Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rolling with the punches: The psychology of resilience

A year ago Ryan Westmoreland was a top Red Sox prospect just out of high school and on the verge of a major league career (scouts were comparing him to Mickey Mantle), when out of nowhere he started experiencing troubling symptoms. He soon learned that he had a sizable cavernous malformation in his brainstem, a condition that without surgery would likely kill him. The surgery, however, carried with it multiple risks of its own, including death, coma, and paralysis. His dreams of playing professional baseball unravelling before him, he knew that he would be lucky just to make it through the surgery alive.

Ryan did survive the surgery, and since then has undergone grueling rehabilitation, relearning everything from walking to tying his shoes. The road back to some semblance of normalcy has been challenging, but he has forged ahead with determination, making remarkable progress. He attended Spring Training this season, putting in countless hours of batting practice in addition to a full schedule of physical therapy. Although he still struggles with fine motor skills, his hitting ability seems to be coming back, and he has not given up on his dream to one day play for the Red Sox.

It's hard not to be in awe of Ryan. He's lived through a nightmare no nineteen year old should ever have to face, and yet he doesn't wallow in self-pity or bitterness. He works excruciatingly hard every day even though there is no guarantee that his efforts will be successful. We have a lot to learn from Ryan and people like him who face adversity with resilience and courage.

What does psychological research tell us about how we can become more resilient?

Find the silver lining. Tragedies like Ryan's are senseless and unfair - there is no good reason for them to happen. But when they do, we try to make sense of them. Sometimes people blame themselves - they feel like they somehow deserved their fate or were being punished in some way. Other times they feel angry at God, at the universe, or at whatever or whoever they feel is to blame. Although these reactions are understandable and common, they aren't very helpful in the long run. Research suggests that people who are able find constructive and positive meaning in tragedies fare better. Negative events can be seen as opportunities to step back and reflect on what's important to you in life, and potentially to make different decisions about how you spend your time. They might lead you to build stronger relationships or discover a new passion. Ryan's ordeal has given him a new identity and purpose as an inspirational figure, and he will continue to change lives with his story, regardless of what happens with his baseball career. As John Lester, Red Sox pitcher and cancer survivor, remarked in an interview, Ryan's dedication has inspired his teammates to be more appreciative of the abilities that they would otherwise take for granted. Silver linings don't justify suffering, but they can help make it more bearable.

Put it on paper. Research conducted by James Pennebaker and his colleagues shows that writing about a negative life event can improve physical and mental health. Even just a few short writing sessions have been shown to reduce depression and anxiety and boost immune functioning. You don't need to be a writer or show anyone what you write, but in the process you might discover that you have a story you want to share. Many people find that telling their stories, in whatever artistic form they choose, can aid in the healing process. Your story could change someone else's life, as Ryan's has, and give new meaning to your own. By the same token, reading other people's stories, especially when you can relate, can help alleviate feelings of isolation by promoting a sense of common humanity. Sharing stories can also help spread valuable information: learning about the surgery that saved Ryan has already saved other lives - see the comments section at this link for one example. Writing or reading about a trauma can sometimes be too overwhelming, especially right away, so it's important to wait until you feel ready and have the support you need.

Cultivate positive emotions. Positive emotions like love, joy, and gratitude help to broaden and build psychological resources such as knowledge, coping skills, and social support, according to research conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues. For example, one study showed that people who experienced more positive emotions in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were less likely to experience depression and were better able to maintain life satisfaction and tranquility. It is important to note that these individuals also experienced many negative emotions, like fear, anger, and sadness - positive emotions do not replace the negatives, but help make them less debilitating. Surviving a serious trauma can also promote positive self-views, giving people confidence that they will be able to handle whatever life throws at them. How can positive emotions be cultivated? Rather than waiting for good feelings to emerge on their own, daily practices like loving-kindness mediation can be helpful, as can gratitude-inducting exercises - see Amie's recent post for ideas.

Research also suggests that laughter really is the best medicine: George Bonanno and Dacher Keltner found that among people who were coping with the death of a spouse, those who expressed humor and amusement when talking about their partner experienced fewer grief symptoms, such as emotional numbness and intrusive memories, a year later. Laughter has also been shown to relax the body, improve heart health, and relieve physical pain. Although humor is not always appropriate, it has its place in even the direst of circumstances. In a Boston Globe interview, Ryan's girlfriend Charlene recalls how he made her laugh before his life-threatening surgery in order to ease her pain.

Don't be too hard on yourself. Even more important than facing adversity with strength and courage is allowing yourself to not always be strong and courageous. It's natural to feel anger, frustration, and depression when life throws you punches - you can't expect yourself to be superhuman. Kristin Neff and other researchers have shown that self-compassion is an essential part of healthy psychological functioning, whether you're dealing with everyday stressors or major traumas. To be self-compassionate is to be understanding and forgiving of yourself when you fall short of your ideals. Although self-compassion sounds like it could lead to self-indulgence or complacency, research suggests just the opposite - being too hard on yourself can be debilitating, whereas a healthy dose of self-acceptance may actually motivate people to work harder and take more risks, since it makes failure less threatening.

In addition to accepting yourself and your shortcomings, it's also important to accept that certain factors may be outside of your control, no matter how hard you struggle. I always think of the Serenity prayer - rather than fighting to the death on the one extreme or giving up too easily on the other, the challenge is to recognize where you do have leverage and where your energy will be most fruitful. In the words of Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand."Although there is much we can't control, we often have a lot more leverage than we realize. Ryan's progress has far surpassed everyone's expectations. But this progress is only possible because of his patience, because he takes it one step at a time and doesn't expect too much too soon. Ryan's father has said, "As proud as we are of so many things Ryan has done in his young life, we have never been, and never will be, more proud of him for the courage he has shown during his recovery.

In February, Ryan hit his first home run post-surgery. He has a long road ahead of him, but at the rate he's going it seems like anything is possible. Click here for more information about Ryan's recovery.


What strategies have you personally found to be most effective in coping with negative life events? 

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