Find Your Backbone and Survive Tough Times
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Fitness

Find Your Backbone and Survive Tough Times

This woman fell six stories and nearly died, but didn't let the disaster keep her from dancing. Learn how to harness your grit and resilience so when the going gets tough, you get tougher than ever.

Weather the Storm

When Mississippi native Nicole Marquez, a 25-year-old aspiring dancer and actress in New York City, returned home from an audition in 2008 to find herself locked out of her apartment, she went to the rooftop to improvise a way in through a window. That's the last thing she remembers. The next day, the building's super found Nicole unconscious in the alleyway six stories below with a broken neck, back, pelvis, and ribs and a collapsed lung. She coded three times in the ER, and the doctors didn't know whether she would live, let alone walk again. Yet she persisted through seven months of intensive therapy in the hospital, and today, Nicole, who has a metal rod running along her spine, is not only walking -- in wedge heels, thank you very much -- but she's also dancing. "When you're in the middle of a storm, you have to realize you're not going to be stuck in it forever," says Nicole, now 30 and a motivational speaker. The name of her business: You Can't Stop This Dancer. Clearly!

Before her accident, Nicole could never have predicted that she possessed the deep-seated strength to allow her to inch toward independence and craft her new normal. But as crazy as it sounds, she's not a special case. The ability to bounce back and persevere -- resilience -- is a capacity we all have, experts say. It's what helps us weather rough patches in our daily lives, and it's tested in a bigger way when we're dealt such major blows as illness, divorce, or the death of a loved one.

While it's partially innate, resilience can be learned. In fact, the U.S. Army recently implemented a first-of-its-kind program instructing soldiers how to build their resilience. Based on 20 years of research from the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania, the training is a boot camp for the brain. "We used to think that we could measure fitness by how fast you ran a mile or how many sit-ups or push-ups you could do," says Lieutenant Colonel Sharon McBride, PhD, a senior research psychologist who helped implement the program four years ago. "But now we know that psychological fitness is just as important as physical fitness. When you're holistically fit -- physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually -- you're happier, more successful, and more resilient."

Why You Need a Bulletproof Vest

Even if you're not planning to enter a war zone anytime soon, you can learn a thing or two from the U.S. Army about the importance of preparing for life's surprise attacks. Its data show that people who scored low in a resilience assessment made twice as many medical appointments as people who were high scorers. Other research shows that, in addition to weakening the immune system, poor resilience deals a blow to heart health and brain function. "Your own stress response can be more damaging to you than the stressor itself," explains Steven Southwick, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and a coauthor of Resilience. "It can be a vicious circle." People who don't handle stress well often replay the situation in their head and worry that it will happen again. This activates the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can raise your blood pressure, tense your muscles, and quicken your breathing. Over time this response can increase health problems.

Peacetime Perks

Building resilience arms you to fight back when catastrophe strikes, and it has present-day payoffs: Researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee found that the most resilient people had a higher aerobic capacity when pushed to walk on a treadmill at maximum speed; those who were the least resilient performed as if they were roughly 10 years older. People who are the most resilient are also the most satisfied with their lives, a new Spanish study found. And resilience helps you thrive under pressure, move forward and grow. According to research from Loughborough University in England, Olympic champions who faced hardships -- like serious illness, their parents' divorce, or career-threatening injuries -- said they wouldn't have won their gold medals if it weren't for those obstacles. "The challenges helped them create a sense of mastery over adversity and a belief in their ability to cope in the future," says study coauthor Mustafa Sarkar, a PhD student. "Without adversity, the mastery remains underdeveloped."

Luckily you don't have to wait for something bad to happen to test your mettle. There are little things you can do now to become stronger. Get started today with these tips.

Build your network. When you feel as if you're part of a team, you tend to be more confident and your brain releases the bonding chemical oxytocin, which helps to keep your fight-or-flight response under control. "You're able to cope with stress much better if you're swimming in relationships," says Michael Ungar, PhD, the codirector of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada. Make a list of the people in your life and rate the strength of each relationship. Ask yourself whether you need to form new ties by joining a networking group or to strengthen the ones you already have.

Listen up. Many of us have a tendency to dismiss a friend's good news by hijacking the conversation and interjecting our own successes, asking negative questions, or being too preoccupied to pay full attention. Be a joy multiplier instead: Give your friend the chance to share her story for two uninterrupted minutes. "When you let someone relive a positive experience, you forge a bond," McBride says. Plus, research shows that in building resilience, giving social support may be just as important as receiving it.

Sweat the small -- and big -- stuff. Donna Green Israel, 45, a photographer in New Port Richey, Florida, was devastated by her husband's death when she was eight months pregnant with her second child. One night the single mom couldn't sleep and got on her home elliptical machine. "The endorphins started pumping and lifted the depression," she says. It's true that exercise increases mood-boosting chemicals that help to ward off the damaging effects of stress on your brain and body, but that's not all it does. Sweat sessions actually change your brain to make you more resilient: People who did cardio three times a week for a year increased the growth of new connections between their brain cells, which translates into more mental strength during times of distress, a new study found.

