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How people respond to stress at work or in their personal lives can determine their level of resilience, new research shows. / PhotoDisc

If you're like most people, you think of resilience as the ability to bounce back from tragedy - a lost job, a serious illness or a family death. And you may believe, as many people do, that resiliency is predetermined: Either you have it or you don't.

But a new study indicates that not only is resilience necessary for succeeding in "positive" stressful situations (a final round of a job interview, say, or a championship tennis match), it's also a skill that can be developed over time.

In a study conducted by Mustafa Sarkar and David Fletcher in Britain and published in the journal Sports, Exercise and Performance Psychology, 13 high-achieving individuals from a range of professions, including sports, business, politics and entertainment, were recruited to answer questions about how they cope with stress. After asking participants to recall challenging events in their careers, the researchers recorded the behaviors and beliefs that enabled the high achievers to overcome these obstacles, then compiled a list of shared qualities that helped people thrive.

Just as victims of natural disasters or physical trauma show remarkable strength in rising above their circumstances, high achievers employ resiliency tactics to thrive under a different sort of pressure. "Resilience is a pivotal capacity not only for individuals reacting to potentially traumatic events, but also for those who choose to operate in demanding environments," the authors note in their paper.

Even those just trying to survive in today's tumultuous workplace can benefit from developing a greater sense of resilience. Another study in the Journal of Psychological Science found that people who scored higher in "career resiliency" (the ability to go with the flow in ever-changing workplace environments) went on to achieve greater success at their jobs - and higher levels of happiness, too.

Among the variables that contribute to thriving under pressure, according to Sarkar and Fletcher: a proactive and positive personality; a sense of flexibility and adaptability; feeling in control; having balance and perspective; and a perception of social support. Certain characteristics are easier to cultivate than others.

"Some aspects of resilience are very stable personality traits, and others are variable personal and social factors," Fletcher says in an interview. "What this means is that resilience can be developed, but only so much. Rather than a single 'set point,' we talk about a 'resilience bandwidth,' and it's up to people to do what they can to maximize their potential within their constraints."

For instance, changing a pessimistic personality to a positive one is challenging, Fletcher says, but finding balance in your life - one of the traits the researchers found correlated with resilience in high achievers - may be more a matter of practice and discipline. Similarly, you can expand your social network by joining more community organizations or, in some cases, doing a better job befriending co-workers at the office.

"The type of support you may need depends on the potentially stressful situation," Sarkar says. "Do you require tangible support from colleagues to deal with work-related pressures or emotional support from family or friends to help you through personal issues?" He adds that the key is the perception of support, not the support itself. "High achievers believe that if they should need to call on someone for support, someone will be there," he explains.

Other resiliency experts cite the ability to feel empowered when faced with adversity -rather than discouraged - as a crucial component to performing well under pressure. "It's all about cognitive reframing," says Mary Steinhardt, a professor of health behavior at the University of Texas in Austin. "Learning to take responsibility and thinking about what you can do, rather than just how bad things are, is an important factor in becoming more resilient."

Just how all these factors come together to make you thrive under pressure is a complex equation, but one thing's for sure: You can cultivate resiliency, even as an adult. "Most of the world's best performers weren't always that way," says Fletcher, who imagines a day when such skills will be part of a school curriculum, much like English or math. "It may sound like a pipe dream, but I hope that during my lifetime, mental fortitude training and resilient self-development become a mandatory part of children's education."

In the meantime, what can be borrowed from research findings to increase our own resiliency? Start by making small inroads in multiple areas that contribute to resiliency: Widen your social network, pursue hobbies outside your work realm, and practice remaining open-minded when your schedule changes without warning.

That way, you aren't totally reliant on just one factor, Fletcher says, and the aggregate gains of many small changes can result in a significant bump in overall resilience. And if you feel as though you've already faced a life of obstacles and you're still standing, well, you've got a leg up on the competition. "Those who experience challenging situations early in life are more likely to be resilient to pressure they encounter as they get older," Sarkar says. "They draw on past experiences to get through future adversity."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Why some thrive and others wither under stress

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