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Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do.

Learning to be Resilient

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

There has seldom been a time in history when so many factors seem to have conspired to make our lives miserable. Consider this. A pandemic comparable to the ancient plagues has killed millions and many health experts suggest that “we ain’t seen nothing yet.” These are not just statistics to the families and friends of those who have died. Enormous grief has resulted from COVID - 19 and there is no cure in sight. 

The domino effect of this monumental health crisis has caused even more stress. The urgent need for every human being on the planet to self-quarantine in order to merely slow down the unrelenting march of this pandemic has caused a worldwide economic collapse. Roughly 20 percent of formerly productive workers are now forced to ask for governmental subsidies in order to feed their families. Companies of all sizes have been shuttered and many will never return.  

To the surprise of no one, other dominoes keep falling. The incidences of suicides are higher. Reports of child and spousal abuse are increasing. Common sense suggests that substance abuse is increasing but we don’t know how much because healthcare experts are too busy dealing with other testing.

While fear and stress from this pandemic continues unabated, a rash of public lynching and senseless murders of citizens by law enforcement has caused thousands of citizens, of all races, to take to the streets. This is in spite of the threat of contracting this virus. The 24/7 “bad news cycle” brings this upheaval and violence into living rooms every day.

As if that were not enough, society and the government are more divided than ever before. Approximately one-half of the citizens in the U.S. fervently believe that the others are not just misinformed, but evil. The cauldron for this hate and distrust is the social media and internet connectivity that is easily manipulated by unknown evil-doers.

It appears that Ray Davies of the Kinks was right:

It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

Except for Lola

Lo lo lo lo Lola

When things are going to hell, some start thinking about heaven. Thoughts about the “sweet bye and bye” and “meeting on that beautiful shore” extolled by this classic hymn are tempting in the face of this upheaval. However, for the more than 90 million Nones who do not identify with any religious sect, there is something more comforting than myths. It is science.

While stress is rampant, somewhere down the road, some people will be happy and healthy again. Some will even be stronger. All it takes is resilience. It can’t be purchased, stolen, or won at the carnival. However, there is good scientific research that suggests that resilience can be learned. 

This Will be on the Final Exam: How to be Resilient

Martin E.P. Seligman is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being has contributed to the nascent research on resilience. Some of his thoughts were shared in a Harvard Business Review article.

He notes, “We have learned not only how to distinguish those who will grow after failure from those who will collapse, but also how to build the skills of people in the latter category. I have worked with colleagues from around the world to develop a program for teaching resilience. It is now being tested in an organization of 1.1 million people where trauma is more common and more severe than in any corporate setting: the U.S. Army. Its members may struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but thousands of them also experience post-traumatic growth. 

“Our goal is to employ resilience training to reduce the number of those who struggle and increase the number of those who grow. We believe that businesspeople can also draw lessons from this approach, particularly in times of failure.”

Seligman and his colleagues discovered the key to resilience is optimism. They developed questionnaires and analyzed the content of speech and writing to assess “explanatory style” as optimistic or pessimistic. They found that people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable. That suggested how they might “immunize” people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure: by teaching them to think like optimists. 

“How human beings react to extreme adversity is normally distributed,” Seligman said. “On one end are the people who fall apart into PTSD, depression, and even suicide. In the middle are most people, who at first react with symptoms of depression and anxiety but within a month or so are, by physical and psychological measures, back where they were before the trauma. That is resilience.

On the other end are people who show post-traumatic growth. They, too, first experience depression and anxiety, often exhibiting full-blown PTSD, but within a year they are better off than they were before the trauma. These are the people of whom Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.’”

Spirituality and Resilience

One of the interesting findings of psychologists studying resilience is the role of spirituality. According to professor Seligman, the spiritual fitness module, created for the Army takes soldiers through the process of building a “spiritual core” with self-awareness, a sense of agency, self-regulation, self-motivation, and social awareness. The term “spiritual” in this training refers not to religion but to belonging to and serving something larger than the self.

This Army resilience training is being applied to civilian endeavors such as business. Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful manager. “Leadership development programs often touch on these skills, but the Army program brings them together in systematic form to ensure that even in the face of terrible failures—those that cost lives—army sergeants know how to help the men and women under their command flourish rather than flounder.” 

According to a Rand study, conducted for another military branch - the U.S. Air Force - for many people, spiritual beliefs may “tremendously influence their outlook on the world, offer solace in turbulent times, or provide support from a like-minded community. These beliefs may thus contribute to resilience and well-being and result in improved force readiness and performance. The report noted that possessing a sense of meaning and purpose in life is strongly positively related to quality of life and a critical part of learning to be resilient.”

The Brain’s Role in Resilience

For those wanting to survive the hard times of the present and, in the process, become even more resilient to future calamities, there is also interesting news related to the body’s chemistry. This article notes that cortisol is a hormone “that promotes survival during dangerous situations by facilitating the mobilization of the body’s resources for immediate action. As a result, cortisol is involved in the body’s autonomic ‘fight-or-flight,’ physiological response system providing increased energy, arousal, and focused attention.

“In the short term, cortisol secretion is a critical component of the stress response system. However, frequent exposure to chronic stressors or the failure to rein in cortisol levels after termination of the stressor can lead to depression and a variety of bodily health functions, such as hypertension, osteoporosis, insulin resistance, abdominal obesity, or coronary vascular disease.

“DHEA is a hormone that is secreted alongside cortisol in response to stress. There is strong evidence to suggest that DHEA helps protect the brain from the deleterious effects of cortisol. Levels of DHEA increase under extreme stress, but decrease in the case of long-term exposure to chronic stressors.Evidence suggests that levels of DHEA are lower in depressed individuals. Therefore, while cortisol and DHEA play differing roles in response to extreme stress, the ratio of DHEA to cortisol has been proposed as a marker for resilience.”

Correlational analyses research on DHEA and cortisol found that spirituality (e.g., “My life is enriched by my spiritual beliefs, practices, and/or experiences”) was significantly correlated with the DHEA/cortisol ratio at a strong level While more research is needed, spirituality may provide a safety anchor that allows more of a sense of control, even in dire and helpless situations.

Stay Strong

Tough times don’t last but tough people do. In order to come out on the other side of this mess, it is important to practice resilience training every day. As noted above, optimism is a crucial component to this work, and make no mistake about it, it is work. Staying optimistic in the middle of the chaos of current times is enhanced by the tool of spirituality - not necessarily religion - to gain a sense of purpose and meaning to life. Start today and stay strong. 

Art Young is a frequent contributor to American None. He is a Writer. Editor. Storyteller. He’s just a guy who aspires to be the kind of person his dog thinks he is.


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