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You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Resilient Before Disaster Strikes. Here's How

Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.
You Can Train Your Brain To Be More Resilient Before Disaster Strikes. Here's How
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When faced with a traumatic event, do you fall apart or come back stronger? The answer to that question depends on how resilient you are. And luckily, resilience is a muscle you can build.

In May 2015, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was faced with the unthinkable: Dave Goldberg, her husband of 11 years and the father of her two children, died unexpectedly while running on a treadmill. The months that followed were predictably painful as Sandberg and her children navigated their grief and attempted to restore a sense of normalcy to their life. But it wasn't easy, and in the process, Sandberg has become an expert on resilience.

Sandberg's book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which she wrote with organizational psychologist and professor Adam Grant, topped best-seller lists this year as interest in cultivating resilience grew. And Sandberg isn't the only one with a book out on this topic: Dough Hensch released his book Positively Resilient, last fall, and several other new books broach this topic. While some may be compelled to study up on resilience only after disaster strikes, learning resilience when life is at its easiest may be just as (if not more) beneficial. Here are six ways to cultivate resilience:

1. Arm yourself with "the three p's."

In Option B, Sandberg cites "the three p's"—pervasiveness, personalization, and permanence—as one of the key tools that helped her cope with grief. Reminding herself that her situation was not pervasive helped Sandberg compartmentalize her sadness; telling herself that she was not responsible for Goldberg's death helped her take the blame off herself (personalization), and the third p, permanence, was how she reminded herself that her feelings of devastation wouldn't last forever.

Even if you're not faced with a tragedy, the three p's can be applied to anything—from a difficult situation at work to problems with a friend or partner.


2. Strengthen your gratitude muscle.

Not one to keep a gratitude journal? Now may be the time to start. Constantly reminding yourself of things you're grateful for will make them easy to call upon when you're faced with a difficult situation. "Gratitude helps reduces stress and keep things in perspective, both vital ingredients to resiliency," says psychotherapist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "So each night before you go to bed, write in a gratitude journal at least three things you appreciate about that day."

3. Learn to laugh at anything.

If you can find humor in anything, you'll be well-equipped to deal with all the curveballs life throws your way. In her chapter on raising resilient children, Sandberg has an anecdote about Tim, a teenage boy with a hearing aid. When Tim leaned in to kiss a girl he'd gone on a date with at the end of the night, his hearing aid started beeping.

"His father told him not to worry about it," writes Sandberg. "'She's probably saying to her mom right now, 'I've kissed boys before tonight and I've seen fireworks—but I've never heard sirens.' Tim followed his dad's advice and learned to respond to embarrassment with humor. He discovered that his own reaction to his disability influenced how others reacted, which meant he could control how he was perceived."

Ah, the power of a good laugh.

4. Argue with yourself.

Doug Hensch tells mbg that the unique skill of learning to argue with yourself is a valuable one when you're working to cultivate resilience. "If someone tells you that you are stupid, mean, disorganized, or hurls any other insult your way, you are very likely to list a number of reasons why they are wrong," says Hensch. "When you feel anger, sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, or any other emotion making you unproductive, stop and challenge yourself. Write down your thoughts and do your best to challenge your thinking and look at things in a more flexible manner."


5. Adopt a mindful approach to life.

Lombardo says learning to deal with stress in a productive way is key, from getting adequate sleep to getting enough exercise and meditating, and Hensch agrees that this is key to resilience. "Put your iPhone down and just practice tasting the food in your mouth, feeling the sun on your skin, or listening to your screaming 3-year-old," he says. "Pay attention to your emotions as if they are clouds in the sky. Remember that they will simply go at some point."

6. Build strong relationships.

Throughout the grieving process, nothing helped Sandberg more than her strong group of family and friends, and Lombardo cites solid relationships as one of—if not the most—important tools in resiliency. "Social relationships are powerful tools. Don’t wait until you need them," she says. "Spend quality time with family and friends. Be a good source of support for them. Cultivate and enjoy these relationships."

Want to read more on resilience? Here are 10 habits of emotionally resilient people.

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