The secret of inner strength

6 Min Read

Ever notice how some people manage to stay on track despite suffering a serious illness, financial setbacks or other problems that would derail other people?

We spoke with Joan Borysenko, PhD, to learn more about such “emotionally resilient” individuals.

A cancer biologist turned mind/body researcher, Dr. Borysenko has spent decades studying emotional resilience. But her expertise on the subject also stems from personal experience.

She has flourished despite having had her share of misfortune including a divorce, a near-fatal car accident and the suicide of her father, who was dying of leukemia.

How do emotionally resilient people differ from the rest of us? Researchers have identified three key attitudes they all share…


Emotionally resilient people view crises as opportunities for problem-solving as challenges, not as threats to survival.

I witnessed this phenomenon in my own life 14 years ago, when my three children and I ran aground while boating in Scituate, Massachusetts. I immediately began to imagine the worst, thinking “We’ll be stuck here all night.”

But my 14-year-old son, Justin, was thrilled. “I’ll rescue us,” he said. He had us step onto a sandbar, and then began casting the anchor farther out in the river, pulling the boat along until we were afloat.

Justin’s attitude was a wonderful example of emotional resilience. Mine was not.


Emotionally resilient people recognize that while they cannot control everything that happens to them, they can control their response to events. They also know when to stop struggling and when to just let things be.

They personify Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.


Emotionally resilient people believe there is a higher purpose for even the most painful event.

That doesn’t mean they view problems as intrinsically good. But they recognize that some good often does come from even the most traumatic events.

When my dad killed himself in 1975, I felt not only grief but also terrible guilt. As a cancer biologist, I felt I should have done a better job of helping him endure the difficult treatment process he was undergoing.

But I refused to give in to despair. I told myself that if I could help even one other family avert such a tragedy, my father’s death would have meaning.

I quit my job at the lab and retrained as a behavioral medicine specialist. Then I founded a mind/body clinic at one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals, beginning a new career helping patients and their families cope physically and spiritually with life-threatening illnesses.

A friend went through something similar when her son died in a car accident. To survive the wrenching pain, she forced herself to think about how her experience might help others.

She now volunteers as a support group facilitator, helping other parents who have suffered the loss of a child.

The late psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl maintained that it is the meaning that we ascribe to negative events that allows us to endure suffering without giving in to despair.

Resilience can be cultivated

Emotional resilience doesn’t always come naturally. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. But it can be developed…

• Observe your usual response to emotional stress.

Do you “catastrophize?” Believe nothing you do will make a difference? Blame yourself? Simply noticing these responses is often a starting point for change.

• Learn more productive ways to respond to problems

Whenever you feel worried or annoyed, ask yourself, “How does this situation challenge me? What can I learn from it?”

•Take care of yourself

When we’re under severe emotional stress, we tend to abandon our healthful habits. But that is precisely when we need them the most.

No matter what else is going on in your life, always eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep.

• Feed your soul

Each day, do something you find deeply pleasurable whether it’s walking in the park, listening to music or curling up with a book.

• Find social support

Sharing your problems with friends and/or family members is the best buffer against stress.

If you lack close relationships to call upon, join a support group. There’s one for practically every crisis you may face. To find a group in your area, consult a hospital social worker.

• Practice gratitude

In her best-selling book Simple Abundance (Warner), Sarah Ban Breathnach recommends spending a few minutes each morning and evening listing five things for which you are grateful.

This will help you focus more on life’s gifts instead of its burdens. I think it’s a great idea.

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