When we build physical strength, we typically break down our muscles first—causing tiny tears in their fibers so they can grow back thicker than before. It turns out that building emotional strength isn't all that different: A little bruising makes us stronger. In a recently published review of research, Mark D. Seery, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, found that subjects who'd endured a moderate amount of adversity in their lifetime not only had a greater sense of well-being than those who'd suffered a severe amount of trauma; they were also better off than those who'd experienced no trauma at all.
Seery's findings challenge the popular belief that people are born with a certain level of resilience (and are prone to either breakdowns or breakthroughs). "The big picture here," he says, "is that people can change. Resilience isn't at all predetermined."
Fortunately, suffering emotional blows isn't the only way to grow psychologically stronger. These three techniques are designed to train your resilience "muscles."
Strike a pose
According to a new study from Harvard Medical School, yoga can foster more than flexibility: Over the course of 11 weeks, one group of teenage subjects followed a standard physical education regimen, while another took yoga classes. At the end of the study, the yoga students were less prone to angry outbursts and better able to calm themselves when they felt upset. "In a challenging posture, your body screams, 'Stop, stop! Are you nuts?' " explains study author Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD. "But you strive for equanimity. You're learning to react less emotionally. And that's the heart of resilience—having self-control."
Psychologists at the Institute of HeartMath (a research and education organization that trains U.S. military service members to cope with the stresses of war) say the key to keeping calm in even extreme circumstances is shifting to a state known as coherence, in which the body and mind are operating in sync and at ease. Step one is recognizing signs (like sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, or spinning thoughts) that the natural stress response has begun. Step two is consciously returning to balance. "For example, you might take deep breaths—inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for five seconds—while recalling a positive feeling. Try to summon the serenity you felt the last time you played with your dog, or went for a hike,"says research director Rollin McCraty, PhD. Then remind yourself that stress is often an overreaction: It's usually not the problem that triggers panic; it's the undue significance you've placed on it. "With enough practice, the ability to regain composure in the heat of the moment becomes second nature," McCraty says.
To help people recognize their natural fortitude, psychologist Mark Katz, PhD—who runs a program called the Resilience Through the Lifespan Project—asks them to identify setbacks and turning points they've experienced over time. Then he has participants consider the factors that helped them succeed in each instance. Maybe it was a mentor, an energizing hobby, a tight-knit group of friends, or plain determination. The exercise, Katz explains, prompts people to find confidence in their inherent strengths and gain insight into the conditions that allowed them to rise above prior challenges in their lives.
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