Psychological Hardiness is a Buffer Against Aging  
Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Jeanne Calment, of southern France, said to be the oldest living person, turned 120 this winter. This is what Jean-Marc Robine, a longevity expert with the National Institute of Medical Research, says about her, "(she has) extraordinary resistance to sickness, stress, and depression." Robine knows this as she has been visiting Ms. Calment regularly. The truth is that Calment has not only lived a long life, she has enjoyed a high quality of life. She went to the nursing home just ten years ago; having lived independently for hundred and ten years!

Psychological hardiness is the resistance we have to stress, anxiety, and depression. It includes the ability to withstand grief and accept the loss of one's loved ones which is critical for survival. When a person climbs the top of the age pyramid, he or she stands alone at the peak. This is true for almost all who reach the age of eighty or ninety years. Their spouses, friends, relatives, even some of the nephews and nieces of the younger generation will fade away right in front of the eyes of these lonely climbers. To appreciate their forbearance of loss, let us bear in mind that among the elderly, the death rate in the first year following the loss of partner is extremely high, perhaps as high as fifty percent for certain groups. A person has to be mentally tough and highly self-sufficient to adapt to that kind of loss.

Coping and dealing with stress in a positive manner plays a major role in slowing down the process of aging. The following study is a case in point. In the 1940s, George Vaillant began to follow 185 young men of Harvard University for a period of almost 40 years making it one of the longest follow-up studies in human development. He was very surprised to find that people who had been healthy and robust in their youth could die suddenly and prematurely because of their tendency to react poorly to stress. Vaillant noted that people with "poor psychological health," that is, poor stress copers, were particularly vulnerable to premature death especially if depressed or psychologically unstable. In this group of 185 people, 48 were identified as poor stress copers. Out of these 48 people, 18 died by age 53. In comparison, only two people with good "psychological health," that is, good stress copers, died by the same age. Vaillant concluded that good mental health slowed down the aging process while poor mental health hastened it.

Psychological hardiness and the ability to creatively adapt to challenges, beside increasing the life span, also positively impacts relationships, family life, and work. Vaillant noted that psychologically healthy people are more adaptive and flexible. They tend to have the following: stable family life, satisfying marriage. Steady progression in their careers, and an absence of any disabling mental or physical illness. They often have a companion as opposed to living alone. Perhaps it also says something about their ability to have new relationship even in the advanced years to follow the loss of companion due to death. They are not likely to abuse substance. If they drink at all, they drink moderately. Perhaps, they deal with their stress by finding constructive solutions rather than by resorting to alcohol or other substances.

People with good psychological health have an equal share of bad events in their lives. They too have to face the pressures and the adversities just as everyone else does. Some people justify their anger, frustrations, or blow-ups by saying, "Considering what I have gone through...." hoping that others wouldn't ask them to be any different from what they are, what they say and how they behave. The fact is that events do not cause stress , we do. How we experience a bad event, how we look at it, how we think it's going to affect our future, and what we think about ourselves in the context of that event, is what causes the stress we experience. Therefore, stress is what we make it out to be. 

For example, boss criticizes Jim. Jim feels angry, worthless, and ashamed, . Jim is going to feel a ton of stress and going to live under the effect of that stress for several days. But if Jim takes it to be `just one's person opinion who perhaps was having a bad day," he may feel merely an ounce of stress and get over it in hours or minutes rather than days.

Just to make sure that the concept of psychological hardiness is not misunderstood, let's  remember that it is not callousness, insensitivity, or lack of concern for others. Psychological hardiness refers to being tolerant and accepting of others, effectively handling stress, good in management of moods, even tempered, self sufficient, self-reliant and feeling good about oneself. 

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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