Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?
While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.
Here are some of the ways you can build your resilience in middle age.
■ Practice Optimism. Optimism is part genetic, part learned. So if you were born into a family of Eeyores, you can still find your inner Tigger. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, “I’ll never recover from this.” An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, “This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.”
■ Rewrite Your Story. Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. In expressive writing studies, college students taught to reframe their college struggles as a growth opportunity got better grades and were less likely to drop out. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better physiologically than those taught to ignore stress.
■ Don’t Personalize It. We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To bolster your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem and shift your focus to the next steps you should take.
■ Remember Your Comebacks. When times are tough, we often remind ourselves that other people — like war refugees or a friend with cancer — have it worse. While that may be true, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.
■ Support Others. Resilience studies show that people are more resilient when they have strong support networks of friends and family to help them cope with a crisis. But you can get an even bigger resilience boost by giving support.
“Any way you can reach out and help other people is a way of moving outside of yourself, and this is an important way to enhance your own strength,” said Dr. Southwick. “Part of resilience is taking responsibility for your life, and for creating a life that you consider meaningful and purposeful. It doesn’t have to be a big mission — it could be your family. As long as what you’re involved in has meaning to you, that can push you through all sorts of adversity.”
■ Take Stress Breaks. Times of manageable stress present an opportunity to build your resilience. “You have to change the way you look at stress,” said Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, which recently began offering a course on resilience. “You have to invite stress into your life. A human being needs stress; the body and the mind want stress.”
The key, Dr. Groppel said, is to recognize that you will never eliminate stress from your life. Instead create regular opportunities for the body to recover from stress — just as you would rest your muscles between weight lifting repetitions. Taking a walk break, spending five minutes to meditate or having lunch with a good friend are ways to give your mind and body a break from stress.
■ Go Out of Your Comfort Zone. Resilience doesn’t just come from negative experience. You can build your resilience by putting yourself in challenging situations. Dr. Groppel is planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with his son. Take an adventure vacation. Run a triathlon. Share your secret poetry skills with strangers at a poetry slam.