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How to Foster a Resilient Mindset

Some people seem to be able to handle stressful events without much effort while others seem to unravel. Resilient people experience and respond to stressful events in healthy and effective ways. There is no magic by which resilient people manage stress. Instead, resilient mindsets can be taught.  This is fortunate, change is possible, and so no one is enslaved to past deeds, emotions, and thoughts.

Mindsets are the assumptions and expectations we hold about the world and everything and everyone in it as well.  In turn, these assumptions guide our actions and thoughts.  Taken one step further, our mindsets therefore orchestrate the consequences of our behaviors.  This chain of events is not perfectly linear. Indeed, there is a fluid relationship between mindsets & actions and thoughts.   

Fostering Resiliency

“How can I foster a resilient mindset?” you may ask. Or, “How do resilient people see themselves and the world differently from those who are overcome by stress?  How do people who are more resilient and better equipped to cope with and bounce back from adversity view themselves and the world differently from those who are not resilient?”

First, nurture meaning and purpose in your life.  While I don’t believe there is meaning of life, there certainly is meaning IN life and it’s what YOU make of it. Commit to something greater than yourself that fills you up with a sense of integrity, wholeness, and satisfaction.  Let this pursuit be guided by your values. Try a worthy cause, yourself or to making the world a better place.  Ask yourself, “what cause would I fight for, if the need arose?”  By filling your life with such meaning and purpose, you can generate energy and passion as well as diminishing the effect negative stress has on your life.  

A Growth Mindset

Second, foster what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset. A growth mindset empowers you to see setbacks as opportunities rather than as failures.  Growth mindsetters embrace difficult challenges because they know these are the stuff of gold: hard challenges are the crucibles for change and improvement.  Fixed mindset, on the other hand, is a way of viewing the world that deems stress as a thing to avoid.  Fixed mindsetters don’t want to mess up, and will sacrifice golden opportunities as a result. So when you leave your comfort zone often, you essentially allow for chances for self-realization, improvement and lessen the effects of negative stress.   

The Serenity Prayer as a Lifestyle

Third, practice and live by the serenity prayer.  Focus your time and energy on situations over which you have some influence rather than trying to change situations that are beyond your control.  People who adhere to this valuable stoic wisdom believe they are active participants in determining their own destiny, of solving problems and making decisions about their own life.  They are not victims to happenstance but rather are the authors of their own lives.  So, adopt this basic tenet of resilience and stress hardiness, namely, while we will all encounter events over which we have little, if any, control, we also recognize that we have far more control than many of us realize in terms of our attitude and response to these events.

As a friend and superb clinician Helena Washington says, “Don’t just go through it. Growth through it!”

The growth of positive psychology highlights the need to place a spotlight on the strengths of individuals rather than on their deficits, disorders, and diseases.  The strengths housed within a “resilient mindset” are not confined to academic or work achievements but also include such qualities as empathy, self-discipline, compassion, and caring.

Last month I referred to the work of Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness.  Achor defines happiness “as the experience of positive emotions-pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose.”  In my previous article, which centered on the school environment, I emphasized Achor’s position that it is not success that leads to happiness but rather as he asserts, “New research in psychology and neuroscience shows that it works the other way around: We become more successful when we are happier and more positive.”  Predicated on this and other research, I advocated that teachers adopt as a primary, initial goal the creation of a classroom atmosphere that nurtures positive emotions together with a sense of purpose and meaning; I offered several strategies for doing so.  Such an atmosphere promotes more effective learning.

Examining Mindsets and the Stress Response

Achor, Crum, and Salovey published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013 titled “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response.”  They advanced the position that while previous research clearly indicates the adverse impact of stress on our lives, perhaps it is our mindset that “paradoxically may be contributing to its negative impact.”  If you expect stress is harmful, then it will be.  But what if you had a different mindset and viewed stress as beneficial, as contributing to rather than depleting our well-being?

These researchers developed a “stress mindset” questionnaire, defining mindset similar to psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck’s definition in her book Mindset, “as a mental frame or lens that selectively organizes and encodes information, thereby orienting an individual toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guiding one toward corresponding actions and responses.”  They proposed that “in the context of stress, one’s stress mindset can be conceptualized as the extent to which one holds the belief that stress has enhancing consequences for various stress-related outcomes such as performance and productivity, health and well-being, and learning and growth (referred to as ‘stress-is-enhancing mindset’) or holds the belief that stress has debilitating consequences for those outcomes (referred to as ‘stress-is-debilitating mindset’).”

