The Three Secrets of Resilience

The world is in crisis, but you don't have to be, says Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. We all know resilient people who bounce back from hardship to create a more fulfilling life. That's the promise of change. Other people stress out and melt down, losing hope and health. That's the danger of change. The good news is that resilience isn't a genetic gift for the lucky few. It's an easily understood skill that anyone can practice and master. Developing resilience is the focus of her new book' It's Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change (Hay House, Sep. 2009). The article that follows is taken from the book.

With the publication of her New York Times bestseller Minding, the Body, Mending the Mind in 1987, Dr. Borysenko established herself as a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine. After receiving her doctorate from Harvard Medical School, she founded Mind/Body Health Sciences LLC in Boulder, CO. She is a clinical psychologist and author of numerous books.

“Get a lot of sleep, a lot of exercise. Eat real good. Say your prayers. And be good to your dogs.”

— Mickey Rourke

(His response to the question, “What is your advice to survive and come back in hard times?”)

I was sitting in a CNN greenroom in front of a plate of stale bagels. A greenroom, in case you've never been in one, isn't green at all—it's just an ordinary waiting room populated by nervous people waiting to be guests on radio or TV shows. My first book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, had earned me an interview on Sonya Live, an intelligent and lively talk show hosted by psychologist Sonya Friedman. Sitting right next to the bagels was her most recent book, Smart Cookies Don't Crumble. I tried to take the witty title to heart, but the sound of the blood pounding in my ears was a distraction.

Let's not crumble here, Joan, I thought. This interview isn't a disaster in the making—it's an opportunity to get your message out! Somehow I picked my way onto the set, circumnavigating the maze of snaking wires that don't show up on your TV screen. Wiping beads of cold sweat from my face, I took a seat across from Sonya. She was composed, poised, and interested in the topic of mind-body medicine. And, of course, she was a pro who'd been sitting in the catbird seat for years. I, on the other hand, was a rank amateur in a completely new situation . . . one with the potential to humiliate me from coast to coast. Worse still, my mother was watching.

Although I was in a mild state of terror at the beginning of the interview, by the end I'd managed to relax and come back home to myself. I not only survived—I even managed to have a little fun. This bouncing back from stress is called resilience. It's a graceful way of flowing through life, adapting to different circumstances with the ease of water, assuming the shape of whatever container it's poured into. Resilience is also a courageous affirmation of life in the face of more serious stresses such as illness, divorce, job loss, financial setback, abuse, war, and terror.

Stress and Resilience

Let's take a closer look at how stress and resilience work. Think of a rubber band: When it's stretched out, there's stress on the rubber, but when you release that stress, it snaps back into shape. That's the most basic kind of resilience. But if the rubber band is stretched for a long time, it eventually begins to fatigue and is more likely to give out.

The same is true for the human body and mind: we tend to give out when we're stressed for long amounts of time. Studies estimate that 75 to 90 percent of visits to the family doctor are for conditions caused or made worse by stress. These include headaches, digestive disturbances, infertility, memory loss, heart problems, allergies, high blood pressure, immune disorders, blood-sugar control for diabetics, back pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and many other illnesses.

When an emergency calls for sudden “stretching,” most healthy people can rise to the challenge. Imagine that you've just tripped over the cord to your laptop and it goes flying off the table. Without having to think about it, your body releases adrenaline and you suddenly have the agility of an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox. With a little luck, you can even catch that laptop! Your sudden athletic prowess is due to an automatic overdrive system called the fight-or-flight response that kicks in for survival purposes. When the emergency is over, your “rubber band” relaxes, and you return to a resting state of balance and ease.

But what if the stressor doesn't go away? After all, life is much more complex than flying laptops with short trajectories. The fight-or-flight system evolved before chronic stresses like those of a company seeking a bailout in a struggling economy, families juggling mounting credit-card debt, or losing your pension just as you're ready to retire. If you can't release tension, then stress becomes chronic and you become more prone to illness, depression, anger, and anxiety. And instead of enjoying life as the creative adventure that resilient people perceive it to be, you get sidelined and stuck.

