If you’ve ever reacted to some really bad news by collapsing in tears, eating a pint of ice cream, or reaming out your spouse, you might think those were not the coping skills of a particularly resilient person. Actually, they are, says Angela Duckworth, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who interviewed dozens of CEOs, athletes, spelling bee champions, and other highly resilient people for her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. “They were all very quick to share stories about their moments of weakness,” she says. “And I’m not talking about that time you got a B+ on a test. I’m talking about that time you tried to kill your-self, or the years you spent battling an eating disorder. Resilient people are not perfect, and they don’t always know what the hell they’re doing.”
In fact, scientists have found that when animals encounter stressful circumstances, one of the first things their brains do is activate a “hopelessness circuit.” In humans, this can manifest as intense feelings of grief or anger and, sometimes, a profound need to binge-watch Netflix in our pajamas. “We know there’s a period of time when you almost inevitably have to feel despondent,” explains Duckworth. “There’s a neurobiological reason why that lasts for a few days—because it’s only after those feelings clear out that hope can kick in.” That flood of negative feelings may be your brain’s way of grappling with a tough reality: Facing your problems is a key step toward acceptance. “To understand hope, you have to also understand hopelessness,” notes Duckworth.
Of course, if hope doesn’t kick in, such behaviors can be a sign of depression—so talk to your doctor if more than two weeks go by and you’re still struggling, warns Charney: “If you can’t get up and go to work in the morning or you find yourself withdrawing from family and friends, these are warning signs that should not be ignored.” Otherwise, let yourself wallow a bit when you need to—and know that your brain is laying important groundwork for a more resilient frame of mind.