What Matters Most When Dealing With Adversity?
Allow me to begin with two assertions:
1) Whether you are a CEO, a rising corporate star, an entrepreneur, an athlete, a parent or a student, the most important investment you will ever make is in yourself; and 2) the most important thing you can ever learn is how to rebound, that is, how to be resilient in the wake of adversity.
And if there is one thing I’d like you to take away from this article it is the aphorism: “It’s not how hard you fall, it’s how high you can bounce that really matters!”
I have studied stress and human resilience for almost 50 years, first in the laboratory, then in the some of the most vaunted clinics in the world and, lastly, on the street and in the field. I’ve studied amazingly resilient people: U.S. Navy SEALS, professional athletes, corporate CEOs, medical patients and even politicians. And I discovered the most resilient shared a constellation of common attributes:
- They were optimists.
- They were courageous, decisive and often out-of-the-box thinkers.
- They were tenacious.
- Like magnets, they seemed to possess an attribute that attracted the admiration and support of others. One such attribute is what William Osler called “equanimity.”
In this article, rather than review all of these attributes, I will focus on equanimity because of its central and multi-faceted role in promoting human resilience.
To begin, what is equanimity? Sir William Osler, first physician-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital described equanimity as imperturbability. In a famous 1889 address entitled Aequanimitas, he said, “In the first place…no quality takes rank with imperturbability… Imperturbability means coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril.”
But how does equanimity promote resilience? In at least three ways.
First, given its relative rarity, equanimity attracts the respect and support of others. This is important because research has consistently shown the support of others to be the best single predictor of human resilience. The assistance of others not only mobilizes additional resources in an additive manner, in his Metaphysics, Aristotle pointed out that the blending of multiple resources could create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This notion was later referred to as synergy. Osler added, “It is the quality which is most appreciated by others [especially those who look to you for guidance].” Equanimity is associated with trust, as well. Research has shown that groups which possess high levels of trust have less stress, more energy, a higher sense of connectedness and higher quality of life compared to those in low trust groups.
Second, equanimity represents a reactive presence of sprit that assists one in making effective decisions in the midst of adversity. Under extreme stress, especially if “blindsided” by unanticipated adversity, we revert to reflexive intuitive thought patterns. Intuitive thought has been shown to be frequently associated with errors. So, using equanimity to anchor your psychological thought processes allows you to reestablish more logical, constructive and even innovative thinking that would be initially blocked by the surge of adrenaline associated with adversity.
And third, if embraced prior to the emergence of adversity, equanimity seems to provide some aspect of psychological “immunity,” which appears to prevent or resist debilitating distress and anxiety. This prophylactic aspect of equanimity is perhaps its most exciting. We have been able to measure this “immunity” both psychologically and physiologically. And the best news of all is we believe that it is not only possible to train yourself to behaviorally act with equanimity using techniques such as “minding the gap” between impulse and action, but you may be able to retrain your brain to develop a form of psychological “immunity”—presumably at the cellular level, recruiting a process known as neuroplasticity—using techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, biofeedback training, cognitive reframing and cognitive rehearsal.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “Thou must be like a promontory of the sea, against which, though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands, and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted.” For some people, stress and adversity are to be avoided at all costs; for others, adversity will be accepted and even embraced as an opportunity for growth. Which person are you?
George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, FAPA, has studied stress and human resilience for over 40 years in over 30 countries. He has received numerous national and international awards for his research and practice. Dr. Everly currently serves on the faculties of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He is the author of 20 books.