One of the most famous scales for evaluating stress levels and correlating them with illness was designed in 1967 by two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. Their scale measures stress in Life Change Units (LCUs). For example, the most stressful change, the death of a spouse, rates 100 LCUs. Getting married rates a 50. After all, learning to pick up your dirty socks (or living with someone who doesn't), agreeing on a budget, or discovering that your beloved snores can all be stressful life changes. Taking out a small loan or mortgage was worth 17 LCUs in the mid-1960s. These days, however, when job loss and foreclosures are so high, it might garner even more points.

Holmes and Rahe gave the test to thousands of people and correlated their scores with health. The higher the score, the more likely their subjects were to get sick. A score of more than 300 LCUs is associated with a high risk of illness, while scores between 150 and 300 correlate with a moderate risk of illness. You can find a copy of the Holmes and Rahe stress scale for adults and youth on Wikipedia ( The scale has been tested in both men and women, as well as in different cultures. Holmes's and Rahe's pioneering research helped define the role of change in stress and set the scene for understanding resilience.  

The Three Secrets of Resilience

Ironically, the serious trauma that soldiers experience in battle has recently become a living laboratory for resilience. Dr. Steven Southwick, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, is deputy director of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of the National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

He said, “We do know there are factors that make some people resilient. There are genetic components to it, but there's a huge learning component. People can train themselves to be more resilient.”

Resilience, as you might expect, is big business for corporations. Numerous consulting companies teach businesses and their employees how to stress less and become more adaptable and creative in trying circumstances. Diane Coutu, a writer for the Harvard Business Review, summarized much of what they teach in an excellent article published in 2002. 4

Coutu analyzed research data from studies that investigated resilience in diverse populations, including at-risk children, Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, businesses and their employees, people with life-challenging illnesses, and survivors of abuse. She also interviewed some fascinating people who'd lived through unsettling times and had come out better for the challenge.

She interviewed Dean Becker, the president and CEO of a company called Adaptiv Learning Systems that teaches resilience. Becker said, “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person's level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That's true in the cancer ward, it's true in the Olympics, and it's true in the boardroom.”

Coutu identified three traits of resilient thinking. As you read through them in the remainder of this chapter, consider these secrets a map for healthy thinking that can reduce your stress and help you discover your best future.

“Resilience is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world, that is deeply etched into a person's mind and soul. Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air. Others do not.”

— Diane Coutu

 Secret #1:

A Resolute Acceptance of Reality

So there I was ready to go on Sonya Live and scared witless. It occurred to me that greenrooms might not be named for the color of their walls, but for the color of their occupants. What to do in the face of this stressor? I suppose I could have hidden in the bathroom, but that would have been unseemly. It would have also killed off my fledgling media career. The simple fact was that I was a scheduled guest on a popular television show. I needed to rise to the occasion, whatever it took.

Resilient thinkers face difficult situations head-on. Then they do whatever it takes to survive. How about you? Do you accept your situation realistically; or are you more prone to denial, rationalization, or wishful thinking?

Resilient thinkers face difficult situations head-on. Then they do whatever it takes to survive. For example, if you own a restaurant-supply business but people aren't eating out, you're in trouble. If you're a construction worker and no new buildings are going up, the handwriting is on the wall. The faster you're able to see the truth and take a good hard look at how you can modify your business to adjust to the situation, the better you'll do.

Getting hired at McDonald's or bagging groceries at the supermarket may not be your idea of career heaven, but it still brings in some cash that could make the difference between staying in your home and losing it. Taking jobs like these when there's no other choice at hand shows the resolute acceptance of reality that characterizes the resilient mind-set.

