My brother almost died from a heart attack a few years back. Because of his resilience, he is now in great health. Nothing gets your attention quite like a life or death situation.
Whether a person hangs in or gives up during tough times depends on their mental toughness and ability to bounce back. Resilience is harnessing your response to stress when you’re faced with adversity. Since setbacks are part of any endeavor, success hinges on resilience.
Here are 5 science-based ways you can increase your level of resilience when faced with stress and trauma:
1. REINTERPRET YOUR SITUATION
Columbia University Psychologist Kevin Ochsner has found that when people intentionally reinterpret a negative situation as being less negative, they experience fewer unpleasant emotions. This technique has worked successfully for former Vietnam prisoners of war. Most of the veterans had been brutally tortured during their imprisonment. Instead of feeling despair or engaging in self-pity, they reinterpreted their situation and found meaningful ways in which they could grow stronger, wiser, and more resilient as a result.
They were also able to see possibilities in the future, relate better to others, and appreciate life.
The key is to teach ourselves how to observe our own behaviors and thoughts, challenge our negative assessments of stressful situations, and replace them with more positive points of view.
Do this by asking questions such as, “Is there a less negative way to look at this situation?” “Am I exaggerating my circumstances?” “Is there something I can learn from this experience?” “How can I grow stronger as a result of what I’m going through?”
Mental toughness is choosing how you respond to your situation.
2. ENGAGE IN MINDFUL MEDITATION
If we can consciously live in the present moment, we can stop fretting about either the future or the past. This is important because it trains us to become an observer of our own life who learns how to watch, and not judge, what is going on.
The mind tends to follow familiar conditioned patterns of thinking that, because of our negativity bias, tends to focus on the stress in our life and our failure to cope. Mindful meditation helps cultivate our ability to focus on the positive and develop more flexible thinking so we are better able to deal with anxiety, pressure, and trauma.
Both reinterpretation and mindful meditation activate the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is associated with greater emotional control, a boost in positive emotions, and faster recovery from feelings such as fear and anger.
3. REGULATE YOUR STRESS RESPONSE
Boosting your ability to bounce back from difficult situations also promotes mental and physical health. These benefits provide you with a far greater ability to regulate your stress response.
We have a natural negativity bias that has kept us alert for dangers since the caveman days. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that negative emotions tend to narrow our focus of attention and restrict our behavior to that more suited to the emotions associated with survival, not dealing with day to day stress.
Conversely, positive emotions have been found to broaden our focus and produce more creative and flexible responses to stress and trauma.
It’s important to note, however, that mental toughness and resilience are associated with realistic positive thinking—not fantasies or wishful thinking. The key is being able to filter out the drama that often derails our decision making process.
4.WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET GOING
Aerobic exercise reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. It improves attention, planning, decision making, and memory.
Workouts need to be challenging to be of the most benefit to both your body and your brain. Stress inoculation is the theory behind peak performance. It is based on the idea that if a person deliberately takes on increasingly difficult challenges, they will gradually learn to handle higher levels of stress and produce at higher performance levels.
The graded exposure to stress can apply to physical, emotional, and cognitive resilience. This means your experiences will need to be outside your comfort zone, but not so intense that they are unmanageable.
This is a quote from the U.S. Navy Combat Stress Control Handbook: “To achieve greater tolerance to a physical stressor, a progressively greater exposure is required. The exposure should be sufficient to produce more than routine stress reflexes…In other words, you must stress the system.”
5. GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS
Many studies have confirmed that the strength and depth of our relationships is a primary component in developing mental toughness. Relationships with others weaken the impact of stress and bolster our courage.
Support from friends and family is important because it increases our self-confidence and provides a safety net if we should fall. As a result, we tend to be more aggressive in meeting challenges and embracing risk. Social ties stimulate oxytocin, the hormone that is known to reduce anxiety and fear.
A resilient leader is not someone who avoids stress but someone who learns how to master it. Science is showing us how we can boost our resilience. Setbacks are part of any endeavor, and those who react positively will be the ones to keep moving forward.
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