What is resilience? Resilience is something we all want, few of us practice and most of us have little idea as to what it is. We go through our lives in lock-step dealing with life’s numerous pitfalls and challenges without an understanding of the impact that stress has on our bodies and psyche. Resilience represents an individual’s ability to effectively tolerate life’s stressors, to more effectively “go with the flow” so to speak. To be resilient means that even though we cannot avoid stress we have the capability of actively managing it.
So it becomes quite clear that there is value in better understanding this concept. More importantly, we need to develop the capacity of resilience. For some, resilience may be an inborn trait. These individuals are lucky enough to be born with nervous systems that automatically foster resilience while others may be born with nervous systems that overreact to stress. The pathological worrier when faced with a life challenge may intensify the stress reaction by catastrophic thinking that leads to unhealthy emotional and physiologic reactivity. Those of us with resilience traits should learn how to enhance them while those with limited stress-control capabilities need to find ways to develop such traits.
Simply speaking, resilience is multifaceted. It requires first that we make ourselves aware of how we journey through life. When we are stuck in traffic and find ourselves being late for a meeting or activity, how do we react to this potential stress. We have a choice of fretting over it to the point that our heart rate goes up, stomach acid gets released in larger quantities and our brain fires off alarm reactions. This type of stress further releases unhealthy bodily chemicals like free radicals, brain chemicals that signal danger. It is not uncommon for this to result in back and head musculature contraction leading to tension headaches and backaches. But we also have the choice of placing this stress in a more appropriate perspective by consciously acknowledging that we truly may have no control over the traffic situation, did not cause it and certainly have no way of clearing a path through bumper to bumper vehicles. This does not mean that we shouldn’t feel badly about being late for our appointment and apologize when we get to our destination, but at the same time we don’t need to get ourselves into a tizzy over this. We can further trouble shoot and adjust our departure time if this route is known for traffic jams. Just discuss highway travel strategy with anyone residing in the Los Angeles area!
Resilience is about reasserting locus of control in situations that appear to be beyond our control. A psychological term, locus of control refers to establishing a mindset of control despite the nature of the challenge facing us. This requires being cognizant of how we are dealing with the issue in front of us no matter how vexing it may be. It sounds so simple yet this concept is mastered by few of us. We tend to be engaged in a mindless dance through life without attending to the need to be “present”, to attend to how we are reacting to each step of our travels. The task at hand is to regain the locus of control, to get back into the captain’s seat of life and actively do the best we can under the circumstances.
In reality, resilience is multi-faceted. It is about balance and the conscious decision to attend to the myriad aspects of our daily life journey. There are some simple aspects to this balance. Attending to nutrition, adequate sleep, exercise, establishing a daily routine and maintaining social interactions comprise a core set of basics. Self awareness is an essential component of this balance. However, as indicated earlier in this discussion, self-awareness escapes many of us. For example, how many of us are aware of our breathing? How shallow or deep, rapid or slow? Do we breathe in or breath out through our nose or our mouth? Does it make a difference? Do we inhale by natural downward excursion of our abdominal diaphragm or through the expansion of our ribcage? Research decades ago revealed that diaphragmatic breathing is healthier because it allows for a more robust intake of air than that of ribcage breathing. In fact, a researcher identified what is called the Q reflex or Quieting reflex in response to diaphragmatic breathing. It is no accident that the ancients emphasized the importance of breath work and diaphragmatic respiration as the core of meditation that is today a critical component of Yoga meditation.
Healthy self-talk is another major aspect of resilience development. We all engage is self-talk. Unfortunately, much self-talk is negative and self critical. Becoming aware of this tendency is absolutely essential. It is one thing if the negativity is well earned. We should certainly own up to our mistakes and failures. However, it is more common for self critical thinking to not be based on the facts but emanate from a life of low self regard and confidence, much of it based on unhelpful childhood conditioning.
This brings us to the importance of pursuing mindfulness in our quest to develop resilience. Mindfulness requires attention to our present situation, not just a cursory approach but a comprehensive assessment of the here-and-now. It is much more than our motorist we previously discussed stuck in traffic reacting to being late by getting upset and wallowing in this negative state. It requires an active participation in the event, acknowledging the problem, recognizing the absence of realistic control over the traffic jam, the need to call ahead and alert our destination of the unfortunate circumstance while appropriately apologizing for this situation. Mindfulness also involves taking active responsibility for our self-talk and learning how to develop more effective filters for the negativity that invades much of our personal internal banter. This ability can be learned and must be practiced regularly to become more of an automatic process. The ability to clear one’s mind of negativity becomes one of the finest gifts that we can provide for ourselves. Successful meditators will tell you about the bliss they encounter when they are able to empty their minds of non-essential thoughts.
Finally, we cannot have a discussion about resiliency without understanding the concept of emotional dysregulation. It turns out that the human psyche is composed of two operating systems. We are all aware of the two popular computer operating systems, one that runs Apple software and the other Microsoft software. The human operating system that we are most aware of is composed of words that result in language based communication. This particular system is based on logic. It is what this article utilizes as you read it. However, parallel to this operating system is one that is based on emotions. Emotions are not easily defined using words or language. Emotional expression is by its nature illogical. It is most important to understand that the operating system that governs emotions is extremely powerful and often gains control over our logical language-based operating system. Abusive relationships, addictive behaviors, impulsive and rash life decisions are examples of the dominance of emotions over logic.
Our challenge becomes one of regaining control over our emotional being. The first step in this process is to becoming mindful of our emotional production and not allowing emotions to run amok without conscious awareness. Once we can recognize problematic emotions we have the ability to modify and channel them in a more helpful manner. One can actually learn the skillsets necessary to control the emotional operating system and with practice incorporate them into our daily existence. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) a component of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been a major advance in addressing the painful human toll of emotional dysregulation.
The twenty-first century has its own unique challenges and stressors to say the least. World events, internet connectedness, social media pressures and information explosiveness make our reality more complex than ever before. Fear not, for even though one may not be born with innate resilience it is possible to nurture this capability. However, this is not a passive process. It requires hard work and introspection often involving the assistance of a trained mental health professional. The benefits of resilience are immeasurable and certainly worthy of our efforts and hard work. Good luck!