Rationalization (“Lots of people are behind on their mortgage, but the government will get us out of this soon”), denial (“Things aren't so bad; I'm bound to get some orders soon”), and wishful thinking (“I'll just visualize myself living in a mansion and say some affirmations”) are common coping strategies when things get tough. But putting your head in the sand won't put dinner on the table. You can only get through chaotic times if you have a clear, realistic picture of what's actually coming down. This is true both for businesses and for each of us personally.

Perhaps you've just been diagnosed with a serious illness. While it always pays to have hope, resilience requires you to look your diagnosis straight in the eye and make appropriate plans for treatment, manage financial responsibilities, update your will, and get the necessary support at every level. In other words, given the reality of whatever your situation is, what is needed to manage it?

It's time to bite the bullet. Facing reality can be emotionally trying in the short run, but lifesaving later on. Sit down with a trusted friend and tell him or her what the reality of your situation is, as best as you know it.

Diane Coutu told the following story in her article “How Resilience Works.” When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, financial giant Morgan Stanley faced the reality that the highly symbolic building they occupied was a prime terrorist target. The company responded by implementing escape drills, which they expected everyone to attend and take seriously. They also designated three safe locations elsewhere for employees to congregate where they could continue their business activities in case of disaster.

This heads-up attitude proved lifesaving eight years later on 9/11 when two hijacked airplanes destroyed the iconic twin towers and killed nearly 3,000 people. Luck was also on Morgan Stanley's side since their 2,700 employees were all in the south tower, which was the second to be struck. The first tower was hit at 8:46 a.m. By 8:47 , the company's employees were starting to evacuate. Fifteen minutes later, the second plane crashed into the south tower, but by that time, the offices of Morgan Stanley were almost empty. In spite of receiving an almost direct hit, only seven employees were lost, including the vice president of security, Rick Rescorla, who had designed the escape drills and stayed behind with a bullhorn, keeping the employees calm and ushering them to safety. Rescorla was himself a resilient, highly decorated Vietnam vet who'd learned to put other people's needs ahead of his own.

Secret #2:

A Deep Belief That Life Is Meaningful

Two weeks after 9/11, I facilitated a spiritual retreat just outside of New York City . It was an intensely emotional time for the whole country, but especially for two young Manhattan roommates who were attending the retreat together. Their balcony faced the World Trade Center , and they'd witnessed the twin towers falling firsthand. Both of them were having flashbacks and nightmares—signs of PTSD—and trying to make sense of the shock and terror.

One of the young men had already turned to the work of Viktor Frankl, a resilient Austrian psychiatrist who survived four Nazi death camps and then wrote the classic book

Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl was inspired by the statement of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” In spite of the unthinkable trauma and hardship he suffered during the Holocaust, Frankl became a happy man and an inspiration to millions of people worldwide. The key to resilience, he believed, was to find positive meaning in traumatic experience.

When tempted to give up hope in the death camps, he found a reason to live by setting his sights on giving seminars on resilience to people after the war. He was determined to make positive use of the hard lessons he was learning.

How would your life be different if this was the attitude with which you approached even the worst imaginable circumstances?

“Those who have a ‘why' to live for can bear with almost any ‘how.'”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

The most deeply held values that give meaning to our lives are often spiritual in nature. Feeling an authentic connection to a larger intelligence, whether we relate to it as a loving, forgiving God or a universal energy of compassion, encourages what's best in us. When times get tough, the tough often pray—whether they're in prison camps, at the bedside of loved ones, or in the unemployment line. Faith is highly correlated with resilience, providing a true north that orients us when we're lost in a sea of change or desperation . . . but the face of faith itself is changing.

According to a 2008 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 92 percent of Americans believe in God or some universal spirit, but the great majority (some 70 percent) believe that there are many paths to God. Other polls indicate that about a third of Americans consider themselves “spiritual eclectics,” finding inspiration in various traditions without subscribing to any particular one.

Being spiritual but not religious is a growing trend. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, director of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School in Boston , and one of the world's leading experts on resilience, points out that many of the best-selling books in America over the past five years have been based either on the spiritual search or “the rejection of the religious in a secular world.”

