Some people are much more resilient than others. They bounce back quickly from a hard day. They mourn but adjust to even a calamitous setback, such as the death of a loved one or a natural disaster. The questions of why this is so and whether people can learn how to better deal with life's slings and arrows are easy to pose but hard to answer.
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George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University, has spent his career studying how people respond to adversity, particularly how they grieve over the death of a spouse or other loved one. "There's a lot to be learned from how well we cope with adversities," he says. "Human beings can cope pretty well with really bad things."
Bonanno says a couple of strong research trends are emerging that speak to why some people fare better than others. One of them is that it's not only OK to be happy when you're sad; it's therapeutic. Positive emotion, even the momentary experience of feeling joy or happiness, can be part of the coping and recovery process for people reeling from a traumatic event.
"People are able to experience joy and happiness even when the crappiest things are happening," he says. "It's a good thing to know that that's possible, or even permissible" when you're grieving or in emotional pain. "Laugh as much as you can."
A second concept Bonanno and others have researched is the notion that there is no single "best" way to respond to adversity. Those with great resilience adjust their responses, often unknowingly, to their specific situation. They exhibit great situational flexibility.
"We're finding that people who deal best with adversity are people who have flexible responses," he says. "They have multiple coping strategies, which is part of what we think of as mental health."
This flexibility may mean expressing emotion as part of a grieving and recovery process, or even as a way of confronting a difficult challenge. "We normally don't think of anger as being something good, but it can be a very helpful thing."
Flexibility can also mean suppressing emotion. This may be the best way to handle an immediate emergency or, to cite an extreme example, deal with a battlefield attack. Bonanno calls it "coping ugly." "Some situations are dire and you just have to get through them," he says.
It is not clear how or even whether people can train themselves to become more flexible in dealing with serious life events. Bonanno says there are three traits of resilient people:
1. They are able to "read" situations well and figure out an appropriate response.
2. They have a repertoire of various coping behaviors and can select one tailored to a specific situation.
3. They can shift gears, or recalibrate themselves, in response to the specifics of an adverse event or situation.
Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, says not only is there no single way people respond to negative life events, but the same person may respond differently at different times in his or her life.
It also turns out that experiencing some adversity strengthens coping skills and can produce an "inoculation" effect. People who have not experienced serious problems in their lives may be emotionally devastated when bad things finally happen to them. Likewise, she says, people who have had too hard a time are not able to cope well, either.
"I met a woman years ago whose son had won every race he entered as a young boy," Silver says by way of illustration. "He was very gifted and just never lost at anything. When he was about 30, he had something bad happen to him, and he completely fell apart. His mother told me that she wished at some point that he had come in second in a race. She was basically saying that he had never learned to deal with adversity, and had not developed the requisite social and coping skills."
Maren Westphal worked on research that helped form the basis for Bonnano's conclusions about resilience and flexibility. She now is an assistant professor of psychology at Arcadia University. "There is one big message coming out" of the research, she says, "and it's that resilience is not about one factor or one dominant personal trait, but that many different variables contribute to resilience. The other piece about resilience is that it is a process, an outcome that unfolds over time."
While it is hard to predict which people will deal well with adversity, some variables have emerged, Westphal says. One negative factor is excessively dwelling on a problem or loss. "People who ruminate more do worse," she says. "They keep on thinking and processing about adverse things that happen to them." Women generally ruminate more on events than men.
Another negative factor is a person's degree of neuroticism. Viewing events negatively all the time makes it harder to respond to a serious adversity in a healthy, flexible manner.
On the positive side, Westphal says, people with a high sense of their own skills and self-worth tend to fare well. Whether or not you really are capable doesn't matter so much as that you think you are capable, she says. Having this sense of "feeling up to it" is very healthful. So is self-enhancement--inflating your own worth to deal with adversity. "People who perceive themselves in more flattering ways show better adjustments," Westphal says, even if their attitude turns off people in their social network.
Not surprisingly, the psychology of a flexible response to adversity is mirrored by research about how our brains deal with stress. In evolutionary terms, humans' response to adversity can be linked back to the basic survival instincts of our earliest ancestors. The most successful early humans tended to be the ones who recognized and responded quickly to physical threats. If they hadn't, of course, they would not have survived and passed on these traits to others. These responses triggered physical changes and also fired up parts of the brain that regulated the production of body chemicals related to stress.
Today's threats still include physical dangers, of course, but are more likely to center on emotional stresses. The brain still perceives adverse events as a threat, however, and springs into action. Up to a point, this is a good thing, notes Richard Davidson, a brain researcher at the University of Wisconsin. However, some people's brains respond too well or for too extended a period of time.
"This can lead to deleterious consequences," says Davidson, who is also a professor of psychology and psychiatry. "It can lead to the production of stress hormones that exceed what is required to deal with a stressful situation." In his research using brain scans, Davidson has shown that resilient people's brains are particularly effective at regulating these types of "fight or flight" reflexes. It's their brain's flexibility that drives their behavioral flexibility.
The bottom line: Everyone suffers losses and serious reversals during their lives. Trying to avoid them would not be an effective strategy even if that was possible. Instead, the research suggests we should recognize that bad things are part of life. Experts recommend trying to learn from past problems without letting them overwhelm you. And as with so many other life events, a strong social network can offer an essential support system.
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