The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 39

Steven Southwick


How can we be more resilient, and why is resilience so important? To answer this question, Dr. Steven Southwick, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, conducted numerous interviews with trauma survivors and co-authored Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. He posits that there are ten factors that contribute to a person’s resilience and “post-traumatic growth.” Discover the basic steps for developing resilience in yourself, why a “good enough” leader is actually best, and the most powerful way to keep your brain in shape.


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Book: Resilience
Bio: Dr. Southwick received an MD from George Washington Medical School, 1980. He completed his psychiatry residency at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Glenn H. Greenberg Professor of Psychiatry, PTSD and Resilience at Yale University Medical School and Yale Child Study Center, Medical Director of the Clinical Neuroscience Diversion of the Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, and Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine. His interests include the psychology and neurobiology of psychological trauma, PTSD, and resilience to stress. He has worked with a wide range of trauma survivors including combat veterans, civilian children and adults with PTSD, and very high functioning stress resilient former prisoners of war and active duty Special Forces soldiers and Navy Seals.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve business goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use to become a more powerful and courageous leader.

Here with me today is Professor Steven Southwick. He’s a doctor, he is the Glenn Greenberg Professor of Psychiatry PTSD and Resilience at the Yale School of Medicine, and the Yale Child Study Center. He also works in the clinical neurosciences division of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs National Center of PTSD. Along with Dennis Charney, he has written a book called “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.”

The book is unique in that it is both academically profound and well researched, and also very interesting to read. Sometimes those 2 things don’t go together, but both Steven and Dennis did a really beautiful job with this. The book is focused on 2 decades of work with trauma survivors.

Dennis and Steven weave the latest scientific findings together with extraordinary stories of people who have overcome seemingly impossible situations, and they’ve discovered a number of resilience factors which Steven and I will talk about today. Steven, welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Steven: Thank you. It’s very good to be here.

Peter: Steven, start by defining resilience.

Steven: Well, resilience actually, there are a variety of definitions but most of them really boil down to the ability to bend but not break in the face of adversity, to bounce back and sometimes even to grow stronger.

Peter: That second part feels important to me because that’s the part where you hear people say, “This was a terrible experience that I had, but I have grown from it, I’m stronger from it.” When I talk to leaders in organizations and I ask them what were the top 5 times they have grown profoundly in their careers – times when their careers have taken a strong trajectory upwards, times when they’ve moved from where they were to where they were going very aggressively – 2 to 3 of those 5 are situations that you would say, “These are terrible situations.” “I got fired. There was a downsizing. Something terrible happened in the organization. A product failed,” and that ultimately led, if they were resilient, to an advantage to their growth and ability to succeed.

Steven: We see this all the time. In fact, we’ve done studies and others have done studies of combat soldiers, of all sorts of individuals who have experienced different traumas, and post traumatic growth is not uncommon. It’s not uncommon to say, “Yes, this was a terrible situation. There were many negatives, however, I did grow. I became stronger. I learned to cope. I appreciate life better, I have stronger relationships, I have new found meaning and purpose,” and so forth, so it’s actually not uncommon.
Peter: Share with us how you did the research for the book in general, just so people get a sense as to where this information is coming from?

Steven: Sure. Dennis and I had been studying post-traumatic stress disorder for years and 15 or 20 years ago, we decided to look at resilience and by the way, having something like PTSD or depression does not mean that you are not resilient. It’s a double negative but so what? In fact, some of the most resilient people that I have met suffer with symptoms of depression and PTSD and nevertheless, push forward and function remarkably well under the circumstances. We got started by looking at individuals who had been through massive or extreme stress and who were doing well nevertheless. We began to interview former prisoners of war from Vietnam, special forces instructors, because we thought that if someone could teach resilience, that these would be individuals who would be very good at it, both physical and emotional resilience.

We also interviewed a large number of civilian men and women and children who had done quite well, despite difficult circumstances. We both do quite a bit of neuroscience research, so part of the project was looking at neuroscience correlates or aspects of resilience, but we also did in depth interviews and going over all the interviews that we did, basically asking these highly resilient people, “How did you do it? How do you do it?,” we kept seeing the same theme, over and over again. We ended up calling these resilience factors, we came up with 10. There may be 12-15, we don’t know, but these 10 were the ones that we kept seeing over and over again, and then we went back to the psychosocial and neuroscience literature and found a lot of support for each of these factors.

