As the Psychology Today website (1) puts it, when challenged by tragedy and trauma, resilient people “rise from the ashes.” They re-engage in life, learn from their mistakes, maintain optimism, and bounce back to try even harder next time. If you’re resilient, you’re less likely to try to escape with drugs, food, gambling, or overwork because you won’t feel as lonely, uncomfortable, or ashamed.
Now that science has discovered the trait of resilience, everyone’s talking about it. We admire people who overcome horrible childhoods to become successful and happy. We’d love to have more capacity to cope effectively with stress, to bounce back, feel optimistic, and keep going in spite of failure, so millions of articles and books have been written to help us be that wonderful person.
If you’ve read any of these articles, however, you might find that not all of the suggestions are particularly helpful. For instance, you’ll be told to be more optimistic, be flexible, find a life purpose, and develop a strong social network. That’s good advice for all of us, but how do you do it?
Resilience and Our Genes
For instance, can willpower get you to see the bright side of failure or can you force yourself to “go with the flow”? Probably not. As Bari Walsh points out in “Public Policy and Resilience,” “It’s not about grit.” Instead, “it’s about relationships,” (2) which is part of why developing a social network is important. But if you knew how to make friends, you’d have done it by now. Then there’s that pesky life purpose. If it were easy to figure that out, there wouldn’t be so many books written – 253,040, according to amazon.com – to help you discern what your purpose is.
Becoming resilient can seem overwhelming, so wouldn’t it be nice if you were one of the naturally resilient types? Because some people, but some people aren’t, and it’s not your fault either way. In his blog post, “The Science of Resilience,” Steven M. Southwick notes that “resilience is the complex product of genetic, psychological, biological, social, and spiritual factors.” (3) Although there’s no one gene that makes us resilient, DNA studies show that genes do influence how we respond to stress. We can inherit the propensity to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if we are exposed to severe or repeated trauma, or we can inherit protective factors.
For instance, it helps to have a sympathetic nervous system that responds quickly to threat, then quickly calms down; or a dopamine reward system that functions smoothly even in the face of stress; or a well-developed prefrontal cortex that regulates our emotional responses, making us less reactive. In this regard, good genes help. However, even with good genes, we can struggle. Injury, trauma, and addiction can impair us, making it hard for us to stay calm and coherent in the face of threat and limiting our ability to learn from our experiences.
Learning Not to Blame Ourselves
The good news here is that we don’t need to feel like a failure because we get anxious or depressed or struggle to get through each day. Our genetic make-up is not our fault. Nor is it our fault if we’ve experienced severe or long-lasting trauma.
The bad news is that we might get depressed, thinking we’re doomed to a life of misery because we got a bad deal at birth or because we suffered extreme hardship. Well, we’re not doomed. Our brains can change; we can learn to be resilient. The paper, “Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building,” (4) prepared by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, affirms that it’s not “individual grit, extraordinary self-reliance, or some in-born, heroic strength of character” that allows us to “triumph over calamity,” but supportive relationships and the opportunity to learn coping skills.
So What Do We Do?
Some of these skills include meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive training to improve the functioning of our left prefrontal cortex. The left prefrontal cortex helps us recover when we experience fear or anger and helps us calm our anxiety. Classes that teach impulse control or planning or organizational skills help build that part of our brain. But other areas of our brain need support, as well.
For instance, aerobic exercise increases our resilience by dampening our stress response and increasing the volume of our hippocampus, a part of our brain that improves memory, learning, and quiets our reactivity. (5) Religious beliefs and strong cultural ties provide support when we experience setbacks and stresses. Therapy can help us resolve past traumas and learn new ways to cope. (6)
Yet if you feel depressed or are actively using substances to numb your emotions, even these concrete steps may seem overwhelming. How do you hold onto faith when you feel abandoned by God? Where do you get the motivation you need to exercise regularly? How do you meditate when your thoughts spin out of your control?
Motivation tips abound. The Positivity Blog, for instance, offers 25 ways to get motivated (7). You could write down your goals and break them into small tasks, build fun into your new behavior, remember change doesn’t occur without some failure along the way, work out with a friend, and reward yourself for progress made.
