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Dennis Charney: Resilience Lessons from Our Veterans

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Published on Oct 29, 2012

Psychiatrist Dennis Charney discusses the importance of optimism and social support in cases of extreme stress.

Dennis S. Charney, MD, is the Dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and a world expert in the neurobiology and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders. He has made fundamental contributions to the understanding of neural circuits and neurochemistry related to human anxiety, fear, mood and discovery of new treatment for mood and anxiety disorders. He later expanded this area into pioneering research related to the psychobiological mechanisms of human resilience to stress. He's a professor of neuroscience at Mt. Sinai. Dr. Charney's most recent book is Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges.

Transcript - Dr. Southwick and I, Steve Southwick, my co-author, we're psychiatrists and we over many years, over about three decades working together, we have been trying to understand what causes serious forms of depression both biologically and psychologically, serious forms of post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders, developing new treatments. And then at one point about 15 years ago we decided to study resilience and that is individuals who, despite having been seriously traumatized in their life, whether it was combat or rape or physical abuse or facing a serious illness, they were able to rise above it. They were able to bounce back, in other words, be resilient.

We thought if we could understand resilience we could help our patients discover new treatments and help people in general because everybody at some point in their life faces tough challenges. So we started 15 years ago to identify people that we thought are resilient. We interviewed 30 or more prisoners of war from Vietnam, and the reason for that is that we had found out that the POWs from Vietnam who had been held for six to eight years in prison, heavily tortured in solitary confinement for years, many of them had done well when they got out. The most famous example is John McCain.

And through that process over many years, we started hearing the same thing over and over again about what enabled people to get through tough times and that ultimately led to this book that discusses ten ways, ten factors that relate to resilience, and we also became convinced that you can essentially train yourself to be a more resilient person and we hope the book enables you to come up with some ideas to do that.

(1) One of the ten factors is optimism, having a positive attitude. We found, and research in general has found, that optimism in part is genetic. I'm sure many of you know people that just seem to see the glass half full. They have the confidence that they think they can get through tough times. They're optimistic. So genetics is part of it, but genes are not destiny, and in some cases you can help people become more optimistic. In fact, there is a form of therapy for depression and anxiety problems called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and that can enable you to become a more positive person.

Now, but the kind of optimism that is important is not Pollyanna optimism, optimism that doesn't fully take into account the challenge that you face. There is a term called the Stockdale Paradox. Jim Stockdale was a heroic POW, and the Stockdale Paradox really defines the optimism that is most important in becoming a resilient person and that is, when you're faced with a challenge or a trauma, you look at that challenge objectively. You might make the assessment, "I'm in really big trouble." You have a realistic assessment of what you're facing. On the other hand, you have the attitude and the confidence to say, "But I will prevail. I'm in a tough spot, but I will prevail." That is the optimism that relates to resilience.

(2) Having strong social support is a very important ingredient toward becoming resilient, and one of the analogies that we use relates to the POWs that we studied. The POWs from Vietnam had developed a tap code that enabled them to communicate through the wall to an individual, another POW in the cell next to them. They weren't allowed to talk, but they developed a tap code, and the tap code involved tapping on the wall and it involved five letters in five rows. If you tapped once that meant row one and then three times would be the third letter in that row, so the first row was A, B, C, D, E. They tapped once, row one, three times and it's letter C, and so they developed that kind of tap code.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

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