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It can be easy to feel like throwing in the towel when you're faced with adversity, tragedy, or even just plain old stress.
But what if we could build an immunity to stress in the same way we take vitamins and antibiotics to boost our immunity to illness?
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal explores the art of learning resilience with Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Charney is a world-renowned neurobiology expert specializing in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.
In Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, Charney and Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale University, explains that people can train their brain to be more resilient by harnessing their stressors and using them to their advantage. Charney and Southwick observed common traits found in people who endured enormous amounts of stress from war, assault, and disasters (as well as other less traumatic events) and ultimately thrived.
Here is their 10-step "prescription" to re-train your brain into becoming more resilient.
Keep a positive attitude
Although it may seem too simple, keeping a positive attitude is key to deflecting stressors. This can be difficult for some people - a large part of how optimistic you are is determined by genetics and the chemistry of your brain's reward circuits. One way to restructure your brain's response to stress is to stop pessimistic thoughts in their tracks. Ask yourself if there's any rational basis to feel negatively about a situation. Recognize that you're in control of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.
Reframe your stressful thoughts
If the root of your stress can be linked to a particular event, try reframing the event in your head and realizing that failure is essential for growth. Much like optimism, you can learn to "alter the perceived value and meaningfulness" of the event by reframing it, assimilating it, accepting it and recovering from it.
Develop your moral compass
Altruism is strongly related to resilience, and strengthening your set of core beliefs can help. The authors note that there is a strong correlation between faith and religious or spiritual beliefs and resilience.
Find a resilient role model
Imitation is a powerful mode of learning. Our role models are so important in our lives that their values can influence our own values through psychological imprinting. Whether they're world leaders or friendly neighbors, find role models that you can look up to in times of stress.
Face your fears
Fear is normal. Don't be ashamed of being afraid, the authors note. Fear can be a powerful tool that can increase your self-esteem by helping you learn and practice skills necessary to overcome stress.
Develop active coping skills
Despite how painful it may be, try actively coping with your stressors instead of withdrawing and surrendering to them. The most resilient people use active rather than passive coping skills like minimizing appraisal of the stressor, creating positive statements about themselves, and actively seeking support from others.
Establish and nurture a supportive social network
Very few of us can "go at it alone," the authors note. Building a safety net of close relationships with friends or organizations can boost your emotional strength during times of stress. Plus you'll feel the validation of helping others deal with their own stressors.
Prioritize your physical well-being
Regular exercise is often touted as one of the keys to cleansing your mind of stress, and with good reason. Regular physical activity has been linked to improvements in mood, cognition, regulation of emotion, immunity, and overall self-esteem. Exercise may seem trivial when you're faced with mounting stress and anxiety, so try to think of it as a welcome reprieve rather than as yet another task to be completed. Again, it's all about framing your mindset.
Train your brain
Changing the way your brain works may seem like a daunting task, but with a little self-discipline it can be accomplished through regular and rigorous training. The authors suggest that working to build emotional intelligence, moral integrity, and physical endurance can all help deflect stressors. And don't forget to rest your brain - adequate sleep is central to all aspects of brain training.
Play to your strengths
Recognize, utilize, and grow your signature character strengths to actively prepare for difficult and stressful situations. If you have strong social skills or want to develop them, set aside time to spend with your social network. If you prefer staying in, try writing or pursuing your favorite artistic endeavors. Do what you're good at (or simply what you enjoy doing) and give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it.