The NY Times PERSONAL HEALTH Column
Published: March 1,
Get a Grip on Stress, Set Your
Sights On the Serenity Prayer
And Live Life on Life's Terms
By JANE E. BRODY
Resilience. Call it what you will -- the ability to weather stresses
large and small, to bounce back from trauma and get on with life, to learn from negative experiences and translate
them into positive ones, to muster the strength and confidence to change directions when a chosen path becomes
blocked or nonproductive.
Or you can sum it up as actualization of A.A.'s serenity
prayer: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference."
Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a Dallas physician, wife and
mother of three, is the epitome of resilience. Struck with a recurring cancer in her 30's that required a decade
of debilitating treatments, she was forced to give up her medical practice.
She turned instead to writing books and lecturing to professional and lay audiences to help millions of others
and their families through the cancer experience.
Dr. Jennifer P. Schneider of Tucson is another classic example of resilience. Also a physician, she has a lifelong
history of emotional and physical traumas.
Her mother left her at age 5. Dr. Schneider weathered two divorces, a child with a mild form of autism, a broken
leg that required two operations and took more than two years to heal, and most recently the most horrific trauma
of all, the death at 31 of her daughter, Jessica Wing, after a two-year battle against metastatic colon cancer.
To cope, Dr. Schneider said, she focused on things she could control, her patients and her writing.
Dr. Schneider's recent book "Living With Chronic Pain" was an inspiration to me, as I mentioned in a
column last month, during my bout with intense and seemingly endless pain after knee replacement.
Growing Up Resilient
Until recently, resilience was thought to be an entirely inborn trait, giving rise to the notion of the "invulnerable
child," now recognized to be a mistaken idea.
Resilient children are not invulnerable to trauma or immune to suffering. But they bounce back. They find ways
to cope, set goals and achieve them despite myriad obstacles like drug-addicted parents, dire poverty or physical
disabilities thrown in their path.
As Dr. Robert Brooks of Harvard and Dr. Sam Goldstein of the University of Utah put it, being resilient does not
mean a life without risks or adverse conditions but rather learning how to deal effectively with the inevitable
stresses of life.
Herein lies an important concept: learning. To be sure, some of what makes up resilience is inborn.
But resilience can also be learned, say experts like Dr. Brooks and Dr. Goldstein, psychologists and authors whose
newest book, "The Power of Resilience" (Contemporary Books), provides lessons in "achieving balance,
confidence and personal strength."
They are lessons of considerable importance, as there is no such thing as a life free of losses and setbacks. People
who lack resilience are less able to rise above adversity or learn from their mistakes and move on. Instead of
focusing on what they can control and accepting responsibility for their lives, they waste time and energy on matters
beyond their influence.
As a result, the circumstances of their lives leave them feeling helpless and hopeless and prone to depression.
When things go wrong or don't work out as expected, they tend to think "I can't do this" or, even worse,
"It can't be done."
Children learn to be resilient when parents and guardians enable and encourage them to figure out things for themselves
and take responsibility for their actions. When Ray Charles lost his sight at age 7, his mother insisted that he
use his good brain and learn how to make his way in the world. In the movie "Ray," she watched silently
after the newly blind boy tripped over furniture, cried for her help and then struggled to his feet unaided.
It's Never Too Late
Children need to learn that they are capable of finding their way on their own. Parents who are too quick to take
over a task when children cry "I can't do this" or don't insist that children learn from their mistakes
are less likely to end up with children who can stand on their own two feet, take responsibility for their lives
and cope effectively with unavoidable stresses.
The same applies to parents who provide children with everything they want instead of teaching them limits and
having them earn their rewards and to those who make excuses for their children and repeatedly defend them against
But even if these lessons are not learned in childhood, experts like Dr. Brooks and Dr. Goldstein, who also wrote
"Raising Resilient Children" and "Nurturing Resilience in Our Children," say it is possible
to learn to be more resilient at any age. The trick lies in replacing what they call "negative scripts"
that may have been written in childhood, but are not cast in stone, with more positive scripts.
People who harbor negative scripts expect that no matter what they do, things will not work out well; they assume
that others must change for circumstances to improve.
'Authors of Our Lives'
So lesson No. 1, Dr. Brooks and Dr. Goldstein write, is "to
recognize that we are the authors of our lives."
"We must not seek our happiness by asking someone else
to change," they continue.
Rather, we should ask, "What is it that I can do differently
to change the situation?" Identify your negative scripts and assume responsibility for changing them.
Nurture your self-esteem. Be true to yourself rather than
trying to be what someone else expects of you. Focus on what you can do, tasks you can achieve, situations you
can influence. Take an active role in your community or in an organization or activity that helps others.
Develop a new skill: learn a language or a new sport or how
to fix a car; take up knitting, cooking or woodworking; join a book club; try out for an amateur production; become
a docent at a museum; help organizations that feed the elderly and infirm; volunteer your services at community
groups like the local Y, school, library or park.
There are myriad opportunities; just look or ask around and
you will find them.
Take a chance on change if jobs, habits or activities you've
long pursued are no longer satisfying or efficient.
Change is frightening to people who lack resilience, but those
who try it usually find that they land on their feet, and that fosters resilience.And if a new path does not seem
to be working out well, change again.
Take a long, hard look at the people in your life and consider
abandoning friends who drag you down or reinforce your negative scripts. For those - like family members - from
whom you can't escape, practice ignoring their put-downs and not taking them so seriously.
Seek out activities that elevate your spiritual life and nurture your inner strength: for example, art, music,
literature, religion, meditation, the great outdoors.