Resilience: 7 Tips for Bouncing Back

People can recover from just about anything. That is the message of Laurence Gonzales’s new book, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, which spotlights women and men who have passed through the hellfire of physical and emotional near-death experiences. Here, he explains what their stories can teach us about creating a new, sometimes even better life in the aftermath of calamity.

by Nanette Varian • Editor { View Profile }
resilience broken glass photo
Photograph: Craig Cutler

Do something. Anything. Ann Hood found solace in knitting after her young daughter died. Jessica Goodell, who’d done mortuary duty in Iraq, eased her post-traumatic stress disorder by going to college. Eileen Berlin* treated her recovery from a disfiguring alligator attack like an athletic event and forced herself to begin running again. These pursuits renewed the women’s “sense of agency and control,” says Gonzales, and helped disable the brain’s “rage pathway” by instead engaging its “seeking pathway.” (Both can’t fire at once.)

Become a rescuer instead of a victim. After Lisette Johnson’s husband tried to kill her, then used the gun to commit suicide, she told herself, I’ve gotta be OK so my kids can be OK. “When she met, through her therapist, two girls whose father had shot up their family, she had more people to be OK for,” says Gonzales. “Then she began speaking before groups of battered women and police groups. She essentially gave of herself. And that was her process for coming back into her life.”

Stay connected socially. “Keep good people around you,” Gonzales says. Hood’s knitting did more than disable her rage pathway. Because she knitted with a group of other women, says Gonzales, she had “a place where she could safely talk about her grief and anxiety.”

Shake up your hippocampus. We often enjoy the excited-but-uneasy feeling travel gives us as we navigate a new environment. Several years before she died, Kathleen Russell Rich, who struggled for nearly a quarter century with breast cancer, redrew her mental map by leaving the U.S. to study Hindi in a small town in India. “It was such a radical change, her brain was effectively absorbed by it,” says Gonzales.

Use ritual to control the bad memories. “My mother, who’s 91, goes to my father’s grave on certain days of the year that are significant to her,” Gonzales says. “She doesn’t grieve 24 hours a day.” Such rituals are a way of saying, “OK, I’m going to feel the pain on this day, but I don’t have to feel the pain constantly. I can set this aside.”

Fake it till you make it. “Act as if you’re better,” says Gonzales. Research has shown that “what you do with your body influences what you do with your mind.” For several of the women in the book, even forcing a smile helped elevate their mood. Behaving as if you’re resilient will help you feel that way.

Life is deep so shallow up, says Gonzales. “Laugh at the world. Laugh at yourself. Studies have shown that bereaved people who can recall humorous times with lost loved ones actually spend less time grieving. So the more you can laugh, the better you are going to do in the end.”

* Not her real name.

Click here to read Secrets of the Super Resilient, an excerpt from Gonzales's book.

Are women more resilient than men? Click here.

Click here to buy a copy of Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, by Laurence Gonzales.

Originally published in the July/August 2012 issue

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