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Our friend, colleague, and coauthor Dr. Steven Southwick passed away on April 20, 2022. In this epilogue devoted to his memory, we share Dr. Southwick's writings in the last months of his life focused on how he lived the very resilience factors that he spent decades studying. Steve's friends, family, and treating physicians share the impact he had on them as he connected to love and friendship, meaning, physical activity, and cognitive flexibility. In closing the chapter Dr. Southwick says of resilience: “Do the best you can with what you've got.
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who was a survivor of the Holocaust, has much to teach us about resilience. One key lesson from his work is that having a sense of meaning and purpose can fuel persistance and survival in some of life's most difficult situations. In this chapter you will learn about post-traumatic growth, the experience of positive life changes after a stressful or traumatic event. You will see ways that individuals have used their emotional suffering to help others, including having a clear and impactful “survivor mission.” Meaning and purpose can be given, but it can also be made. We will teach you four areas where you can make meaning in your lives.
Physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Research tells us that even a little bit of physical exercise in your daily routine can have an impact on your emotionall well-being and stress resilience. In this chapter we hear from military service members including Vietnam War POWs, who turned to increasingly strenous activity to boost their confidence, support their overall health, and cushion the impact of extremely stressful situations. As you will learn from the experiences of a young physician facing physical illness, exercise can also boost the process of recovery. You will learn to make a habit of exercise and gradually push yourself to accomplish bigger goals. Finally, you will see that physical exercise can also teach us important lessons about humility and perseverance.
We know from decades of research that a key component of stress resilience is being flexible in how we think and how we manage our emotions. We profile individuals who showed exceptional flexibility, including Jerry White, who lost his leg to a landmine. We discuss two psychotherapies that teach flexibility: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). You will learn evidence-based ways to embrace gratitude and humor, catch and challenge negative thoughts, and work towards accepting situations that you cannot immediately control.
Optimism is belief in a brighter future. In this chapter you will learn how optimistic people think and what they do. Optimists acknowledge the challenges they face but focus on what they can do to change their situation. You will read of how people we interviewed remained optimistic in very challenging situations. We share four ways to build optimism: shifting your attention to focus on things within your immediate control, savoring positive events, staying active, and challenging negative thoughts that are neither helpful nor realistic.
When we face challenging times, we think about people who have been there before and what they did that worked. We turn to role models, who can be found in many places, including our family, friendship group, educational and faith setting, or from history more broadly. We may have physical reminders around us, such as awards or photographs, of the resilience of generations of family members. The neuroscientific research that we describe in this chapter has helped us to understand how we observe and practice how our role models think, feel, and act. In this chapter we share ways to seek out and utilize role models so you can maximize their benefits.
While most of the chapters focus on a single resilience factor, many of the people we interviewed used more than one factor while coping with very challenging situations in their lives. You will see several examples of activities that combine many resilience factors, including volunteerism, athletic competition, and having a “survivor mission.” You will also hear compelling examples of resilience in parenting and organizational leadership, including insights that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toward the end of the chapter we give the following advice: in training yourself or others to be resilient, start small and build on successes.
This chapter looks at the many different ways we think about resilience. We describe how we became interested in resilience as researchers and clinicians, and some of the events that tested our personal reslience. We introduce some of the essential lessons we have learned from resilient people over several decades of work. We also describe important parts of the brain and body involved in helping us cope with and recover from stressful experiences, and what we know about the genetics of resilience.
We have an amazing ability to change our brains based on what we choose to do, and scientists have called this “neuroplasticity.” When we throw ourselves into a new activity, whether it is learning to play chess, a musical instrument, or a competitive sport, we forge new connections in our brains. Resilience, too, often involves learning and sticking to physical or mental habits. In this chapter you will learn a few different ways you can challenge yourself mentally, embracing curiosity along the way.
In our modern times, it can feel like we have lost a sense of right and wrong, adding to feelings of fear and uncertainty. In this chapter we talk about how many of the resilient people we interviewed, including United States service members who were Vietnam War prisoners of war, used their moral compass to emotionally survive life-threatening situations. Building up and sticking to a moral compass takes practice, good role models, and a willingness to do the “right thing” despite personal consequences.
Many people turn to their religious beliefs and faith community for comfort when the worst happens. Even people who do not identify with a religion may rely on their spirituality, a sense of connection to something greater, to help them cope. From a healthcare chaplain responding to the COVID-19 pandemic to a mental health worker recovering from a brutal assault, you will hear examples of how people have turned to religion and spirituality to heal, recover, and grow. We also tell the story of Dr. Southwick's ancestors, early settlers in the United States who faced religious persecution with unwaivering commitment. We highlight the benefits of prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices.
One of the most effective resilience factors is all around us - the people in our lives. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the world into lockdown, we found creative ways to reach out to one another. We describe the “tap code,” an ingenious way that Vietnam War POWs, often kept in isolation, supported each other and share informational vital for their mutual survival. We summarize research showing that social support can lower the risk of developing depression and postraumatic stress disorder; and that its opposite, feelings of loneliness, increases one's risk of developing a range of different illnesses. In our busy lives, building and keeping up our social support network takes effort, but it is an essential lifeline.
Feelings of fear can keep us safe, but they can also take over our lives, particularly after traumatic life events. In this chapter we describe the latest neurobiological research on how people learn and remember under stress. We tell you how to use these lessons to your advantage to more effectively face your fears. Above all else, resilient people face rather than avoid their fears. Throughout the chapter we share ways to use fear to your advatange, pushing yourself to grow and feel in control.