The Science of Resilience: How to Overcome Life’s Setbacks

Although you may hope for nothing but happy circumstances in your life, everyone experiences hardship or loss from time to time. Fortunately, adversity can make you stronger.

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Woman on the road to resilience
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The road to resilience

Two women I know, both in their late 40s, were diagnosed with cancer in the past year, and they’ve had dramatically different reactions to their situations.

Andrea,* a petite stay-at-home mom and artist, is married with two school-age children. She lost her long, curly mane due to chemotherapy, but now it is growing back in again. She was diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer, then thyroid cancer, then had a breast cancer scare that turned out to be nothing, all within a year.  This normally bubbly, outgoing woman has become very insular, withdrawing from her friends to deal with her treatments alone. When I see her, she seems worn, and she always steers the conversation toward her health and the setbacks that she’s been facing.

Marie* is divorced and has two teenagers. Before chemotherapy, she had very long, curly hair. It’s starting to grow back in now too but is still too short to curl. She was diagnosed with a very invasive form of breast cancer and has been receiving a more intense treatment regimen, which forced her to work less at her acupuncture and wellness practice. She radiates positivity whenever I see her. She’s surrounded herself with close friends, who sometimes accompany her to medical appointments, and she recently attended a retreat to improve her attitude toward her diagnosis.

Although you may hope for nothing but happy circumstances in your life, everyone experiences hardship or loss from time to time. Fortunately, adversity can make you stronger. (This is what all those cancer ribbon colours mean.)

The key is resilience—the ability to bounce back after big setbacks, and live with joy and purpose. “There is a difference between coping and being resilient,” says resilience researcher Patrick Dolan, professor of sociology at the National University of Ireland in Galway. “Coping is what we do in everyday life. Resilience is going one step further.” Specifically, resilient people do better than expected in the face of serious challenges, Dolan says, including cancer.

The scientific study of resilience dates back to the 1940s, when researchers began examining why soldiers in World War II reacted to combat situations differently.

“That really is what led to researchers looking at the whole idea: Why is it that some people are resilient in certain stressful situations and other people aren’t?” Dolan says.
Researchers found that men who had experienced stressful events during adolescence, which helped them develop coping skills, were more likely to be resilient adults. Those who encountered very few or no difficulties at all were more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and mental health issues.

That seems to be the case with the two women I know who are dealing with cancer. Andrea had never experienced any tragedies or disappointments before her diagnosis, while Marie had endured a difficult divorce a few years earlier. Marie’s negative experiences may have better prepared her to handle turmoil.

Says psychologist and author Rick Hanson, University of California, Berkeley, “Resilience is like a shock absorber inside you. As you build up this unshakable core inside, when the waves of life come, they don’t rock your boat so much. And they don’t capsize you. And you recover more quickly.”

The good news is that you can learn to be more resilient as you age, whether or not you have encountered rough seas in your life.

Here are 13 things you need to know about optimism.

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What is the steeling effect?

By the time you’ve reached your 50s or 60s, you’ve undoubtedly experienced stressors or tragedies like the death of a loved one, divorce, financial hardship or chronic illness. Despite the pain these experiences create, the perspective they give you can help you persevere during future hardships.

“There’s something called the ‘steeling effect’ to make us stronger,” says Michael Ungar, founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. “If we’ve come through adversity, that means also we’ve developed a set of coping capacities. We know how to reach out for help. Or we know that this, too, will pass.”

Over time, resilient people develop the mental toughness to face what life throws at them. They learn to cope, even live joyfully, with less-than-ideal circumstances. (Check out the surprising science behind the healing power of touch.)

Eric Dabas of La Garde, France, broke his back in a motorcycle accident at age 17, which left him with no use of his legs. His dream to become a truck driver was dashed. For years, he lived with his mother, feeling completely isolated. But at 34, he reached out to a nonprofit organization that helped disabled people learn to fly. For three years, he flew as a volunteer forest fire spotter. In 2005, he became France’s first disabled professional pilot. Now 52, Dabas enjoys fulfilling work and a meaningful social circle. “Not a day goes by when I don’t laugh or have fun,” he says. “My life is far more interesting than the life I would have had if I had become a truck driver.”

