Can resilience be taught?

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In 2008, the United States Army was in crisis. It wasn’t just that American soldiers were in harm’s way overseas, battling insurgents and dodging improvised explosive devices in a distant conflict that was only getting worse by the day. There was another threat, closer to home and even more terrifying: Even the soldiers who made it home safely found danger was far from over.

Many soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to come back changed. They were depressed, agitated, and unable to sleep. They had flashbacks and nightmares, and alcoholism and depression were epidemic. Of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, one study found, 1 in 5 returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unable to cope with their symptoms, soldiers reacted in different ways. Some attacked their wives and girlfriends—domestic abuse was rampant. Others attacked each other—homicides were increasingly common, and Chris Kyle, the Navy sniper on whom American Sniper was based, was murdered by a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD.

But most of all they attacked themselves. Between 2004 and 2008, suicide rates among Army personnel increased by 80 percent. In 2013, 22 veterans killed themselves every day, according to an estimate by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was a new kind of war—and one the Army was not equipped to handle.

But in assessing the problem, the Army realized something crucial: some returning soldiers had post-traumatic stress, but others actually seemed fine. Why was it, Army leaders wondered, that some soldiers developed PTSD but others did not? What was it that allowed some people to endure hell in a war zone and emerge mostly unscathed?

The answer, researchers believe, is that some people naturally possess the psychological ability to bounce back after trauma (resilience) or even emerge stronger than before (post-traumatic growth). So if some people are resilient and others aren’t, then the real question is: Can resilience be taught?

That’s the question the Army put to Martin Seligman in 2008 when he was summoned to the Pentagon by the Army’s Chief of Staff, General George Casey. “I want to create an army that is just as psychologically fit as it is physically fit,” General Casey told Seligman. How could this be done?

The answer, said Seligman, was that the military had to stop focusing so narrowly on depression, anxiety, and suicide, and instead focus on preventing PTSD in the first place. After all, waiting till a patient has cancer and then doing chemo isn’t nearly as effective as preventing cancer in the first place through exercise and nutrition.

The solution, Seligman believed, was to teach soldiers the skills of resilience before they deployed. When we hear the phrase “drill sergeant,” most of us probably picture a man hurling abuse at cadets in order to toughen them up. But what if drill sergeants toughened soldiers up not by shaming them, but by actually teaching them the skills of mental toughness?

So Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania worked with the Army to create a program of “resilience training”—teaching positive psychology skills as a sort of vaccine against PTSD. The result is one of the largest psychological interventions ever devised: a $145 million, 1.1-million person initiative called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSFF), based on what Seligman calls “PERMA”: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

CSFF consists of three components:

1) an assessment tool that measures “psychological fitness,” which consists of emotional, family, social, and spiritual fitness;

2) online courses that train soldiers in those four skills, including a mandatory course on post-traumatic growth; and

3) “master resilience training” to teach drill sergeants how to impart resilience skills to cadets.

In addition to working with the military, Seligman and his colleagues also created the Penn Resiliency Program, an initiative that teaches educators how to train K-12 students the skills of optimism, flexible thinking, assertiveness, brainstorming, decision making, and relaxation. So far, the Penn Resiliency Program has trained more than 30,000 educators, including K-12 school teachers, university faculty, college counselors, therapists, and police officers. The program has already been shown to increase optimism, reduce hopelessness, prevent depression and anxiety, boost physical health, and reduce conduct problems.

The next frontier in resistance training is the private sector. Studies show that resilient employees produce more, take fewer sick days, and incur lower health care costs than do their counterparts, and more and more companies are offering resilience training to their employees. HealthPartners, a hospital group in Minnesota, has trained 2,000 managers in emotional resilience, and Royal Dutch Shell has trained employees in 50 countries, finding that it increased employee performance for up to four years. As more and more companies move away from performance reviews and toward a model of coaching employees and teaching them skills, resilience training will no doubt have an ever-greater place in the American workplace.