The results of their study found that individuals who subscribe to a stress-is-enhancing mindset “reported having better health than those who endorse a stress-is debilitating mindset: specifically, respondents reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety while also reporting higher levels of energy.”  Their performance in the workplace and their overall satisfaction were positively related to having an enhancing stress mindset.

Follow-up research examined strategies for changing stress debilitating to stress enhancing mindsets and measuring the results of such a change.  It is beyond the scope of this article to review the procedures used to accomplish a shift in mindset, but Achor, Crum, and Salovey concluded, “The findings of these studies indicate that people can be primed to adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset, which can have positive consequences related to improved health and work performance.”  This conclusion captures a basic belief I have advanced for many years–mindsets impact on our behavior and mindsets are open to modification.

Stress as Your Friend

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of several books including The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, provides a view similar to Achor, Crum, and Salovey.  Her perspective is detailed in her books as well as her very popular 2013 TED Talk “How to make stress your friend.”

In her TED presentation McGonigal cited one study that indicated that people who had experienced a great deal of stress the previous year had a higher mortality rate the following year than those whose lives were less stressed.  However, as McGonigal emphasized, “That was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.  People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were not more likely to die.”  This and other studies led McGonigal to believe that changing the ways in which we perceive stress changes our body’s response to stress.

McGonigal ended her TED Talk by referring to research conducted by psychologist Dr. Michael Poulin at the University of Buffalo and several colleagues that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.  The findings of this study,  “Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality,” reinforce another position I have long advocated–being engaged in helping others is a powerful force in adding purpose and meaning to our lives and strengthening our ability to cope more effectively with seemingly stressful situations.

Poulin’s study involved 846 individuals between the ages of 34 to 93.  The participants were requested to report stressful events they had encountered during the previous year such as serious, non-life-threatening illness, death of a family member, loss of a job, and financial struggles.  They were also asked to indicate assistance they had provided to family, friends, or neighbors during the year that involved such activities as giving them rides or helping them with their shopping, housework, errands, babysitting, or other tasks.

The researchers then collected information about which participants died during the five-year follow-up period, adjusting for age, baseline health, and psychosocial variables.  In analyzing the data, Poulin notes that there was “a significant interaction between helping behavior, stressful events, morbidity, and mortality. . . .  Helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.”

In citing this study, McGonigal concluded, “Caring created resilience.  And so we see once again that the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable.  How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress.  When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.  And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”

A Cautionary Note

In my November, 2014 monthly article “Is the Process of Aging Significantly Influenced by Our Mindset?” I cited the work of psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer of Harvard University who found that our mindsets play a significant role in the process of dealing with illness and aging.  She referred to one study in which survivors of breast cancer who described themselves as “in remission” displayed poorer general health and experienced more pain than those who viewed themselves as “cured.”  Langer also took issue with the use of words such as “fighting” a “chronic disease,” arguing, “When you’re saying ‘fighting,’ you’re already acknowledging the adversary is very powerful.  ‘Chronic’ is understood as ‘uncontrollable’–and that’s not something anyone can know.”

As Langer discovered during one of her presentations, her position could be interpreted to imply that people who succumb to illness or are prone to depression or experience a decline in their physical or emotional health, demonstrate weakness and a negative mindset in which they feel defeated and are prone to giving up.  In response to her asserting that when we use the word “fighting” to describe our response to cancer we actually turn over power to the disease, a man angrily told Langer that his wife had died of breast cancer.  Langer reported, “He said she had fought it, and I made it seem that it was her fault.”

Langer apologized to this man. “Those are good points, and I’m sorry I didn’t address them.  But let me explain to you that it’s the culture that teaches us we have no control.  I’m not blaming your wife.  I’m blaming the culture.”  I’m not certain how helpful this distinction was to this man, but as much as I believe in the power of mindsets in influencing our physical and emotional well-being, I also believe that it is essential that we recognize that this power has certain boundaries and limits.  If this recognition is lost, we are likely to convey messages that are interpreted as accusatory and judgmental, adding stress to people who are already experiencing a great deal of stress. 

In contrast to a position that might be perceived as accusatory, I believe that a main focus of the researchers and clinicians I have cited in this article is to highlight that we have far more “personal control” over stressful situations that transpire in our lives than we may have appreciated. I view their goal as empowering us and suggesting strategies for adopting a more positive mindset, a mindset that eventuates in proactive positive behaviors that not only lessen stress but contribute to a more satisfying, meaningful, resilient life.

The Challenge: Sometimes we feel life can feel overwhelming and unmanageable.

The Science: We can actually overcome these thoughts with self-care practices and self-awareness.