The importance of finding a source of strength and guidance within, and nurturing it through practices such as meditation, applies to everyone—the person of deep religious conviction, the agnostic, and the atheist alike. When the mind calms down, it's easier to relate to the world around us—seeing the beauty in a flower or appreciating the nuances of a smile. These deep connections are sacred and invite positive emotions including awe, joy, gratitude, and compassion that banish stress and cultivate inner strength. Vaillant writes: “Spirituality is not about ideas, sacred texts and theology; rather, spirituality is all about emotions and social connection. Specific religions, for all their limitations, are often the portal through which positive emotions are brought into conscious attention.”

Secret #3:

An Uncanny Ability to Improvise

Resilient people are masters of innovation. Their fertile imaginations are expansive, and they attend to details that others might miss or consider irrelevant, using everything at their disposal to create the best possible outcome. Like a child who can transform a kitchen pot into a drum, doghouse, hat, boat, or scoop for sand, resilient people use their imagination to improvise solutions with whatever they can find.

The term for making do with whatever is at hand is the French word bricolage. One of my clients, whom I'll call Tasha, is a true bricoleuse. She recently lost her job as a draftsman at an architectural firm, but true to her resilient nature, Tasha showed up the very next morning at a temporary labor pool and was relieved to make $10 an hour doing whatever work was available. In the course of a month, she temped as a receptionist, filed records in a doctor's office, and watered indoor plants for a landscaping company.

The landscaping job intrigued her even though she had very little responsibility at first. She was hired to schlep water and soak plants, but in just a few weeks, Tasha was offering suggestions for where to move plants for better growth and more aesthetic harmony. She created new indoor landscapes out of existing materials in a way that was both practical and beautiful. The spatial intelligence that served her well as a draftsman helped her segue smoothly into a new career. Within three months, Tasha had been hired full-time by the company and was training to become an interior landscape designer.

To improvise is to create something new that arises organically out of available resources. Look around the room you're in with all the curiosity you can muster. What could be moved to a different spot or shifted a bit in order to create more efficiency, comfort, and beauty? Could something in another room be better used in this one?

Improvisation requires attentiveness and mindfulness, which is the ability to see your environment with unabashed curiosity. Concentration-camp inmates who collected bits of string and wire wherever they found them were often the ones who survived. Fashioning a shoelace out of odds and ends could make the difference between freezing to death and living to see another day.

Living in poverty as a graduate student helped cultivate my own ability to improvise. That's why challenge is a good thing. It's an invitation to master new skills that aren't needed in more comfortable circumstances. I supported my young son and student husband on a meager government stipend. When something broke, I had to fix it, as my husband wasn't handy and there was no spare cash to call the Maytag Man. Armed with a screwdriver, a few wrenches, a hammer, some wire, and the greatest invention of the civilized world—duct tape—I could have given Rube Goldberg a run for his money.

Many organizations, of course, hope to recruit people with this talent. During World War II, the American government was recruiting intelligence operatives. Interviewees were asked to describe the waiting room. Those who were skilled at mindfulness, and therefore attentive to their environment, could describe it in phenomenal detail.

They could remember things like the placement of doors and windows, the subject matter of pictures, and the color and type of furniture. Since every bit of information comes in handy when a situation calls for a creative response, the most attentive ones were those who got the jobs.

In this chapter, we've explored the three secrets of resilience: an eyes-open acceptance of reality, a deep belief that life is meaningful, and a penchant for creative improvisation . When I first looked at the research on resilience, I was puzzled by the omission of one attitude, which, at first blush, might look critical to resilience.

What is it? You might be surprised that it's optimism —that is, the pie-in-the-sky kind that Princeton professor Cornel West calls “cheap optimism.” The next chapter will explain how to be an optimistic realist and how to recognize and root out both the wishful and pessimistic thinking that can paralyze right action.

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