Meditation as a Tool for Resilience
As for meditation, it’s a myth that we have to quiet our minds to meditate. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön is fond of saying, we start where we are. Try sitting still for 5 minutes without worrying that your brain is going crazy. All you need to do is sit. Gradually, start paying attention. Notice your thoughts. Let them come and go and come back again. You don’t have to do anything with them. You don’t have to make them go away, and you don’t have to follow them into some rabbit hole. Like clouds, your thoughts can float past, and if the sky of your brain is totally white, that’s okay. Meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts; it’s about seeing them and letting them go.
Some of the thoughts we let go of during meditation are our judgments. We think we’re not doing it right, or we’re ugly or stupid or weak. No one loves us, we tell ourselves, and we deserve to be punished. We’re certain it’s our fault we’re alone or sick or poor. Thoughts like these get in the way of resilience. How can we bounce back or feel optimistic when we think we’re a failure? So one of the first thing we can do is let go of those judgments. They’re only stories, unhelpful stories, that we tell ourselves.
The Lump of Clay and the Teapot
Perhaps we can replace our negative stories with beneficial ones. For instance, William J. Bausch (8) tells a story about a lump of clay. The clay is perfectly content sitting there being a lump, when all of a sudden she is picked up and thrown down. She’s poked and prodded and slapped and stretched. She hurts, and she’s scared. Suddenly she hears a loud noise and feels herself whirling round and round, her body thinned and spread and formed into shapes she’s never known before.
The lump of clay cries out and begs that the torment stop. Instead of stopping, though, it gets worse, as she is shoved into a hot, dark place. She feels alone and separate, and the heat increases until it overwhelms her. She’s certain she will explode, but before that happens, a door opens, and something removes her from the oven. She cools off and thinks that finally she will be allowed to breathe. As she begins to relax, she is slathered with stinky, slimy goo, and a ticklish brush dances across her skin. If she had tear ducts, she would cry.
At long last, she is set aside and left alone. She begins to think she may survive, after all, when something picks her up and takes her into an big, open room with bright lamps and windows. She sees colors and shapes and light. A door opens, and she is placed in a cabinet with a mirror along one wall. The lump of clay peers into the mirror and sees herself. The transformation amazes her. She sees a beautiful, painted teapot.
Faith and Beauty
One way to interpret the story is to focus on how pain and tragedy molds us into the beautiful souls we are meant to be. God’s hand is behind the awful things that happen to us, and they happen for our own good. If such an interpretation helps you, that’s great.
I see another way to look at this story, though. We have the capacity to take our traumas and miseries and create meaning out of them. It’s not so much that God wants us to have these terrible experiences as God, or the universe, or whatever’s out there, wants to help us find the gift we can offer the world, a gift that comes from what we have learned, what we understand about the world and human nature, because life has made us who we are. Claiming our gift is a kind of s resilience.
Claiming our beauty is resilience, also. The lump of clay developed the capacity to look at herself and see a beautiful teapot. We all start out as lumps of clay, or dust, and through conception and life, we are thrown and heated and painted and formed into who we are, and who we are is beautiful. We each have a purpose. Maybe we don’t understand it yet, but it’s there. Sometimes we think our purpose has to be something momentous and powerful. Actually, some of the best purposes are small, like the ability to brew and pour tea.
The Teapot Is There
The teapot was still young. She didn’t know what she was good for, but nonetheless, she could recognize beauty when she saw it. Where is your beauty? What is the deep, sacred soul of you? Sit quietly and listen. Focus on your heart. Pray. Chant. Dance. Be still and know that within you is a deep wisdom, a startling beauty, a grace and wholeness that no one can take away.
Perhaps to your eyes you still look like a lump of clay. The potter sees the teapot. Look more closely. The teapot is there.
In faith and fondness,
Photo Credits: By Annie Spratt from Unsplash
1. “Resilience,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/resilience.
2. Walsh, Bari, “The Science of Resilience: Why some children can thrive despite adversity,” Usable Knowledge, Harvard, March 23, 2015, http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/15/03/science-resilience.
3. Southwick, Steven M., “The Science of Resilience,” Huffington Post, September 13, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-m-southwick/trauma-resilience_b_1881666.html.
4. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015), “Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper 13,” http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
6. National Scientific Council.
7. Edberg, Henrik, “25 Simple Ways to Motivate Yourself,” The Positivity Blog, http://www.positivityblog.com/index.php/2007/06/13/25-simple-ways-to-motivate-yourself/.
8. Basuch, William J., A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers, Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004, 276-277, adapted.