Resilient people tend to be more hopeful and optimistic, but the benefits don’t end there. A pair of recent studies found that resilience can help reduce pain, speed recovery from injury, and reduce the risk of heart attack and depression. A 2017 study published in the journal Quality of Life Research, surveyed more than 3,300 people with rare diseases. It found that those who are resilient were significantly more likely to function well physically and emotionally. A 2015 study published in the journal Psychology, Health & Medicine found that when people are exposed to stress, those who are resilient are more likely to have higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, less body fat and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who aren’t resilient.

Conversely, people who are not resilient are more likely to fall ill. Says French neuropsychiatrist and author Dr. Boris Cyrulnik, “People are actually sicker, catch viruses more easily and are more likely to develop cancer and cardiovascular disease, including heart attack caused by unmanaged emotions,” he said.

Want to make gratitude an everyday habit? Experts suggest that by following these simple steps, you can become a more thankful person.

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How to help yourself right now

Resilience is a learned skill that you gain with life experience. It comes from within, but it’s also deeply influenced by external factors. “Most of the research on resilience actually shows that most of what makes us resilient is actually outside of us,” Ungar says. But there are techniques you can employ before and during trying times that will enable you to be more resilient:

Let go of the past. Don’t get hung up about what might have been. Instead, decide how to improve your present circumstances or attitude. Try a new coping strategy, says resilience researcher Odin Hjemdal of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “Ask yourself, ‘What I’m doing at the current moment, is it making me feel better or worse?”  If worse, then try to do something else. If it’s hard to chase away such thoughts, train yourself to treat them as passing. “If you’re thinking about the marriage that broke and all the things that could have been, tell yourself, ‘I have these thoughts. These thoughts regularly bring me down. Now, could I carry on and do what I plan to do?’”

“It’s all about trying to adjust to the new life,” says Hjemdal. “If you are always thinking about the old life you had, the old plans you had and how you thought life would end up, you may end up miserable.”

Be kind to yourself. It’s important to be empathetic—not just to others, but to yourself. “One of the things about being resilient is not to blame yourself unreasonably,” Dolan says. “A lot of people who have suffered previously think they’re at fault and blame themselves.” Instead of trying to fight against painful feelings, you can accept that you’re experiencing a painful moment, which is part of the human experience, then embrace yourself with care and kindness, the way that you would embrace a friend who is experiencing a painful moment.

Look toward your community. Research shows that resilient people are less socially isolated. People in mourning will be more or less resilient, depending on whether they have a strong social network. “In any relationship, one of the partners is going to die first,” Dolan says. “It’s really key for the remaining partner to have other people in their life, in terms of friendships. The social support that we receive on a continuous basis actually helps enable us to be resilient.”

Depend on yourself. Some situations are out of your control. But when your attitude can help you improve a situation, take advantage of it.

“You can call up a sense of determination or fortitude to deal with hard things,” Hanson says. “That opportunity to grow, and then use what you’ve grown inside yourself, is always available, even in the toughest moments of all. We earn our happiness, to a large extent. We earn the mental muscles we grow as we go through life.”

When I think about the two women I know with cancer, I hope that my vulnerable friend becomes more capable of facing future challenges—more like my resilient friend. Marie announces it when she has an upcoming chemotherapy appointment and asks people to pray for her.

She has also thanked all of her many friends for standing by and supporting her during this difficult time for her … and for allowing her to complain when she needs to vent about her treatments, writing, “I am so glad I have people who do not need me to be happy all the time, who know if I complain it will be brief. Forcing oneself to be positive all the time is draining and does not let people in. When we fear being real, how can we feel truly loved and seen?”

“You don’t need to have had a very stressful life to be resilient in older life,” Dolan says. “It doesn’t matter what age you are; you can still learn the same mechanisms.”

* Names have been changed for privacy.

Next, we’ve rounded up the best medical discoveries from around the world.

Originally Published in Readers Digest International Edition

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