Ever dealt with a really difficult situation? We’ve all had our emotional resilience tested. Sometimes it feels like you just want to give up.
How do the toughest people summon the will to keep going? Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney have studied resilient people for over 20 years. They spoke with Vietnam prisoners of war, Special Forces instructors and civilians who dealt with terrible experiences like medical problems, abuse and trauma.
In their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges they assembled the 10 things resilient people have in common so you and I can learn how to be more gritty and tough when life gets hard.
Here’s what they learned…
1) Be Optimistic
Yes, looking on the bright side keeps you going. But what’s more interesting is that they’re not talking about delusional, pollyanna-style, rose-colored glasses here.
Truly resilient people who need to survive the harshest situations and still accomplish goals (like POW’s and Special Forces units) balance a positive outlook with a realistic view of the world.
And they’re not the only ones to realize this. When Laurence Gonzales studied survivors of life-threatening scenarios he found the same thing: they balance positivity with realism.
But that leads to an obvious question: how the heck do you do that?
Gonzales realized the distinction is in being realistic about the world but confident in your abilities: see the world accurately — but believe you are a rockstar.
(To learn how to be more optimistic, click here.)
So you’re thinking positive. But what about when your optimism gets tested and things get scary?
2) Face Your Fears
Neuroscience says there’s only one real way to deal with fear: you need to face it, head on. This is what the most resilient people do.
When we avoid scary things we become more scared. When you face your fears they become less frightening.
What do Special Forces soldiers think when facing the most terrifying situations?
“I’m scared, but I can learn from this,” or “This is a test that’s going to make me stronger.”
(To learn how you can have more grit — from a Navy SEAL platoon commander, click here.)
Think positive. Face your fears. Good advice but what do we need to develop deep down to overcome life’s biggest obstacles?
3) Have A Moral Compass
The emotionally resilient people that Southwick and Charney studied all had a strong sense of right and wrong. Despite being in situations that could threaten their lives, they always thought about others, not just themselves.
They mention a program called “The Giraffe Project” that helps kids develop good values. What does the system teach? “Stick your neck out” and do the right thing.
(To learn a Stanford professor’s tips on how to make sure your kids have grit, click here.)
So morals strengthen our resolve in tough times. But where do they often come from?
4) Practice Spirituality
This was the #1 thing that one researcher found when studying people who overcame tragedy.
But what if you’re not religious? No problem.
Much of the strength from religious activity comes from being a part of a community. So you don’t have to do anything you don’t believe in, but you want to be a part of a group that strengthens your resolve.
(To learn what the survivors of deadly situations all have in common, click here.)
So being part of a group with beliefs is important. But what if you’re not?
5) Get Social Support
Even if you’re not part of a religion or community, friends and loved ones are key when life gets hard.
When Admiral Robert Shumaker was a POW in Vietnam, he was isolated from the other captives. How did he maintain his resolve?
By tapping on the wall of his cell. His fellow prisoners could hear it, and they would tap back. It’s ridiculously simple but their “tap code” let them know they were not alone in their suffering.
Our brains need social support to function optimally. Connection with others releases oxytocin which calms your mind and reduces stress.
And the solution isn’t just receiving help from others — it’s giving help.
As Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
(To learn how Special Forces soldiers overcome adversity, click here.)
But we can’t always be surrounded by others. How can people we love and respect help us thrive even when we’re alone?
More from Eric Barker:
- How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert
- New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy
- New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful
6) Have Resilient Role Models
When you study kids who grow up in impoverished circumstances but go on to live productive, healthy lives, what do you find?
They had great role models who provided a positive example and supported them.
But sometimes it’s hard to find people we know we want to be like. That’s okay. Southwick and Charney found that it’s often enough to have bad role models — people who provide an example of what you don’t want to be.
(To learn a Yale professor’s lazy secret to an awesome life, click here.)
Psychology’s great but resilience isn’t all in the mind. Where else can we find strength? In actual strength…
7) Maintain Physical Fitness
Again and again, Southwick and Charney saw that the most resilient people had good exercise habits that kept their bodies (as well as their minds) strong.
And, interestingly, this seems to be more important if you’re someone who’s a bit more emotionally fragile. Why?
The stress of exercise helps us adapt to the stress we will feel when life challenges us.
(To learn what makes Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs so mentally tough, click here.)
But getting your body in shape isn’t everything…
8) Keep Your Brain Strong
No, that little brain game on your phone isn’t what we’re talking about. Resilient people are very often lifelong learners. They keep growing their mind, learning to learn, and adapting to new information about the world.
This not only keeps you sharp but has a whole host of positive health benefits.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Smart and fit is good but, by definition, hard times mean things we’re not used to. How do you prepare for what you’re not prepared for?
9) Be “Cognitively Flexible”
All of us have one way we typically cope with difficulty, but what sets extremely resilient people apart is they use a number of ways to deal with stressful situations.
What’s a good coping style that definitely works? I’ve spoken to a number of elite military operators and I’ve heard the same thing over and over… Be tough? Nope. Ignore it? Nope.
They all mentioned humor.
(To learn how to be funny, click here.)
Okay, last one. What’s critical when you are dealing with the toughest situations life has to offer?
10) Find Meaning In What You Do
Resilient people don’t have jobs — they have callings. They have a mission and purpose in life that gives meaning to the things they do.
So when times are hard, they feel a greater purpose is behind them, pushing them forward.
(To learn how to find meaning in your life, click here.)
Alright, let’s round up what we’ve learned — and find out about the upsides of the downsides of life…
Here’s how to increase your emotional resilience:
- Foster optimism: Don’t be in denial. See the world clearly but believe in your abilities.
- Face your fears: Hiding from fear makes it worse. Face it and you overcome it.
- Have a moral compass: A strong feeling of right and wrong tells us we must when we feel we can’t.
- Practice spirituality: Be a part of a group that has strong beliefs.
- Give and receive social support: Tapping on the wall of your cell can keep you going.
- Imitate resilient role models: Or have people you know you do not want to be.
- Physical fitness: Exercise adapts your body to stress.
- Be a lifelong learner: Keep your brain sharp and it will give you solutions when you need them most.
- Have a number of ways to cope: Be like Navy SEALs and Special Forces operators — and laugh.
- Have meaning in your life: Don’t just do a job; have a calling and a purpose.
And how can the downsides of life lead to a greater upside?
We hear a lot about PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. But we hear a lot less about the reverse: post-traumatic growth.
And it is real. Many people who experience hardships in life and get through them don’t come out weaker, they come out better.
So it sounds like Nietzsche was right: what does not kill you really can make you stronger.
As one of the resilient people Southwick and Charney spoke to said:
I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.