“Poetry, philosophy, and physics all teach us that we don’t experience time in equal increments. Time slowed way, way down. Day after day my kids’ cries and screams filled the air. In the moments when they weren’t crying, I watched them anxiously, waiting for the next instance they might need comfort. My own cries and screams—mostly inside my head but some out loud—filled the rest of the available space. I was in “the void”: a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe. Grief is a demanding companion. In those early days and weeks and months, it was always there, not just below the surface but on the surface. Simmering, lingering, festering. Then, like a wave, it would rise up and pulse through me, as if it were going to tear my heart right out of my body. In those moments, I felt like I couldn’t bear the pain for one more minute, much less one more hour. I saw Dave lying on the gym floor. I saw his face in the sky. At night, I called out to him, crying into the void: “Dave, I miss you. Why did you leave me? Please come back. I love you …” I cried myself to sleep each night. I woke up each morning and went through the motions of my day, often in disbelief that the world continued to turn without him. How could everyone go on as if nothing was different? Didn’t they know?”
“Hearing the despair in my voice triggered by the letter, Adam flew back across the country to convince me that there was a bottom to this seemingly endless void. He wanted to tell me face-to-face that while grief was unavoidable, there were things I could do to lessen the anguish for myself and my children. He said that by six months, more than half of people who lose a spouse are past what psychologists classify as “acute grief.”
Adam convinced me that while my grief would have to run its course, my beliefs and actions could shape how quickly I moved through the void and where I ended up. I don’t know anyone who has been handed only roses. We all encounter hardships. Some we see coming; others take us by surprise. It can be as tragic as the sudden death of a child, as heartbreaking as a relationship that unravels, or as disappointing as a dream that goes unfulfilled. The question is: When these things happen, what do we do next? I thought resilience was the capacity to endure pain, so I asked Adam how I could figure out how much I had. He explained that our amount of resilience isn’t fixed, so I should be asking instead how I could become resilient. Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity—and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”
“Yet try as we might to prevent adversity, inequality, and trauma, they still exist and we are still left to cope with them. To fight for change tomorrow we need to build resilience today.4 Psychologists have studied how to recover and rebound from a wide range of adversity—from loss, rejection, and divorce to injury and illness, from professional failure to personal disappointment. Along with reviewing the research, Adam and I sought out individuals and groups who have overcome ordinary and extraordinary difficulties. Their stories changed the way we think about resilience. This book is about the capacity of the human spirit to persevere. We look at the steps people can take, both to help themselves and to help others. We explore the psychology of recovery and the challenges of regaining confidence and rediscovering joy. We cover ways to speak about tragedy and comfort friends who are suffering. And we discuss what it takes to create resilient communities and companies, raise strong children, and love again. I now know that it is possible to experience post-traumatic growth. In the wake of the most crushing blows, people can find greater strength and deeper meaning. I also believe that it is possible to experience pre-traumatic growth that you don’t have to experience tragedy to build your resilience for whatever lies ahead.”
“As I blamed myself less, I started to notice that not everything was terrible. My son and daughter were sleeping through the night, crying less, and playing more. We had access to grief counselors and therapists. I could afford child care and support at home. I had loving family, friends, and colleagues; I marveled at how they were carrying me and my children quite literally at times. I felt closer to them than I ever would have thought possible.”
“Acknowledging blessings can be a blessing in and of itself. Psychologists asked a group of people to make a weekly list of five things for which they were grateful. Another group wrote about hassles and a third listed ordinary events. Nine weeks later, the gratitude group felt significantly happier and reported fewer health problems. People who enter the workforce during an economic recession end up being more satisfied with their jobs decades later because they are acutely aware of how hard it can be to find work. Counting blessings can actually increase happiness and health by reminding us of the good things in life. Each night, no matter how sad I felt, I would find something or someone to be grateful for.”
“We all deal with loss: jobs lost, loves lost, lives lost. The question is not whether these things will happen. They will, and we will have to face them. Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. It comes from gratitude for what’s good in our lives and from leaning in to the suck. It comes from analyzing how we process grief and from simply accepting that grief. Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more. I learned that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”
“Not everyone feels comfortable talking openly about personal tragedy. We all make our own choices about when and where and if we want to express our feelings. Still, there’s powerful evidence that opening up about traumatic events can improve mental and physical health.14 Speaking to a friend or family member often helps people understand their own emotions and feel understood.”
“Writing to others and to herself turned out to be key to Catherine’s ability to rebound. For as long as she can remember, Catherine has kept a journal. “Journaling isn’t exactly meditating,” she told us. “But it helped me quiet myself and reflect. I was able to put words to my feelings and unpack them.”
Writing can be a powerful tool for learning self-compassion.18 In one experiment, people were asked to recall a failure or humiliation that had made them feel bad about themselves, ranging from flunking a big test to flopping in an athletic competition to forgetting lines in a play. They drafted a letter to themselves expressing the understanding they would offer to a friend in the same situation. Compared to a control group who wrote just about their positive attributes, those who were kind to themselves were 40 percent happier and 24 percent less angry.
Turning feelings into words can help us process and overcome adversity.19 Decades ago, health psychologist Jamie Pennebaker had two groups of college students journal for fifteen minutes a day for just four days some about nonemotional topics and others about the most traumatic experiences of their lives, which included rape, attempted suicide, and child abuse. After the first day of writing, the second group was less happy and had higher blood pressure. This made sense, since confronting trauma is painful. But when Pennebaker followed up six months later, the effects reversed and those who wrote about their traumas were significantly better off emotionally and physically.
Since then, more than a hundred experiments have documented the therapeutic effect of journaling. It has helped medical students, patients with chronic pain, crime victims, maximum-security prisoners, and women after childbirth. It has crossed cultures and countries from Belgium to Mexico to New Zealand. Writing about traumatic events can decrease anxiety and anger, boost grades, reduce absences from work, and lessen the emotional impact of job loss. Health benefits include higher T-cell counts, better liver function, and stronger antibody responses. Even journaling for a few minutes a few times can make a difference. “You don’t have to write for the rest of your life,” Pennebaker told us. “You can start and stop when you feel you need to.”