I’m not sure if these were brand new, but to us, this was new and in a sense we were able to pull a lot of these factors together and really we learned from these people that we interviewed.

Peter: I love the term that you just shared, it’s the first time that I’ve heard it, “post traumatic growth.” It’s almost impossible for me not to say “stress” after post traumatic, and to shift that word into post traumatic growth is really profound.

I think about my own stress – it has to do with how much I’m trying to accomplish – I have a family and I’m writing and I’m speaking, and I’m running a company and I’m doing all this stuff, but then I read your stories.

And I become somewhat self-critical because I read these stories of these people who’ve been through true trauma in a way that I am not or have not experienced, and I think, “I just need to get my act together and stop being so stressed, because I have nowhere near the amount of stress that these people are experiencing.” I imagine that’s not useful as a response to manage my own stress.

Steven: Well, if it makes you feel any better, I feel the same way when I’ve had this really privilege to spend time and interview these individuals. I think one thing that’s helped me is to realize that we all, or the vast majority of us, are far more resilient that we imagined, or than we know. Many of the people who we interviewed were surprised on some level that they were as strong as they became or as they were during their traumatic situations. There’s a reservoir of strength in the vast majority, it’s not all of us, that we normally don’t fully tap into, but under the right circumstances, we can pull on many of those strengths. That’s not to say that things like training aren’t helpful. They are.

One of the things that sometimes people will say, “Well, that person was just born strong. They’re genetically strong.” Genetics plays a role but not nearly as much as we might think. The way you were raised, what you learned, the training, all of these things are enormously important. I’ll just say one thing that I think is important, and that is that when we talk about stress, we tend to think of it as being bad. However, stress is necessary and can be very good. It depends on the type of stress. When stress is perceived by me as being out of my control, I cannot control it, that tends to be toxic psychologically, and neurobiologically. However, if I feel that I can control or master this stress, that’s actually inoculating, actually makes me stronger.

When parents, for example, might ask us, “Geeze, should we stress our child or should our child be exposed to stress?” Yes, they should be exposed to stress, as long as they can master that stress. Obviously you don’t want to put a child or a mentee or a student in a situation that they literally can’t handle, but it is good to be out of your comfort zone and to recognize, “Hey, guess what? Being out of my comfort zone is not a bad thing.” This is where I actually grow.” I’ll say one more thing. There’s a wonderful term that a pediatrician named Winnicott coined called the “Good enough mother.” This applies to fathers and so forth.

What he’s talking about is that the good enough parent is actually the best parent. Why? Because they’re not hovering over their children. They are allowing the child enough freedom to explore, to grow, to fail, to readjust, but they’re not allowing them or trying not to tell them be in situations that are truly overwhelming. That’s not easy to do. That’s a hard job, but I think that’s related to very good coaching, very good mentoring, very good parenting, to be “good enough” and to allow the mentee to help pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes, et cetera.

Peter: It seems like what you’re describing as “good enough parents” should also be a term for the good enough leader, because if we don’t have some sort of benign neglect of our employees and the people that we’re leading, then they’ll never be able to be resilient enough. They’ll never be in the stressful situations that ultimately increase their capacity to act, that increase their comfort zone, that allows them to take on bigger roles, and bigger challenges, and achieve bigger things.

Steven: I very much agree with that, yes.

Peter: Steven, I’m going to give you a challenge. I’m going to stress you now, okay? Here’s the stressor. Could you give us a sentence on each of these 10 resilience factors?

Steven: Okay. The first is optimism, but this is not blind optimism. This is not rose colored optimism, and optimism is really the belief that things are going to work out, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s realistic optimism, and the realistic optimist actually sees as much of the negative as the pessimist, but knows how not to dwell on it, and can disengage from it. Optimism is absolutely, I don’t know if I would I say essential, but it’s one of the most important factors. The second factor, if you’re going to be resilient, you have to learn how to face what you fear. All sorts of fears in our life. We are so restricted by our own fears, but the only way around fear is actually through fear.

In fact, fear and avoidance are at the heart of all of the anxiety disorders, so in my field, if you want to help someone who has an anxiety disorder, they have to learn how to face what they fear, and this is true with resilience. We were surprised, the next factor, that moral compass and ethics and altruism were so important with regards to resilience. We didn’t expect to find this, but we did, particularly from prisoners of war, that, well, everyone really, that having a strong set of values provided guidelines and a guide post for how to act in very difficult situations. I can tell you that when we violate our own values, which can happen pretty easily in difficult situations, we end up feeling great regret.

