Restoring Resilience

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“Resilience is our essential nature, woven into our being as a natural capacity to restore and recover so that we can experience the joy and well being that are our birthright.” Dr. Henry Emmons, MD

What is resilience? Is it strength, persistence, courage? Do you think about your resilience or another’s? Is resilience acquired or innate?

“Resiliency is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity,” according to Richard Davidson, founder of The Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison. It is a learnable skill. By strengthening that skill we can recover from adversity more quickly. We cannot, however, avoid it. Adversity will visit us at some time. Bad things happen. Perhaps if we spend less time worrying about adversity striking and more time building our resiliency muscle, we will be better prepared for adversity’s inevitable arrival.

Humans are naturally self-correcting, able to withstand stress, hardship, and loss while we keep living complex lives. Dr Henry Emmons, author of The Chemistry of Joy, says the problem is that sometimes we are hit by a real storm of adversity, or the challenges of life pile on and it gets harder and harder to bounce back. Add to that the 24-hour news cycle bringing the world’s tragedies to our door – horrific acts, deadly violence, weather disasters. This collision of difficulties (ours and the world’s), manifests as depression, anxiety or the many faces of stress gone awry. Medication, therapy or other measures may help, but often fail to fully restore our birthright gifts of balance, meaningful connections and joy — the elements of a resilient life.

Resilient brains seem to shut off the stress response and return to baseline quickly. Steven Southwick, MD, says that the notion “I’m going to be rejected or fail or won’t be accepted by the group” activates the same circuits as if that person saw a wolf. We go immediately into fight, flight or freeze mode, an evolutionary remnant no longer very useful. Constantly hitting those fear circuits causes stress hormones to flow through our brains. The more we worry or fret, the more we use those circuits. Like water running down an eroded hillside, our brain follows familiar neural paths leading to fear and anxiety.

The good news, according to The Center for Healthy Minds, is that we can positively influence the way our brain develops, how efficiently it operates, and what skills it acquires. By activating specific areas of the brain we strengthen them. Frequent worrying strengthens the worry area; frequent calming strengthens the calming area. Repeatedly imitating a specific attitude, style of thinking or behavior can help overcome our own stress and trauma.

Two ways of improving resilience are through mindfulness and social connection.

Mindfulness is the practice of staying through mindfulness and social connection.

Mindfulness is the practice of staying in the present. Sylvia Boorstein defines mindfulness as the “aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” When I am present to things as they are now, I don’t need to wonder what will happen next, what danger might await me, or how I will address something tomorrow. I am simply here with what is.

When we are not present our mind wanders through relics of the past or imagines fears and fantasies into the future. According to James Doty, M.D., 80 percent of the time we focus on the future or past, limiting who we are and the connections we can make.

I meditate 20 minutes a day to practice mindfulness. It helps. I grow aware of my distractions – such as planning my next vacation, tonight’s dinner, what I am going to do after this and then after that, and so on and so on. I notice the distractions and then I let them pass by, like leaves floating down the river. Being here and now is more relaxing than trying to manage my what-if world.

Recently, The New York Times asked artist Maurizio Cattelan, what he would invent to make life easier. His answer – a pause button! I imagine a pause button on my left arm, just above the elbow, two vertical lines. When my mind starts going wild with things to buy, to remember, to clean up, to organize, to…. I can simply hit my pause button and stop the action.

The second way to improve resilience is through social connection. An enemy of joy is the mistaken belief that we are alone and isolated. We have been led to believe that we are a separate self that needs to bootstrap everything, Lone Ranger style. This belief is continually reinforced by the American religion of independence. Separation is an illusion. Mother Theresa knew this and said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Resilient people know they belong to each other.

Karen Reivich at the University of Pennsylvania trains Army personnel about resilience. She teaches that when we are laid low, the thing to remember is that other people matter. People who let other people help them tend to recover better than those who are fiercely independent. One of the best things we can do during times of high stress is to actively reach out to family, friends and colleagues for their advice, assistance and emotional support.

When life gets difficult, we are tempted to pull inward and think we must go it alone. We needn’t. Listen to people who have recovered from illness, active addiction or abuse. A common thread is how a small group of people supported them in their recovery. When we know we have someone to call upon to listen, to care, to be there, we see that we are not alone. It changes everything. Albert Schweitzer said, “We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”

If we are not as resilient as we like, we can change that. We can live more often in the present moment and we can connect with people important to us. Call a friend to join you on a river bank. Watch the water flow gently by. Restore your resilience together.


Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and leads retreats in the Twin Cities. She can be contacted at logsdon. marylou@gmail.com.

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