Scare yourself often. Plan an adventure vacation or train for a triathlon -- whatever gets you outside your comfort zone. "Anything that challenges you helps inoculate you against stress. It's almost like a vaccine," says Dennis Charney, MD, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and a coauthor of Resilience. When you face scary situations in the future, you'll already have the stress-coping skills and confidence to pull you through.

Mimic role models. In 2012, Jenn Gibbons, 28, was rowing the 1,500-mile perimeter of Lake Michigan to raise money for Recovery on Water, a nonprofit group she cofounded for breast cancer survivors. One night, while she was asleep, a man sneaked onto her boat and sexually assaulted her. Still, Jenn found the strength to finish her journey by imitating the attitude of cancer patients she had met. "At every practice, I had 60 women who taught me how to be resilient," she says. Buoyed by thousands of supporters who messaged her via text, e-mail, phone, and Facebook -- and a few who showed up in person -- Jenn kept going and raised more than $150,000 for her cause. Many people, even those you wouldn't expect (including a stranger you read about, like Jenn), can prove to be role models. Check out Harvard University's Who Mentored You? project (whomentoredyou.org) to learn about celebrities' mentors or to pay tribute to your personal role model of resilience. Writing about how he or she bounced back will help you think about similar steps you can take when the going gets tough.

Follow traditions. Whether holding your annual can't-miss Cinco de Mayo party or making your grandma's lasagna recipe for Sunday suppers, participating in cultural rituals anchors your sense of self. You're most resilient when you feel a strong, continuous connection to your roots, Ungar says.

Be your own therapist. Don't be shy about hitting the psychology section of the bookstore. When people read a self-help manual as part of their treatment for depression, they increased their resilience more than those who stuck solely to traditional therapy, a recent study in Thailand found.

Ponder your purpose. Think about what you like about yourself -- you're a committed 5K runner, a woman's rights supporter, a patient mom. Simply focusing on what you stand for can help you weather stressful situations. "Self-affirmation provides a self-esteem boost, which makes you stronger," says J. David Creswell, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In one of his studies, people who reflected on personal values that were most important to them -- before having to give a speech or solve tough math problems -- had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who reflected on values that were not important to them.

Home in on the happy. Not a born optimist? Look for the high points on any rocky road. "When you focus on what's left rather than what's lost, you're more open to the miraculous in life," Dr. Southwick says. Vanessa Bergin, 31, a CrossFit gym owner in Tampa, surprised her friends with the upbeat tone her blog took last year after her 1-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. "I learned in the hospital that if I let my mind wander, I would quickly get sucked into a downward spiral of depressing thoughts," she says. "So I spend a lot of time trying to find the positives and share the happy times. It's those little moments -- the laughter, the kisses -- that keep us going."

Give yourself some downtime. When a wrench is thrown into your life, you have permission to sulk -- momentarily. Even the gold medalists in the study of Olympians admitted that they saw their setbacks as obstacles before they refocused and realized that the stressors could spur them to perform better. Letting yourself experience negative feelings keeps you from running away from your emotions and help from others, says Alex Zautra, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Arizona State University in Phoenix who studies the roots of resilience. "Resilience is a natural process," Zautra says. "As long as you don't withdraw from your relationships and feel as if you have to fix the problem by yourself, you will not only bounce back to normal, you also might learn, grow stronger, and make your life more meaningful."

How Resilient Are You?

Answer these two questions:
1. How well are you able to adapt to change?
2. How easily do you bounce back after a hardship (for example, illness)?

Research shows that the more confidence you have in both of these abilities, the more resilient you are. Not so much? Don't worry: Follow the advice in the article and before long, you'll be able to handle anything that comes your way.

Soldier On, Sister!

We got the U.S. Army to reveal their three top brain boot camp exercises. Do them daily to boost your resilience.

Battle your own worst enemy. Your guy hasn't answered your texts all day. Stop imagining worst-case scenarios (He's leaving me!) by forcing yourself to come up with an equally absurd best-case scenario (He won the Powerball, quit his job, and is waiting to surprise me with a surf vacay in Bali!). Now that you've moved your brain out of a place of negativity, settle on a realistic explanation that's somewhere in the middle.

Hunt the good stuff. Say you're ruminating about a near fender bender in the parking lot and being stood up by your BFF for a shopping date. Turn around your day from hell by reflecting on three things that went right: You conserved cash; your daughter crowned you Best Mommy in the World before she got on the bus; you remembered to reserve a spot in the happy hour hot yoga class. Research shows that this kind of mental maneuvering can put you in a positive place.

Detonate icebergs. "Icebergs" are your deeply held beliefs that drive your reactions and cause you to get completely worked up about things that someone else wouldn't think twice about. Maybe you respect honesty above all. Stop yourself from overreacting the next time you catch your coworker telling a white lie to your boss. Instead, reflect: Are you fuming because she put you in the bad position of having to play along with her fib or just because you can't stand it that she's lying? As long as no harm is done, save yourself the self-induced stress by chalking it up to different core values and letting it go.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2013.

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