Values are worth standing up for. Upholding values can make us considerably stronger. Then, religion and spirituality. A very high percent of the individuals who we interviewed felt that their religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs gave them great strength, sometimes it was like some people have called “foxhole religion,” if you will, that we all tend to be perhaps more spiritual or religious during difficult situations, and that’s fine. For many people, religion or spirituality was important during all phases of life, but even if during difficult times, that’s fine.

Social support. This may be the most important actually. We forget how important it is to be connected to other individuals, to be supported by other individuals in all sorts of ways, and for us to support them, because relationships as we all know, are 2 way streets, and there’s a huge body of literature showing that social support may be the most, certainly one of the most important buffers against developing anxiety disorders and PTSD during high trauma situations. There are many reasons for that, including neurobiological reasons, which we really don’t have time to go into. The next factor, we found that all of the resilient individuals who we interviewed has resilient role models.

This can be very effective. We all learn through imitation. What we would recommend, because this is what the individuals who we interviewed told us, essentially, if you want to become more resilient, find resilient role models, study those role models. What are they doing? How do they react in situations of high stress? If you feel comfortable, even ask these individuals how they do it. Next factor training. There’s no substitute for training. Sometimes people don’t like to hear this. Train, train, train. We were very impressed with, for example, the special forces. You don’t have to train like the special forces, but as I said, there is no substitute for training, whether it be becoming more physically fit, whether it be learning how to be mindful, learning how to meditate, both of which are very important for resilience.

No matter what it is, train, train, train. One of the reasons that fireman and policeman and soldiers can be so resilient is that they have trained what’s called “scenario based trained.” They’ve actually gone through the sorts of experiences, mock experiences that they’re expecting, and they can get feedback from experts, so they’ve been through it before, because the brain responds pretty robustly to novelty. If you know you’re going to be in difficult situations, you want to know as much about that as possible beforehand. Brain fitness, there are ways to keep your brain fit and exercise, it turns out, physical fitness, is one of them.

It’s one of the most powerful ways to keep the brain in good shape. It does this partly by what’s called “neurogenesis,” literally repairing neurons in the brain and we often don’t think about the cognitive or brain effects of exercise, but exercise is very powerful. That’s one way to enhance brain fitness, but the other is we all know this, is to keep your brain very active. Keep learning. For example, here I am in my … I’m getting older, and I take swimming lessons. Why? Because I know that exercise is good, I love to learn, I’m using various circuits in my brain, and I take writing lessons, because i want to write better.

Keep learning is one of the most important factors with regard to brain fitness. Then, there’s cognitive and emotional flexibility, and this is really important for leaders. Flexibility. It’s not as if there’s one set of coping mechanisms. Yes, active coping tends to be better than passive coping, but not in all situations. Being flexible, being able to adjust your expectations and the way you respond is very highly connected with resilience. One of my favorites is meaning and purpose. If you have strong mission, if you believe in what you’re doing, if you have a purpose that you’re living for, you can be far, far stronger.

This is very relevant to organizations and to leadership because as a leader, I want everyone in the organization to understand the mission of the organization and to understand how I fit into that mission. It’s important to me, to be part of my mission, that my life is meaningful, and that my work is meaningful, and for something, not only for me, but perhaps for something bigger than me. Mission and purpose is really critical. Those are the 10 factors that we kept hearing about. There are certainly others, but those are the 10 that we write about.

Peter: I’m speaking to Steven Southwick. He is the author along with Dennis Charney, of the book, Resilience: The Signs of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.

Steven, I look at that list, and I listen to you, and it’s a little overwhelming to me. When I think of my idealized self, I want to do all of these things fabulously well, but the reality is I fall short in a bunch of areas, and I wonder if some of them are developable. For example, I’m going to take the one that I think might be the least developable to explore with you for a moment, which is religion and spirituality, drawing on faith.

If you don’t have faith, if you’re agnostic, if you don’t believe in God, is this a factor that you can train yourself to develop, that you can do things that create in you, a faith that helps you to be more resilient?

