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Find Your Backbone and Survive Tough Times

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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.

Next:  Peacetime Perks

 

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