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The Secrets of Resilient People

Everyone goes through tough times — some people just navigate them better

"We cried for two solid months." That's how Deborah Robinson describes the painful period in 2002 when her husband, Jim, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Just 57 at the time, Jim was soon unable to work or drive, and Deborah became his primary caregiver, while continuing to work for the Disney Corporation in Orlando. Yet she survived the inevitable progression of Jim's disease, and his death in 2007, by reframing the situation in the most positive terms possible.

"I decided that we would rise above it, and it would be our finest hour," says Deborah, 54. She signed up for an Alzheimer's education program, joined a support group of partners of Alzheimer's patients, and asked for help from friends and family members. "It was a time to focus on the limited number of years we had left and make the best of them," she says.

Robinson could be the poster child for resilience, the ability to rebound quickly from a crisis or trauma. Highly resilient people don't fall apart—at least not for long. They call on their inner strength and recruit outside resources to keep moving forward. And they tweak their future expectations to fit their new reality, be it the loss of a loved one, a life-changing diagnosis, or a devastating financial blow. "Resilient people are like trees bending in the wind," says Steven M. Southwick, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. "They bounce back."

“Resilient people are like trees bending in the wind. They bounce back.”

Resiliency has become a hot research topic in the wake of such disasters as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the current economic downturn. While there's still much to learn, scientists agree that resilience varies from person to person and has a genetic component—recent studies show that certain genes may protect you against the emotional back draft of trauma. "Some people are naturally more resilient," says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and coauthor with Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., of The Power of Resilience.

Yet, like almost any behavior, resilience can also be learned, says Goldstein, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In fact, research shows that resilient people share some common qualities—ones you can cultivate to master any crisis.

They stay connected. Resilient people rely on others to help them survive tough times. After Barbara Smith, 54, of Canton, Georgia, lost her oldest son, Evan, in a motorcycle accident three years ago, she wondered if she could keep going. The turning point came when she joined an online bereavement support group and then launched a subgroup to bring together other women who have lost children. She now spends hours a day on the site and has also organized retreats for group members. "We've saved each other," she says.

Research bears out the importance of connection. In a study of 243 caregivers in British Columbia, Canada, those who reported good social support scored higher on measures of quality of life and well-being, regardless of the burden they carried.

They're optimistic. Like Deborah Robinson, people who have a sunny outlook do better at managing crises. A University of San Francisco study of caregivers concluded that those who found positive meaning in their caregiving were less likely to become depressed after their loved one died.

But don't fret if you lack a glass-half-full point of view. Experts say negative thinking is just a bad habit, though it may take some work to change your mindset. The first step: Observe the spin you put on your own experiences. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, challenge yourself to frame the situation in more positive terms. For instance, when you open your 401(k) statement, think: "If I change my investment strategy, I'll do better" instead of "I'll never recoup my losses."

They're spiritual. "Generally people who are active in a religious faith tend to get through difficult times better," says Al Siebert, Ph.D., author of The Resiliency Advantage. A Duke University study concluded that people with serious medical conditions who had strong religious convictions and participated in religious activities were less likely to be waylaid by depression. When these patients did become depressed, the depression lifted sooner than it did for less religious people.

They're playful. "Resilient people enjoy themselves like children do," Siebert says. "They wonder about things, experiment and laugh." Take Donna Goldman, 60, of Lincolnshire, Illinois, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001 yet continues to teach preschool. "I let the kids play with my canes—as long as they don't use them as weapons!" she quips. She advertises her attitude on her license plate, which reads: "Get Back Up."

They give back. "The benefit you derive for yourself is as great as that you give to others," says Goldstein, who cites research showing that people who help others live longer.

New Yorker Renee Weinhouse, 79, would agree. Since surviving stage 4 lymphoma 28 years ago, she's been a regular fixture at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where she visits cancer patients and now also runs survivor support groups. "Nothing makes me happier than when I give a patient a little hope," says Weinhouse.

They pick their battles. "Resilient people tend to focus on things over which they have some influence and not spend time on things they can't control," says Brooks. Wallow in anger or fear, or move on? It's up to you.

Entrepreneur Tim Baumgartner, 59, took the latter route. An independent sales rep in Richmond, Virginia, who sold electronics to Circuit City, he was blind-sided when the company filed for bankruptcy last year. Within months, however, he and his daughter launched an online consumer electronics store. "Whining and complaining about how you find yourself here doesn't help," Baumgartner says. "I've refocused my energy on the start-up."

They stay healthy. A good diet and regular physical activity provide crucial buffers against stress. "Exercise literally helps to repair neurons in brain areas that are particularly susceptible to stress," says Southwick. Deborah Robinson made time to practice yoga every day, even when her husband's Alzheimer's required more hands-on care from her. "I realized that if I was going to be good for him, I had to be good to myself," she says.

They find the silver lining. "Resilient people convert misfortune into good luck and gain strength from adversity," says Siebert. They see negative events as an opportunity to better themselves or become better people.

Southwick says the phenomenon is known as post-traumatic growth syndrome. And Barbara Smith seems to have it: "If I hadn't experienced Evan's death, I would not be able to help other mothers get through their grief," she says. "Putting together a place where we could share resources has forced me to set aside my own pain and try to make a difference in the world."

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