The Solution: Here are six tips to help you feel better when you feel overwhelmed by stress and exhausted by life.

1. Avoid the “Belief in a Just World” Trap.

“Belief in a just world” is a type of cognitive bias that has been studied by social psychologists. For example, people often hold an attitude that if others are poor, they must deserve to be poor.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “If I’m struggling, I must deserve to be struggling. I must be struggling because I’m useless.”

The playing field of life isn’t level. A lot of smart, talented people are dealing with very tough situations. For example, large medication bills and no insurance. All of us have made some poor decisions in life. Sometimes there are few consequence, and other times people spend their whole lives recovering from the consequences of earlier decisions.

2. Remind Yourself You’re Doing the Best You Can.

Dr. Fran Vertue offers the fantastic advice –

“Remind yourself that you’re doing what you can right now given the circumstances and your resources. Practice flexibility so that you can take advantage of opportunities for change.” (quote is from this article about stress relief).

3. Avoid the “I Just Need To Work Harder” Trap.

If you tend to react to stress, struggling, or exhaustion by attempting to just work harder, try slowing down instead.

As above, you’re likely already trying your best. Telling yourself that the answer to solving your problems is just working harder isn’t likely to be an accurate thought.

The trap here is that by telling yourself the problem is not working hard enough, you’re likely to close yourself off to trying new ways of coping. An example I see in my practice all the time is people who respond to overeating by telling themselves they just need to try harder to stick to their diet next time. By attributing the problem to not trying hard enough, they try to solve it through willpower rather than seeking other strategies.

4. Recognize Rumination.

People often try to think their way out of their problems. While this obviously can be adaptive, it’s important to understand that over thinking while in a depressed mood actually impairs the quality of problem solving solutions people generate.

If you’ve already thought a lot about your problems/situation, recognize that the answer to your problems probably does not lie in doing more thinking about how to solve your problems.

Taking a break from thinking about your problems is more likely to lead to you taking action on simple things you could do to improve your situation or mood rather than continued thinking.

Taking a break from thinking about your problems can be achieved through activities like seeing friends, or through trying some mindfulness meditations to practice focusing your attention elsewhere.

5. Regulate Your Rhythms.

A core part of treatment for bipolar disorder is encouraging the person to develop regular routines of sleeping, eating, socializing, and working. Regulating these rhythms helps regulate mood and energy. This basic principle is true for people generally.

If you’re prone to boom and bust cycles of sleeping, eating, socializing, and/or working, try some consistent routines.

6. Use Physiological Self-Soothing Strategies.

If you’re feeling paralyzed by fear and exhausted by life, you’re probably experiencing the freeze aspect of the “fight / flight / freeze” response.

To be able to think straight, it’s absolutely critical you learn to use simple physiological strategies to calm your nervous system. Try rolling up your sleeve and stroking your arm (releases oxytocin), gently rubbing your lips with one or two fingers, or the hand rubbing technique listed here.

Develop a personalized plan for simple things you can do when your anxiety is high or your mood is low.

Dealing with Negative Emotions

In the therapeutic century we’ve just lived through, the therapist’s job was to minimize negative emotion: to dispense drugs or psychological interventions that make people less anxious, angry, or depressed. Today, too, the healer’s job is minimizing anxiety, anger, and sadness. Parents and teachers have taken on the same job, and I worry about this because there is another, more realistic approach to these dysphorias: learning to function well even if you are sad or anxious or angry— in other words, dealing with it.

My posture emerges from the most important (and most politically uncongenial) research discovery in the field of personality of the last quarter of the twentieth century. This rock-solid finding disillusioned an entire generation of environmentalist researchers (me included), but it is true that most personality traits are highly heritable, which is to say that a person may have genetically inherited a strong predisposition to sadness or anxiety or religiosity.

Dysphorias often, but not always, stem from these personality traits. Strong biological underpinnings predispose some of us to sadness, anxiety, and anger. Therapists can modify these emotions but only within limits. It is likely that depression, anxiety, and anger come from heritable personality traits that can only be ameliorated, not wholly eliminated. This means that, as a born pessimist, even though I know and use every therapeutic trick in the book about arguing against my automatic catastrophic thoughts, I still hear the voices frequently that tell me, “I am a failure” and “Life is not worth living.” I can usually turn down their volume by disputing them , but they will always be there, lurking in the  background, ready to seize on any setback.

