Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Jonathan DePierro, Ph.D., about his newly updated book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges. DePierro is associate director of the Center for Stress, Resilience and Personal Growth (CSRPG) at New York's Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. The book provides pragmatic practices based on years of clinical research with Vietnam veterans, 9/11 recovery workers, and others, backed up by inspiring stories of endurance and transformation.
What Is Resilience, and How Can I Build It Up?
Resilience can be hard to measure, and many longstanding ways to assess resilience, while helpful, have fallen short. For instance, resilience is not simply the absence of post-traumatic stress disorder; it is the presence of health and, often (but by no means exclusively), accompanied by post-traumatic growth.
Regardless, resilience serves to buffer PTSD such that people with greater resilience are less likely to develop pathological outcomes following significant trauma. Not only that, but while many aspects of resilience are innate (related to biological factors affecting brain plasticity, for example), many resilience factors are learnable ("modifiable"). It is these modifiable factors people need to target, train, and track.
DePierro and colleagues have developed the Mount Sinai Resilience Scale (2023), which enhances the capacity not only to assess resilience but whether its component factors are being applied effectively. At face value, its 24 items serve as an evidence-based framework for self-assessment as well as a means of identifying areas where resilience can be further trained.
Increasing resilience correlates with enhanced long-term health outcomes and has been shown, at the organizational level, to be a cost-effective strategy. Investing in resilience now saves organizations significant costs in the future. Nevertheless, relatively few organizations actually implement robust and demonstrably effective resilience training into their key performance indicators and other measures of progress.
Mount Sinai Resilience Scale
Each item specifies a behavior or mindset likely to increase resilience and is rated on a scale from "Not at all true" (0) to "Almost always true" (4). For each item, the scale asks, "How useful/effective was this strategy?", highlighting the pivotal role of ongoing nonjudgmental self-appraisal. The scale can be used to track progress over time and identify areas where additional training is helpful.
I confronted or faced my fears and problems directly.
I actively tried to change or challenge negative or critical thoughts about myself or others.
I attempted to become a positive example or role model of how to handle challenges.
I turned to friends, mentors, family members, spiritual leaders, or teachers for advice on how to handle challenges.
I made efforts to stay hopeful about the future.
I sought the support of others.
My choices and behaviors were consistent with my convictions of what is right and what is wrong.
I told myself that the challenges in my life can lead to personal growth.
When given the opportunity to choose my food, I chose foods that were nutritious or healthy.
I did my best to get enough sleep.
I participated in activities that gave me meaning and purpose.
I took time to notice and understand my emotional and bodily reactions to stressful situations.
I accepted that there are difficult emotions, situations, or people that I cannot change right now.
I felt the positive impact of my religious and/or spiritual beliefs in many areas of my life.
I took active steps to emotionally recover from stressful situations.
I provided emotional, financial, or other types of support or donations to those in need.
I offered support to others.
I slowed myself down "in the moment" to handle intensely negative emotional reactions.
I worked to forgive myself or others for doing something that was not in line with my values.
I dedicated time to my hobbies or interests.
I took the time to learn new skills or things that interest me.
I made an effort to exercise.
I held on to my sense of connection with a higher power or deity.
I sought solace in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, or faith meetings.
There is certainly more to the story of satisfaction, wellness and health, recovery from trauma, illness and adversity than simply resilience. Resilience is, however, at the heart of the conversation and, while not a panacea, a foundational ingredient in a life well-lived, in hard times and all times. An updated manual of resilience, geared toward action-oriented steps as well as reflecting deep understanding, provides tools people can immediately deploy—tools sorely in need in today's increasingly stressful, crowded, and confusing reality.
Over time, incorporating resilience strategies leads to a shift in one's overall approach to adversity and can be part of a plan for pursuing personal development. Small changes add up, but trying to do to all at once is the antithesis of resilience. It's wise to pick a couple of areas, work on small changes, see results, motivate persistence, and create a virtuous cycle. The goal, in a sense, is to cultivate a resilient personality.
From sleep and exercise to cognitive flexibility, to finding meaning and/or faith, to being supported by others and supporting others, there are many relatively accessible, high-impact ways to begin to bend rigidity into resilience. Change that starts small and builds strength and flexibility over time also benefits from self-compassion, so that when we falter, we pick ourselves up with firm kindness rather than descend into self-criticism.
DePierro, J. M., Marin, D. B., Sharma, V., Katz, C. L., Pietrzak, R. H., Feder, A., Murrough, J. W., Starkweather, S., Marx, B. P., Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2023, October 5). Development and Initial Validation of the Mount Sinai Resilience Scale. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication.