Stress management: tai chi

Ready for anything: how to build personal resilience

It’s safe to say that in work and life, there will be setbacks. There may be outright tragedy. Change will shake you and the world. Will you break, or will you bend and snap back in fine shape? Experts say that depends in part on genetic and environmental factors that you have no control over, and in part on habits that you do.

Writing in Scientific American Mind (July/August 2013), two professors of psychiatry, Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, outline the science on how to build personal resilience. Here’s a quick summary for you, minus most of the strangely named parts of the brain and other complexities:

Resilience is about mastering stress, not avoiding it

First, what is this resilience we’re after? The American Psychological Association defines resilience as a “process of adapting well in the face of trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” Biologically, it’s about managing the stress response—which of course has profound effects on both mental and physical health.

As Southwick and Charney point out, some stress is good: “Without stress, we would weaken. Difficulty that can be mastered, on the other hand, facilitates growth, self-esteem, self-efficacy and resilience. A resilient person is thus not someone who avoids stress, but someone who learns how to tame and master it.”

1. Practice regulating negative emotions

Like stress, negative emotions aren’t all bad. But if they run amok, you won’t think clearly and make good, rational decisions in challenging situations.

Two strategies for keeping it together that are getting more and more scientific support are cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness meditation. Brain scans show that both practices increase emotional control.

Cognitive reappraisal entails reinterpreting something so that it seems less negative. Studies show that reappraisal tends to change both emotional and physiological responses for the better. Is there another way to look at the situation? Can you learn something from it? That may sound like spin, but it works. And it may not be spin: let’s face it, fellow drama queens and catastrophizers, sometimes we let our imaginations get the better of us.

Mindfulness meditation trains you to stay in the present and to watch, but not judge. So when, for example, your mind starts catastrophizing, you can sit back and say, “Wow, look at that! Crazy Girl on the move!” and your blood pressure won’t go up so much.

2. Practice realistic optimism

Optimism and positive emotions are linked to good mental and physical health, and even longevity. Southwick and Charney cite a study of 180 nuns whose autobiographical sketches, composed decades earlier before their vows, were assessed for positive emotion. Only 34 percent of the nuns who were in the lowest quarter for “cheerfulness” were still alive at age 85, compared to 90 percent who were in the top quarter. Wow. This points to the likelihood that positivity helps regulate the stress response.

The authors note that they are talking about “realistic optimism,” not “the rose-colored form”: “Because the latter often involves ignoring negative information, people who adopt an overly buoyant outlook tend to underestimate stressful and risky situations. On the other hand, realistic optimists filter out unnecessary negative information but pay close attention to bad news that is relevant to dealing with adversity.”

3. Exercise

It’s well established that exercise protects us from stress. You may already know that it reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves decision making and memory, boosts endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, suppresses release of cortisol (the stress hormone) . . . But one study indicates that exercise—of moderate intensity, three days a week for one year—actually increases the size of the hippocampus, which is involved in both memory and stress regulation.

4. Practice stressing yourself out—and then resting

“Stress inoculation” is a strategy by which you deliberately take on increasingly difficult challenges and thereby gradually learn to manage higher levels of stress. It applies to the physical, cognitive, and emotional realms.

You work up to running a marathon. Your work up to meditating for a full hour. You work up to speaking in front of hundreds of people. You stress the system, and then you rest. Next time, you push it a little further, and then you rest some more—in proportion to the stress. “One of the most important life skills,” say the authors, “may be knowing when high recovery needs to balance high stress.”

5. Strengthen your relationships

Social support can keep the biological response to stress in check. “High levels of social support have been associated with better psychological outcomes after many types of trauma, including childhood sexual abuse and trauma,” say the authors. “[It] has also been linked with better overall health in college students, new mothers, parents of children with serious medical illnesses, widows, and unemployed workers.” With support, they say, “we tend to to more actively solve problems rather than passively avoiding challenges.”

The authors suggest making a list or map of people you feel connected to—the ones you can turn to for help or advice, the ones you can count on. If you don’t like what you see, do something about it sooner rather than later. Revive old ties, or create new ones by joining a club, organization, or what have you. That way, you’ll have people to lean on when need them. You’ll probably be happier in the meantime too.

6. Look for role models

Look around you, among people you know or people in the media. Who recovers well from setbacks? How do they do it? You may well see them practicing one or more of the five strategies above. Watch and learn.

Scientific American Mind is available by subscription only. See Southwick and Charney,“Ready for Anything,” Scientific American Mind, July/August 2013, pp. 32-41.

Note that Southwick and Charney have written a whole book on this topic: Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.

Image via Creative Commons courtesy of aktivioslo.


  1. It is my first time to hear this kind of word, but I immediately understand it after reading this article. I think resilience is more than just survival, it is also about letting go and learning to grow. Fabulous post!


  1. […] optimism” helps build personal resilience (see my September 17 post). But in these times, optimism can be as difficult as it is necessary—and more difficult for some […]

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