THE BLOG
07/30/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

The Secret Sauce of Resilience

Does change worry you? If so, it doesn't mean you're weak. It means you're human. I know this because as a psychiatrist my phone rings when people are coping with change: when they're in between careers, jobs, even husbands or wives. During these times, I've noticed one constant: the "in-betweeners" tend to focus on the negative aspects of transition. It's easy to overlook or discount any potentially positive aspect of change.

Learning how to reframe these in-between moments and see them as inflection points in life that come with challenges but also opportunity is how happy people successfully navigate transitions. It's all about resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt, think flexibly, act with agility - in essence to improvise in life like a jazz player does with music. More than a century ago Charles Darwin found these attributes essential to survival, explaining, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most receptive to change." In the 21st century, the ability to adapt to stressful events is essential to support creativity, productivity and well-being.

There's good news: Resilience can be learned. Here are three skills you can work on to increase your resilience:

1. A Positive Mindset:

The best way to explain this is by sharing the following story about a patient who had terrible performance anxiety. Just thinking about public speaking gave him a panic attack. This is how he would describe his symptoms before facing an audience:

"My heart starts racing, I feel like I can't breathe, beads of sweat collect on my forehead, my hands are shaking, my palms are sweating, and I feel sick to my stomach."

One night he was watching a late night talk show and Bruce Springsteen was a guest. The host asked The Boss how it feels to go on stage and perform in front of twenty thousand people. This is how the patient described Bruce's response:

"It's the most incredible feeling. I feel my body kicking into high gear. My heart starts racing, I start breathing a little harder, my palms are sweating, my hands are shaking, I feel sweat on my brow and I have butterflies in my stomach. It's a sign to me that my body is ready to rock."

Notice the physiological symptoms are strikingly similar and yet the interpretations are radically different. This highlights how a positive mindset can shape one's emotions, behavior and experience in powerful ways. In the wise words of Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean:

"The problem is not the problem, the problem is your attitude about the problem."

2. Realistic Optimism:

Realistic optimism is grounded in reality and simultaneously hopeful about the future. Admiral Jim Stockdale experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam captures the essence of realistic optimism at its best. Throughout his eight-year ordeal, he says he never lost hope:

" I never doubted not only that I would get out but also that I would prevail in the end..." "

Stockdale's unshakable belief that he would survive simultaneously entailed a realistic assessment of what he was facing and also the confidence he would survive. His realism protected him from repeated disappointments, his optimism kept him focused on the future. The combination enabled him to persevere.

Realistic optimism requires a similar clear-eyed understanding of one's circumstance. It requires acting like a detective: gathering the facts of the situation and making sure you have all the information before jumping to any conclusions.

Identifying the aspects of what you can control is essential. Happiness and well-being cannot rest on someone else or a situation changing. This is why it is so important to identify what you can control and what you cannot. As Arianna Huffington writes in Thrive, the most meaningful change comes from within.

One useful exercise is to make a list of three things you would like to see changed in your life. If someone else or a situation has to change in order to make them happen, I recommend removing that item from the list. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, "When we are no longer able to change a situation--we are challenged to change ourselves."

3. Leading a Life of Meaning

Researchers conducted a study of more than 11,000 cadets entering West Point and looked at the reasons each cadet joined the Academy. Some cadets said they were driven by what researchers call "intrinsic motivation." For example, they found value in the process of becoming a good leader in the US army. Others cited "extrinsic motives"-- their parents wanted them to go to West Point or they thought it would help them get a good job down the line. Over a nine year period the researchers found that the cadets with intrinsic motives were more likely to graduate, more likely to receive early promotion and more likely to pursue a career in the military. Their conclusion: internal motives go hand in hand with meaning and success.

This makes a lot of sense. Think of intrinsic motivation as doing things for "the love of the game" so to speak, because it is intrinsically meaningful, whereas extrinsic motivation is about doing things for recognition by others--for the trophy, for the applause, for external reasons. Research shows that people who act on intrinsic aspirations lead happier and healthier lives. Living a life in concert with your values not only prevents burn out, it keeps setbacks in perspective and buffers against stress during periods of transition and change.

As straightforward as it may sound, knowing how to align one's priorities with the hustle and bustle of daily life is a challenge. I recommend the following exercise to help understand where your time is going. First, list the three things in life that mean the most to you. Many people say, "I value being a good father, a good mother, a good husband, a good wife, a good brother, a good sister, a good son, a good friend..." and so on. They say they value their health, giving back, learning new things and being a good person. Next, fill in a pie chart of how you actually spend the hours of your day. You might be surprised to discover that many hours, even free time, are spent doing things that feel urgent, like returning emails, surfing the web, updating Facebook, checking Instagram and the like, but that are nowhere near the top of your priorities list. If this is the case, it's time to consider reallocating your time. As Beverly Adamo reminds us: "it's not about time, it's about choices. How are you spending your choices?"

All of this is within your reach. A positive mindset, realistic optimism and a leading a meaningful life are skills that can be cultivated and choices that can be made. From my work with patients and research in the field, I am convinced they are the secret sauce of resilience. With these in mind, challenges, transitions, and inflection points no longer need to be feared as the kiss of death but reframed as the spice of life.