Resilience is critical for a healthy life

It’s been reported that James Eagan Holmes, more infamously known as the movie-theatre gunman who killed 12 people during a midnight showing of Batman in Aurora, Colorado, sent a text to a classmate asking whether she knew what “dysphoric mania” was. (It is a bipolar condition that in its extremes, can include mania and paranoid delusions.) Did he have it?

Similarly we wonder whether a near-death accident in childhood, one that was marked by severe head trauma, affected Jeffrey T. Johnson, a.k.a. the Empire State Building gunman, so deeply that it influenced his decision to kill his former boss on his way into the office. Is that possible?

So often we focus on the mental conditions and environmental stressors that may have influenced the perpetrators of horrendous violence. Likewise, in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event—be it violence, an accident, or a devastating natural disaster—the media reports on the nightmares, sleeplessness, anxiety, and other classic sequelae experienced by the trauma survivors. Too rarely, though, do we explore the mental and emotional recovery of trauma survivors, and that of the family, friends, and colleagues who were affected by a victim’s death or lifelong disabilities.

Some 90 percent of us will experience at least one traumatic event during our lives, and no two of us will react or recover (if at all) in the same way. Resilient individuals who do recover typically employ one or more coping mechanisms to help them process the crisis and even become stronger for it. Drawing on social networks, emulating role models, and facing your fears are among the most successful strategies for fostering resilience in times of adversity.

Humans are biologically wired to bond with one another. Very few can “go it alone,” particularly during difficult times; emotional strength comes from close relationships with people who know you well or who can relate to the experience you had. And while today the term “social network” might bring to mind the landing page for Facebook or Google+, for one group of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, a life-saving network was as low-tech as taps against the prison walls.

The group mapped out the alphabet in a grid of five columns and five rows, and each letter was represented by a series of taps: first for the row (one tap meant row one) and then the column (three taps meant third column). Using this auditory alphabet, the so-called Tap Code, the group painstakingly spelled out messages to one another, offering one another information and plotting out resistance strategies. It was also an essential tool for preserving their sanity.

Indeed, one study of nearly 2,500 Vietnam veterans showed that those with low social supports—few friends or family members to rely on, or safety-net organizations to turn to—were over 2.5 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome than those with high social supports.

Strong members of social networks may also become role models whose coping strategies are worth imitating. Imitation is one of the earliest and most powerful learning techniques we learn in life. While role models may be people we know personally, they can also be famous people, legendary members of our own family tree, or individuals we observe at a distance. Using imaging technology, scientists have found that when a role model performs a positive behavior, both the observer and the role model experience activity in the same region of the brain. Studies along these lines point to the possibility of mirror neurons that help facilitate social interactions by promoting shared understanding. Our brains are “turned on” by behaviors we deem impressive.

We might select some of our role models because they appear to be able to do something we cannot do, and that is facing our fears. Avoiding them—for example, never going to the movies again for fear of being shot—can greatly reduce your quality of life and sometimes your circle of support. Al DeAngelis is one individual who wasted no time in facing his fears. He and his friends went on their first-ever skydiving excursion on Memorial Day 1989. The rickety plane they were in became airborn and then made a crash landing in a nearby field. Miraculously, everyone on board survived. Most left the area to put the scene behind them, but DeAngelis joined the next skydiving plane and successfully faced his fears.

Not many people could do this so quickly and in such a dramatic fashion, and brain science indicates that it isn’t absolutely necessary to be so immediate. New memories are at first malleable before a synthesis of proteins encode them for long-term memory. Acting on instinct, DeAngelis took advantage of this period to alter the memory in its malleable state before it moved into long-term storage. This helped him get over his fear as soon as possible, but new research shows that even long-term memories can be altered. Every time the memory is recalled, a brief malleable period ensues and the memory could be updated and transformed.

While most of us will not experience trauma such as a plane crash, the Aurora shootout, or even extreme natural disasters, crisis can take many different forms, including long-term unemployment, chronic illness, homelessness, or divorce. Given the overwhelming odds that we will someday need to bounce back and move on, it is important to actively think about the importance of resilience even when everything appears to be going well.

-Dennis S. Charney is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He is also coauthor, along with Steven M. Southwick, of Resilience:The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cheryl De Jong-Lambert is a writer and editor.


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