Sunday, October 23, 2011

Forging Steel, Part 2: Soldiers, Superheroes, and Resilience

In a previous post, I talked about military training, the ways that it "forges" soldiers, and what might be relevant to superheroes. Part of what the training does is it causes reappraisal--the (re)interpretation of stimuli. For instance, boot camp causes the cadet to reappraise what he or she can withstand, and what he or she is capable of. Similarly, the intense physical and psychological challenges that are built in to the Special Forces courses lead the soldiers to re-evaluate how they see themselves, and thus how they see what would otherwise be over-the-top experiences in adversity.

The training process also provides an opportunity for soldiers to do what elite athletes do: direct their attention away from pain (Ochsner & Gross, 2005; Troy & Mauss, 2011). You’ve probably had this experience: You can feel a headache coming on. If you pay attention to the pain, the headache will feel worse. If you try to ignore the headache, it doesn’t seem quite so bad. Athletes learn to direct their attention away from pain and so do soldiers (and superheroes). As former Army officer Craig Mullaney recounts in his memoir The Unforgiving Minute, he learned from his instructors at West Point that pain “is just weakness leaving the body.”

Pain can be emotional as well as physical. For instance, for a moment, think about some life event that upsets you. A breakup, a loss, an experience with failure. If you continue to direct your attention to that upsetting experience, you’ll likely get upset. Of course thinking about an upsetting experience can be an opportunity for learning, but you have to think about it in a specific way, asking yourself “what lessons are there to be learned form this situation?” Just dwelling on the experience, letting it rattle around and around in your mind, fills up the mental space with emotional turmoil. It does the opposite of regulate your emotions—it makes them more likely to feel out of control.

So soldiers, particularly elite soldiers, must learn to control their attention and direct it accordingly—to what is relevant for survival (Abele & Gendolla, 2007; Aspinwall & Brunhart, 1996). If they’re preoccupied with thoughts of missing family, they may not notice that tripwire or mine in the road. It’s the same with superheroes. They are amazingly able to focus their attention to the problem at hand, regardless of what is happening in their personal lives. Mullaney notes that if you aren’t paying attention to the relevant details, people under your command can die.

Controlling your attention also allows you to direct your attention to stimuli that may be less likely to induce counterproductive emotions. In a scary movie, if you find yourself being too scared, you may start to notice the actor’s makeup onscreen, or the temperature of the room, or in some other way direct your attention so that you can be less frightened. That’s adaptive. Soldiers must do this too, since being very scared on a mission isn’t adaptive. Their intensive training can become an anchor point to calm emotions that might get out of control; they might direct their attention to aspects of the current situation that are similar to ones during their training, thus providing a sense of mastery (“I handled a similar situation then, so I can now”) and momentarily diminishing the threat of the situation so that negative emotions don’t spiral out of control and interfere with the mission.

Batman’s years of training likely gave him the experience he needs both to direct his attention and to reappraise threatening situations as less threatening. For instance, when yet again facing off against the Joker, Batman can say to himself “this is just another in the Joker’s long string of plots, and in the end he always loses. That’ll happen again in this situation, one way or another.” Saying something like this makes the situation less scary.

Soldiers, police officers, fire fighters (and yes, superheroes) need either to have the ability to distract themselves from “negative” stimuli and thoughts—things that could induce too much fear, anxiety, or sadness—or develop it very quickly. Psychologists are studying ways to train these abilities associated with resilience in people who don’t naturally come by them. One type of training is called cognitive control training, and occurs as part of mindfulness training as well as cognitive therapy. (Click here for an article about this.)

Resilience doesn’t mean that folks should never focus on negative stimuli, or should never feel afraid. Au contraire! Resilience involves the ability to figure out relevant from irrelevant negative stimuli. If you hear whistling that might be coming from a grenade, you want to pay attention to that sound, not distract yourself from it—even if you get scared in the process. Being scared isn’t a bad thing because it can give you an adrenaline rush that in turn enables you to fight the enemy or flee the scene. Too much anxiety, fear, sadness, though, can paralyze. (Click here for an article that reviews this literature; Troy & Mauss, 2011.)

And with experience, soldiers, and superheroes can develop their own kind of “spider-sense”—a mental tingling sensation when a military situation isn’t quite right. That something is off. You may not know what that something is right away, but time and experience lead you to trust it. (Note, though, that the spider-sense isn’t right 100% of the time, and sometimes relying on previous experience can give way to overconfidence in the spider-sense.)


Abele , A. E. & Gendolla , G. H. E. ( 2007 ). Individual differences in optimism predict the recall of personally relevant information . Personality and Individual Differences, 43 , 1125 –1135.

Aspinwall, L. G. & Brunhart , S. M. (1996). Distinguishing optimism from denial: Optimistic beliefs predict attention to health threats . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 22 , 993 –1003.

Ochsner , K. N. Ray , R. D. Cooper , J. C. , et al. ( 2004 ). For better or for worse: Neural systems supporting the cognitive down and up-regulation of negative emotion. Neuroimage , 23 , 483 –499.

Troy, A. S., & Mauss, I. B. (2011). Resilience in the face of stress: Emotion regulation as a protective factor. In S. Southwick, D. Charney, M. Friedman, & B. Litz (Eds.), Resilience in psychiatric clinical practice. Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can You Stay Off Fat Talk--For a Week?

It's not uncommon for women (or even men) to bond with each other over the travails of their appearance: their hair, their clothes, their weight, their fat. Sound familiar? If so, take note. The week of Oct. 16-22 isFat Talk Free Week. It's a week in which people are encouraged to stop their "fat talk." What is fat talk? It's comments like" I feel so fat in these clothes," or "do I look fat?" It can also be saying to someone else, "You look great, did you lose weight?" This implies that lost weight is the metric of looking good.

Although some women say that such talk makes them feel better, research suggests that in fact the opposite is true. Do you engage in fat talk? If so, here's a challenge: Try not doing it -- for a day, then for a string of days, then for a week. And what better time then during Fat Talk Free week.

If you partake in fat talk, it's in part because our culture encourages it. Through various media (including TV, film, magazine ads and articles), we're all encouraged to think that our bodies should approximate a thin "ideal." And if we don't have that type of body (which the vast majority of us don't), then we shouldn't feel okay about our bodies. Unfortunately, most of us go along with this premise and we dislike our bodies. Fight back against this premise and the way it makes you feel. To help you in this endeavor, Oct. 19 is Love Your Body Day.

Do you love what you see when you look in the mirror? Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts -- lips, legs, breasts -- airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem. Is it any wonder that 80 percent of U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance?

Women and girls spend billions of dollars every year on cosmetics, fashion, magazines and diet aids. These industries can't use negative images to sell their products without our assistance. Together, we can fight back.

While we're on the subject of fat, here's one more thought. Too often in our culture, fat is equated with bad, with being out of shape. But people who are average weight or less aren't necessarily in shape, and people who are heavier aren't necessarily out of shape. For the group Heath at Every Size, the goal is for each person to be healthy and fit, regardless of weight, and to accept their bodies. (Click here to see one overweight woman who is both fit and graceful.)

In fact, a recent study found that overweight adolescent girls who were content with their bodies were less likely to go on to develop binge eating disorder. They were also less likely to gain weight over the 11 years of the followup period. Take home message: Become cynical about the "ideal" body size and shape promoted in our culture and stop your fat talk.

Copyright Robin S. Rosenberg, 2011; first published in The Huffington Post.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room. For Dr. Rosenberg's brief, easy-to-read guide Improving Your Relationships with Your Body, click here.