This month’s article is taken from a talk that I will be giving on this topic.
You may have felt a tingle in May of last year as the nature of reality as we know it shifted. The big book of psychiatric labels was revised to a flurry of debate in the professional and public press. Although difficult at times to watch, I think one good thing about this process is it fosters a debate about the nature and politics of mental illness. But what about the flipside, the nature of mental health? Research and thought about this falls under what we call resiliency.
So what is resiliency? Going to the dictionary, resiliency is defined as the capability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. In Psychology, it refers to changing the perspective to looking at those who remain well and trying to learn from them for the sake of all of us doing our best to thrive. For this talk, my concept of resilience includes things that promote our quality of life and our longevity.
An example will help convey how I think about resiliency. I always think of studies where, let’s say, an entire city block is affected by a fire or other disaster. As the people return to their homes, its safe to say that none of them are overjoyed with the outcome, but how many become clinically distressed in the following weeks? The answer is not 100%, or even 50%, but closer to 10%. When we look at those who cope with this situation, many will be working together to make sense of what has happened and to collect their lives and plan as best as they are able. Coping and making meaning in a difficult situation is resilience and as none of us will avoid difficult situations during our time, resilience is a desirable trait. The recurring message is always that we may not be able to control events, but we can control how we react to them.
Some of what we might think of as resilience is genetic. Personality and temperament is highly heritable and about 50% of our level of happiness is built in. However, there is ample left under our control and its that we want to exert our influence on for the best life possible.
So what I want to talk about in my time today is 6 things that research has shown build resilience and will absolutely improve both your quality if life and longevity. Just as we do when we look at psychological difficulties people may have, I want you to think about these 6 things in terms of the physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects. So if we think about something clinical like chronic pain, people tend to think about the physical pain, but there are also emotional consequences as many are unhappy about the pain, and cognitive consequences because pain interferes with learning and memory. For depression, we think of sadness, but aches and pains and an array of other physical symptoms are common, and again cognitively, depression gets in the way of planning, learning, and memory.
So, the same is true of the flip side, of building resiliency. We may work on something physical, for example, but also see positive emotional and cognitive effects, you’ll see what I mean.
The 6 things for building resiliency that we will look at today are not especially clever secrets, but rather: (a) diet; (b) exercise; (c) cognitive diversity; (d) social engagement; (e) meditation; and (f) meaning making.
So first, by diet, I mean what we consume, not the torture of dieting. Diet is a hotbed of debate and there are issues related to allergy, but there is a strong research foundation for the positive effects of the Mediterranean diet, features of which include a proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), moderate wine consumption, and low consumption of meat and meat products. Typical findings are greater cardiovascular health, general functioning, and longevity.
Apparently its not cool to try and exchange vegetables for more wine.
A recent study that fell into my collection showed that 7 servings of vegetables per day was optimal in terms of preventing death by all causes. Fruit, unfortunately, was not as effective.
So, exercise. Exercise within our means improves physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning, regardless of when in life you begin to exercise and regardless of disability status, assuming the exercise chosen is not harmful. In one study, a group of older adults who weren’t fast enough to avoid the study were put through a 2-week fitness program that produced measurable improvements in several areas, including tested intelligence.
If you are using exercise to manage mood, we’re looking for 30 to 60 minutes a day. Really though, regular, safe movement makes a significant difference in physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning.
Recently, in addition to the exercise people, there have been what I call the sitting people. The typical paper reviews in some detail the adverse health effects of our tendency to sit for 6 to 8 hours or more per day. They rub it in that even regular working out does not offset the adverse impact of prolonged sitting between workouts. Overall, it looks like we’re really supposed to use our muscles and bones and when we do, there are rewards.
So what else can we do that can build resilience? Well we know that, within reason, being involved in multiple roles or involvements is better. The diversity brings spice to life, and when there are bumps in one role, you can have the support of another role.
Relatedly, it seems that for staying cognitively sharp diversity is best. Pondering, solving, exploring, and considering multiple issues is preferable to devoting oneself exclusively to a single intellectual pursuit. We are now in the age of plasticity, the realization that as we age, some neurons in our brain die, yes, but more importantly, new interconnections are formed all the time, and it is this that contributes to mental sharpness. Classically with age, the speed with which we can solve problems or recall information slows, but the quality of problem-solving does not normally change. We are capable of learning throughout our lifespan, and it is this new learning that forms the important interconnections in the brain. So, if you have devoted yourself to exclusively doing suduko until your ears bleed, I encourage you to branch out.
For social engagement, a gazillion studies have shown that we function much, much better by being a part of social groups.
A punch line of my homily is that it is more and more my opinion that close social groups (e.g., churches, hobby groups), which are frequently described by members as a special extended family, contribute significantly to resilience. The reasons for this are many, friendly faces, similar beliefs, kind words, validation, support.
So, meditation. I did mindfulness for my continuing education last year and I’m really excited about the positive effects of regular meditation. One could say that given meditation has been around for about 2,500 years, I’m a bit of a slow burn on this. The areas of research on the impact of meditation have exploded with the rebranding of mindfulness, but it is clear that a regular meditation practice of 20 minutes per day or so has substantial positive effects on our physical, emotional, and cognitive self’s. I’ll pick 2 things that are particularly cool. First, meditation seems to help with hard to treat depression because learning skills to be in the moment takes us away from ruminating about what we think our shortcomings have been, or will be. Second, we have looked for a long time for ways to build up the brain. Through meditation, increasing our skill at directing attention to the present moment appears to build attention skills in general in a way that generalizes to everyday life. With better attention we get improvements elsewhere, such as better memory and better planning.
Finally, let’s spend some moments on meaning making. Trying to understand what its all about and why we’re here is a basic of the human experience, and something else we can actively participate in for a better life. You’re doing it right now, as we do, together every week.
On key source for meaning making is Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” based on his experiences in a concentration camp. Frankl is one of the kings of meaning making; of embracing the existential imperative to actively define our world, our reactions, and what is important or not.
Of the many things one can take from this book, two things stand out for me. The first is that no matter how uncontrollable the situation, we continue to retain control over our attitude. Second is the importance of hope and having goals to draw us forward and give meaning and purpose to life.
For Frankl, then, meaning is a key component in resiliency. He quotes Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” In a later edition of the book he notes: “Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.” In other words we gain strength and resiliency with a sense of meaning and purpose for our lives. In the findings about happiness, it has been found that meaningful experiences will cause a greater and more sustainable boost to happiness than do accumulating consumer goods.
While it is one thing to talk about the importance of a sense of meaning, it is another to explore one’s own sense of meaning. In such a situation, it is helpful to try meaning making exercises. In providing you with an example, I am drawing from a book entitled: “Cancer As A Turning Point: A handbook for people with cancer, their families, and health professionals” by Lawrence LeShan, Ph.D. (Plume/Penguin). Therefore, I conclude with the following exercise.
LIFE ON EARTH ENDS IN SIX MONTHS. “Let us imagine that astronomers make an announcement. A giant comet is sweeping toward the Earth and in six months the world will be destroyed. They have been studying this strange new visitor for a long time and there is no doubt that it is going to happen. Nothing can be done – there is no possible way of averting the disaster. There will be no effects for six months and then, overnight, all life on this planet will die and the planet itself will be thrown into the Sun. What are you going to do with these six months? Reread what you have written on the last page. What does this tell you about yourself? If there are things that you would do in these last six months of life on Earth, what in you has kept you from doing them in the past?” (p. 230)
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