What can a therapist do if the heritability of dysphoria is one cause of the 65 percent barrier? Oddly enough, therapists can use information from the way that snipers and fighter pilots are trained. (I’m not endorsing sniping, by the way; I want only to describe how training is conducted.) It can take about twenty-four hours for a sniper to get into position. And then it can take another thirty-six hours to get off the shot. This means that snipers often haven’t slept for two days before they shoot. They’re dead tired. Now, let’s say the army went to a psychotherapist and asked her how she would train a sniper. She would use wake-up drugs (Provigil is a good one) or psychological interventions that relieve sleepiness (a rubber band on the wrist snapping you into temporary alertness is a good one). That is not how snipers are trained, however. Instead you keep them up for three days and have them practice shooting when they are dead tired. That is, you teach snipers to deal with the negative state they’re in: to function well even in the presence of fatigue. Similarly, fighter pilots are selected from rugged individuals who do not scare easily. But many things happen to fighter pilots that scare the pants off even the toughest of them. Again, flight instructors don’t call on therapists to teach them the tricks of anxiety   reduction (which are legion), thereby training candidates to become relaxed fighter pilots. Rather, the trainer sends the jet into a dive straight for the ground until the trainee is terrified, and then the trainee— in a state of terror—must learn to pull up. Negative emotions and the negative personality traits have very strong biological limits, and the best a clinician can ever do with the cosmetic approach is to get patients to live in the best part of their set range of depression or anxiety or anger. Think about Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, two severe depressives. They were both enormously well-functioning human beings who dealt with their “black dog” and their suicidal thoughts. (Lincoln came close to killing himself in January 1841.) Both learned to function extremely well even when they were massively depressed. So one thing that clinical psychology needs to develop in light of the heritable stubbornness of human pathologies is a psychology of “dealing with it.” We need to tell our patients, “Look, the truth is that many days—no matter how successful we are in therapy—you will wake up feeling blue and thinking life is hopeless. Your job is not only to fight these feelings but also to live heroically: functioning well even when you are very sad.

A New Approach to Cure

So far I’ve argued that all drugs and most psychotherapy is only cosmetic and that the best they can do is to approach 65 percent relief. One way to do better than 65 percent is to teach patients to deal with it. But more important is the possibility that the positive interventions may break through the 65 percent barrier and move psychotherapy beyond cosmetic symptom relief toward cure. Psychotherapy and drugs as they now are used are half baked. On the rare occasions when they are completely successful, they rid the patient of suffering, misery, and the negative symptoms. In short, they remove the internal disabling conditions of life. Removing the disabling conditions, however, is not remotely the same as building the enabling conditions of life. If we want to flourish and if we want to have well-being, we must indeed minimize our misery; but in addition, we must have positive emotion, meaning, accomplishment, and positive relationships. The skills and exercises that build these are entirely different from the skills that minimize our suffering. I am a rose gardener. I spend a lot of time clearing away underbrush and then weeding. 

Weeds get in the way of roses; weeds are a disabling condition. But if you want to have roses, it is not nearly enough to clear and weed. You have to amend the soil with peat moss, plant a good rose, water it, and feed it nutrients. (In Pennsylvania, you also need to bathe it with the latest wonder drugs of modern horticochemistry.) You have to supply the enabling conditions for flourishing. Similarly, as a therapist, once in a while I would help a patient get rid of all of his anger and anxiety and sadness. I thought I would then get a happy patient. But I never did. I got an empty patient. And that is because the skills of flourishing— of having positive emotion, meaning, good work, and positive relationships—are something over and above the skills of minimizing suffering. When I started out as a therapist almost forty years ago, it was common for my patient to tell me, “I just want to be happy, Doctor.” I transformed this into “You mean you want to get rid of your depression.” Back then I did not have the tools of building well-being at hand and was blinded by Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer (who taught that the best humans can ever achieve is to minimize their own misery); the difference had not even occurred to   me. I had only the tools for relieving depression. But every person, every patient, just wants “to be happy,” and this legitimate goal combines relieving suffering and building well-being. Cure, to my way of thinking, uses the entire arsenal for minimizing misery— drugs and psychotherapy—and adds positive psychology. Here then is my vision of the therapy of the future, my vision for cure. First, patients need to be told that the drugs and therapies are temporary symptom relievers only, and that they should expect recurrence when treatment stops. Hence, explicit, successful practice in dealing with it and functioning well even in the presence of the symptoms must be a serious part of therapy. Second, treatment should not end when suffering is relieved. Patients need to learn the specific skills of positive psychology: how to have more positive emotion, more engagement, more meaning, more accomplishment, and better human relations. Unlike the skills of minimizing misery, these skills are self-sustaining. They likely treat depression and anxiety and they likely help prevent them as well. More important than relieving pathology, these skills are what flourishing is, and they are crucial to everyone’s search for well-being. – Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish.