Can you learn to be mentally tougher? Emma Young investigates the science of mindfulness and other techniques promising to foster resilience in the face of extreme stress.
Note: This article is from the BBC and is reproduced here for informational purposes only. Read the full article here on the BBC website.
“It was one of those perfect days. I think that’s what everyone remembers. And now whenever the day’s too perfect and the sky’s too blue, I think: what might happen?”
Tuesday, 11 September 2001. Lisa Siegman was in her first year as principal of Public School 3 (PS 3) in downtown Manhattan. Up on the fourth floor, the fifth-graders’ classroom looked directly towards the World Trade Center. “They had a perfect view of the towers,” Lisa says. “The kids saw people jumping. People were running into the halls of the school, just doubled over.”
PS 3 was far enough away to escape evacuation. But children from two other schools, PS 150 and PS 89, which were closer to the devastation, were sent there for safety. By the afternoon, the school had been identified as a potential site for a temporary mortuary. Refrigerated trucks were lining up outside, along Hudson Street.
Children all across the city were affected. By the end of that day the September 11th Fund had been established by two major local charities. Donations poured in. Money first went on immediate aid – hot meals for rescue workers, emergency cheques for victims and their families – and then funds were made available for programmes to help New Yorkers to recover. The damage wasn’t only physical, but psychological. Counsellors set up services in local churches, and psychiatrists came from around the country to offer their expertise and their insights. Thoughts turned to the city’s children – how would they deal with the stress and trauma?
Into the debate stepped Linda Lantieri. A former school principal in East Harlem and administrator with the city’s Department of Education, she had helped to develop social and emotional learning programmes for US schools, and was head of the National Center for Resolving Conflict Creatively, an organisation she’d co-founded to tackle school violence. Helping kids handle trauma and manage their emotions was Lantieri’s forte. She approached the Fund with her own take on resolving the problem: enhancing ‘resilience’ – a person’s ability to get through difficult circumstances without lasting psychological damage.
Since then similar programmes to encourage resilience have been introduced in schools all over the world, both to help children recover from trauma, but also cope better with their day-to-day stresses. Many use techniques such as ‘mindfulness’, which some claim can foster a stronger state of mind. Meanwhile, researchers have been studying adults who have thrived under severe stress to try and identify what it takes to be truly resilient. Can you really teach people to be mentally tougher?
For scientists the concept of psychological resilience began in the 1970s with studies of children who did fine – or even well in life – despite significant early adversity, such as poverty or family violence. For a long time a person’s level of resilience was thought to be inherited or acquired in early life. This idea was supported by the often-replicated statistics on what happens after a trauma: while most people bounce back to normal relatively quickly, and some even report feeling psychologically stronger afterwards than they did before, about 8% develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to US figures.
Dennis Charney at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City and Steven Southwick at the Yale School of Medicine have avidly studied people to find out why some are more resilient than others.
People whose bodies respond rapidly to a threat – with a surge of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – but who then recover quickly seem to cope better with stressful situations and jobs, such as working in the military.
More resilient people also seem to be better at using the hormone dopamine – which has a role in the brain’s reward system – to help keep them positive during stress. Charney’s team, along with colleagues from the National Institutes of Health, studied a group of US Special Forces soldiers. They found that the amount of activity in the reward systems of the soldiers’ brains remained high when they lost money in an experimental game, unlike in the brains of regular civilian volunteers. This suggests the system in resilient people’s brains may be less affected by stress or adversity. Each of the soldiers’ brains also featured a healthily large hippocampus (which as well as enabling the formation of new memories also helps regulate the release of the fight-or-flight hormone adrenalin) and a strongly active prefrontal cortex, the brain region dubbed ‘the seat of rational thinking’. This in turn helps inhibit the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes negative emotions such as fear and anger, allowing the prefrontal cortex to come up with a sensible plan to cope with a threat.
Charney and Southwick have also investigated the psychological attitudes and mental strategies linked to resilience. Their interviewees include former US prisoners of war in Vietnam, victims of sexual abuse in Washington DC, survivors of an earthquake in Pakistan, and later people who were hit hard by 9/11. “We started out with a blank slate,” Charney says. To the people who recovered well, they asked: “Tell us how you made it? What were the factors?”
Through their research, Charney and Southwick have identified 10 psychological and social factors that they think make for stronger resilience, either alone or ideally in combination:
- facing fear
- having a moral compass
- drawing on faith
- using social support
- having good role models
- being physically fit
- making sure your brain is challenged
- having ‘cognitive and emotional flexibility’
- having ‘meaning, purpose and growth’ in life
- ‘realistic’ optimism.
Charney and Southwick are convinced that it is possible to develop these 10 factors, and that this can lead to a positive change for generally healthy people in their ability to cope not just with a major trauma, but also with the day-to-day stresses of life. One technique, in particular, might help people with this development. Until recently this technique was relatively obscure. Now it’s everywhere: mindfulness.
Mindfulness has its origins in the Zen Buddhist tradition, but its central ideas – involving attention and awareness – are secular. A modern explanation is that it means paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience, moment to moment.