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How to Build Resilience in Midlife (any age)


Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children.

But what about the grown-ups?

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most.

Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.

The good news is that some of the qualities of middle age — a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences and concern for future generations — may give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience, said Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“There is a naturally learnable set of behaviors that contribute to resilience,” said Dr. Grant, who, with Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wrote the book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.” “Those are the behaviors that we gravitate to more and more as we age.”

Scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time.

While it’s useful to build up resilience before a big or small crisis hits, there still are active steps you can take during and after a crisis to speed your emotional recovery.

Last year Dr. Dennis Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was leaving a deli when he was shot by a disgruntled former employee. Dr. Charney spent five days in intensive care and faced a challenging recovery.

“After 25 years of studying resilience, I had to be resilient myself,” said Dr. Charney, co-author of the book “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.” “It’s good to be prepared for it, but it’s not too late once you’ve been traumatized to build the capability to move forward in a resilient way.”

Here are some of the ways you can build your resilience in middle age.

Practice Optimism. Optimism is part genetic, part learned.

So if you were born into a family of Eeyores, you can still find your inner Tigger.

Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, “I’ll never recover from this.” An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, “This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.”

While it sounds trivial, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people really does help. Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School and Dr. Charney’s co-author, notes that optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious. His advice: “Hang out with optimistic people.”

Rewrite Your Story.

When Dr. Charney was recovering from the shooting, he knew that his life was forever changed, but he reframed the situation, focusing on the opportunity the setback presented. “Once you are a trauma victim it stays with you,” he said. “But I knew I could be a role model. I have thousands of students watching my recovery. This gives me a chance to utilize what I’ve learned.”

Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. In expressive writing studies, college students taught to reframe their college struggles as a growth opportunity got better grades and were less likely to drop out.

A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better physiologically than those taught to ignore stress.

“It’s about learning to recognize the explanatory story you tend to use in your life,” Dr. Southwick said. “Observe what you are saying to yourself and question it. It’s not easy. It takes practice.”

Don’t Personalize It.

We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end.