Steven: That’s a tough question. I think the way that I’d like to answer that is that not all of the people who we interviewed were spiritual or religiously inclined. With regard to these factors, it’s not as if the highly resilient people we interviewed had all of these factors, or were expert at all of these, but rather, had some or sometimes the majority, but no, it’s not necessary, for example, to have religious or spiritual faith to be resilient. That’s not necessary. It is a factor that many people find highly strengthening. Now, it really depends on the definitions of spirituality, for example.

For example, in terms of learning, I’ve decided next week I’m taking a week long course in tai chi. Now, is that spiritual? Well, it depends. Yes, it can be. For me, I’m looking forward to it, as a form of learning, as I’m getting a little older, both for its … I’m not sure I’d call it spiritual, but for perhaps a spiritual component, but also physical.

Peter: I can imagine that just a week long program in learning tai chi might help you face fears. It might help you in the religion and spirituality. You’re going to have other people there in the program, so you might end up developing a depth of social support. You may have role models in the teacher, him or herself. You’re going to be getting trained physically, and in terms of your brain also, and then maybe developing some cognitive and emotional flexibility, maybe or maybe not meaning in purpose. You could take 1 week, and you hold the possibility, especially if you’re optimistic, in developing every single 1 of these factors, by just a week doing tai chi.

Steven: Gosh, I wish I’d written that, that’s great. No, I agree. That’s a very important way to look at this, and in fact, what you’re bringing up is how we appraise situations. When I think about my stressors gone, much of it is about how I appraise the situation, and what you’re doing here is if you’re going to the tai chi, and now you’ve inspired me, when I go to the tai chi, I’m going to actually be a little more active in thinking about how I can perhaps enhance a number of these factors while I’m learning this age old practice that’s been around for centuries and centuries, for good reason, but appraisal is really important, and I think you’ve just described a very good example of it.

Peter: That’s great, and I’m going to be looking for these kinds of opportunities, too, because I think the intention of developing your resilience can be brought to almost any situation, and that, I imagine, could fuel the development of that resilience itself.

Steven: Yes, and in fact, it can be brought to very painful situations. Viktor Frankl wrote about this in Man’s Search for Meaning, a holocaust survivor, beautifully. I think the way that he might look at it is, “Is there something I can learn from this situation?” I may not be able to control the situation, but I have a much better chance of controlling my response to it, or my attitude. Is there opportunity in the midst of adversity? This may be very hard to find, but you can search for it and you’d be surprised how often you can actually find opportunity. Just as you were talking about leaders who were fired or whatever, and company comes back years later and say, “You know what? That turned out to be a life altering experience for me. That turned out to be an eye opener for me, because I had to grapple with difficulty, hardship, and I had to grow from that. I had to adjust.”

Peter: Man’s Search for Meaning was a very impactful book for me in high school and in college, and continues to be. This idea that we have choices in those situations and we may not have choices about what physically happens to us, but we almost always have choices about how we choose to look at it. You could look at a situation where you get fired and say, “That’s terrible, and I’ve lost all this opportunity, and I’ve lost all my potential,” or you could look at that and say, “What does it mean to be optimistic in this situation? How do I replace my social support that I had at my job with something else that gives me further, deeper opportunities, possibly? Where do I find meaning and purpose in my life without this particular job?”

Arguably, that’s one of the most important things, not just when you get fired, but when you retire. I know a lot of people who retire, and they have a very hard time not mattering in the way that they mattered before. I’m looking at the table of contents of your book, where each one of these resilience factors is listed, and I think any situation you’re in, you could just look at this list and say, “How do I approach this situation with a consciousness, with an intention of building my resilience?”

Steven: Yes, and I think that what you were saying, Viktor Frankl might say that I have much more choice than I imagine, that each moment in fact, I have the opportunity to choose how I respond, how I understand or feel about a particular situation, and I think he would also say that we have a responsibility, from moment to moment, if we’re aware of it, to make the choice that we feel is a choice that matters, that matters in life. One of the things that he said that I really love is, “What is my responsibility in life?” He said something like, “To fill the space in which you happen to have landed,” which to me means, to do the best I can understand the circumstances that I find myself.

Peter: That’s profound. Steven Southwick, the author along with Dennis Charney of the book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Steven, thank you so much both for writing the book, for doing the research, and for sharing some of its wisdom with us on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Steven: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been really good to talk with you.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the “Bregman Leadership” podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For me information about the Bregman Leadership Training, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.






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