decide it is a good time to start a meditation practice, take an online course or learn to play guitar.
Research has shown that dedication to a worthy cause or a belief in something greater than oneself — religiously or spiritually — has a resilience-enhancing effect, as does the ability to be flexible in your thinking.
“Many, many resilient people learn to carefully accept what they can’t change about a situation and then ask themselves what they can actually change,” Dr. Southwick said. Conversely, banging your head against the wall and fretting endlessly about not being able to change things has the opposite effect, lessening your ability to cope.
Dr. Southwick has done many studies with former prisoners of war and has found that although they suffered profoundly, many eventually found new areas of growth and meaning in their lives. This happened to me, too. After my own tragic experience, I headed back to school for a master’s degree in social work.
But when I was still in the thick of it, five years ago, I felt overwhelmed and hopeless, weighed down by worries. The way I got through that was to narrow my thinking. Instead of worrying about what life would be like next week or month or year — How long would it take to get through probate? Would my daughter be able to go back to college? If I had gone to my ex-husband’s house a day earlier, could I have saved him? — I worked hard to stay focused on the here and now and not give in to ruminations about the past or the future, which I couldn’t change or control.
In my fieldwork now as a social work student, I provide support for people who have cancer — also a traumatic experience — and I often counsel them to stay grounded in the present moment and focus on their strengths, because imagining every worst-case scenario is pointless and only increases anxiety.
“Each of us has to figure out what our particular challenges are and then determine how to get through them, at the current moment in time,” advised George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University Teachers College. The good news, he said, is that most of us will. Professor Bonanno’s lab reviewed 67 studies of people who experienced all kinds of traumatic events. “I’m talking mass shootings, hurricanes, spinal cord injuries, things like that,” he said. “And two-thirds were found to be resilient. Two-thirds were able to function very well in a short period of time.”
Eilene Zimmerman is author of the memoir “Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy.”
How to Build Resilience
Interviews with large numbers of highly resilient individuals — those who have experienced a great deal of adversity and have come through it successfully — show they share the following characteristics.
They have a positive, realistic outlook. They don’t dwell on negative information and instead look for opportunities in bleak situations, striving to find the positive within the negative.
They have a moral compass. Highly resilient people have a solid sense of what they consider right and wrong, and it tends to guide their decisions.
They have a belief in something greater than themselves. This is often found through religious or spiritual practices. The community support that comes from being part of a religion also enhances resilience.
They are altruistic; they have a concern for others and a degree of selflessness. They are often dedicated to causes they find meaningful and that give them a sense of purpose.
They accept what they cannot change and focus energy on what they can change. Dr. Southwick says resilient people reappraise a difficult situation and look for meaningful opportunities within it.
They have a mission, a meaning, a purpose. Feeling committed to a meaningful mission in life gives them courage and strength.
They have a social support system, and they support others. “Very few resilient people,” said Dr. Southwick, “go it alone.”