Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Yale Psychiatry Faculty Explore Resilience

09/27/2011: Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer may best be known for having pioneered talking explicitly about sex on radio and television, but as it turns out, that is only a small part of her rich and diversified life. Young Ruth Westheimer grew up an only child in Nazi Germany, witnessed the abduction of her father, lost her entire family in the Holocaust, and was relocated to a Swiss safe house during World War II. In Switzerland, she educated herself despite significant obstacles. Following the war, she emigrated to Palestine, where she served in the Haganah, an underground military group that evolved into the Israeli army. While serving as a sniper, she suffered serious injuries from an explosion. At the Yale Club of New York City on Thursday, September 15 of this year, Dr. Westheimer shared these and other challenges she faced with a rapt audience of more than one hundred Yale alumni. Those experiences might have sidelined others, but instead they forged a unique individual who was introduced as a "force of nature" who engenders awe, fascination, and affection wherever she goes.

The evening's theme was the personal experience and science of resilience, an emerging area of study in psychiatry. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress. John H. Krystal, M.D., psychiatry department chair and Robert L. McNeil Jr. Professor of Translational Research, noted the message of recovery from trauma was particularly resonant so close to the anniversary of 9/11.

William H. Sledge, M.D., professor of psychiatry and the department's deputy chair for clinical affairs, introduced and interviewed Dr. Westheimer. Dr. Sledge began by saying she "embodies the idea of resilience and post-traumatic growth."

For the second half of the presentation, Steven Southwick, M.D., professor of psychiatry, presented his recent research into the genetic, developmental, neurobiological, and psychosocial factors that contribute to resilience. He and affiliated investigators conducted extensive interviews with ex-prisoners of war, military special forces instructors, and civilians who endured extremely traumatic events. Dr. Southwick's research echoed those qualities that Dr. Westheimer identified as major sources of her personal strength. Both identified solid social support, particularly early on in life, training and education, a generally optimistic outlook, cognitive flexibility, active coping skills, and pursuit of a worthwhile mission as key to prevailing under conditions of trauma and extreme stress.

During a question and answer period, moderated by Dr. Krystal, attendees sought suggestions for improving their ability to cope with stressful situations. "Individuals can be trained to be optimistic," offered Dr. Sledge. "You can certainly learn how to restructure your expectations and how to handle your experiences differently. Simply surrounding yourself with optimistic and funny people will make a profound difference."

Dr. Westheimer is the author of 35 books. She is a fellow at Yale's Calhoun College, and has taught Yale undergraduates for over six years to great acclaim.

Dr. Steven Southwick co-edited Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (August 2011, Cambridge University Press). His upcoming book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, co-authored with Yale psychiatry alum and current Dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Dennis Charney, M.D., will be released later in 2011, also by Cambridge University Press.