What is resilience?
It is the sometimes elusive quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure, trauma or misfortune overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to bounce back.
Resilience, it turns out, is reflected in our body’s ability to adapt under stress. We have all experienced the ebb and flow of life stress followed by periods of calm. We also know that stressful experiences often herald danger. As an organism interested in survival, it makes sense that neurological and biochemical mechanisms developed to alert us to danger; this is the body’s stress response.The system is designed to be able to navigate stress and then return to a state of calm when the danger has passed.
If being resilient is a biologically normal process, then why do some people demonstrate a greater capacity to recover from stress than others? We are all hardwired to stay alert to danger, since the possibility of threat may be just around the corner. Below the level of our awareness, we diligently survey the environment looking to see if it is safe or dangerous. If we encounter danger over and over and over again, our stress system essentially learns that it should stay ramped up. So the program changes from “respond to stress then recover to a state of equilibrium” to “STAY STRESSED BECAUSE BAD STUFF IS HAPPENING!”
Essentially, evolution dictated that any organism that is not alert to danger will likely end up as lunch, so it “pays to be anxious.” It makes sense then, that if we are surrounded by danger a lot of the time it really pays to be anxious.
It is also vital to understand that evolution guided us to be social; humans who were able to be social and cooperative were better protected from the saber tooth tiger, ate better, and were kept warmer by the group at night. Essentially, the brain (indeed our entire nervous system) evolved as a social organ built on experience. Feeling safe and protected by reliable caregivers positively influences our capacity to respond under stress. In contrast, feelings of imminent danger, or having unreliable caregivers makes recovery from stress less likely, causing flexible adaptation and self-regulation to be difficult. Understanding the extent to which our experiences shape the way we approach the world teaches us to refrain from saying, “What is wrong with you?” when someone is not coping well. Instead, try saying, “What happened to you?” Or “Was there anyone there for you?”
Fortunately, we have the capacity to build resilience. Our ability to reflect on the past and anticipate the future allows us to envision the way we want to act and interact, and to build a new narrative for ourselves. Through intentional practice, we can learn to adapt under stress and return to a state of mostly calm.
I hope the following acronym is a useful prescription, building on the description of resilience outlined above. Here are six elements that are important to building resilience; to help you or others to BOUNCE back. Each one incorporates evidence based brain concepts. As you read the descriptions, recall that we are wired to assess the environment for safety or danger AND we have the capacity to learn to down-regulate the influence of the more primitive parts of our brain.
Building supportive relationships is the most important step in creating the foundation for resilience. We are created in connection, we spend more than nine months in constant connection with our mother in the womb, and we are born looking for that connection to continue. It is only in connection with others that we can learn to feel safe.
Optimism describes the importance of hope; the value of being able to know that things won’t always be this way. From the point of view of the nervous system, being pessimistic or feeling discouraged is a way of being vigilant and trying to ensure safety. Being negative is a way of saying, “I am prepared for the next bad thing.” Unfortunately, when we don’t feel safe, everything looks dangerous, and our mental activity is focused on protecting us from threat. This creates a valence that can color our conscious perception to believe that nothing is safe. Learning to be optimistic involves the practice of stepping back, of gaining awareness and perspective, of saying how could I look at this differently? In reality, things are constantly changing and so there is the opportunity to see that you and your circumstances can change as well.
Understand failure means that we need to see failure as a perception, not a fact. It is a perception that is based on expectations. There is so much shame and negativity associated with the word failure; I wish we could see it instead as an opportunity for learning.
From the perspective of the brain, experiencing failure goes back to a sense of safety. To the primitive part of our brain it means, “I have done something bad. I may not be worthy of staying in the tribe. We will benefit from learning that there can be many layers to an experience.You may not have won that soccer game or been hired for that job, but what else happened? Try to focus on other aspects of the experience, and not just the one that feels like failure. Try to be curious about what can be learned here?
Narrative refers to the fact that our brains are wired to tell stories and those stories are largely based on past experiences. This is a complicated process with a lot of manifestations. Storytelling is a part of communication and building a tribe, for example. But here I am talking about the non-conscious way in which our brain is constantly filling in the unknown as if it is known. For example, when you first meet someone the truth is that you don’t know them. However, if they remind you of your loving aunt, you will have positive feelings towards them. Conversely, if they remind you of an obnoxious neighbor, you will be wary of them. Why are we wired this way? To keep us safe by telling ourselves a story that will try to predict the outcome of a relationship with this person.
The narratives we have extend beyond the people we meet. We also have stories that we tell about ourselves and our capacity in the world. For example, if we have been criticized growing up, we internalize those messages as the truth. In learning to be resilient the value of a growth mindset cannot be overstated. We can teach ourselves and others how to change our narrative by developing an awareness of that story and creating intentions to rewrite it.
Confidence is a coherent sense of one’s own value and capabilities; a perceived sense of self efficacy, of self-control. From the brain’s perspective, confidence is an amalgam of our inborn temperament and experiences in life where, although we do encounter stress, overall we feel worthy and strong enough to be able to navigate our way to safety. Through self-awareness and positive social relationships we are able to understand that challenging experiences are learning opportunities. We have a coherent self-narrative that is positive and balanced.
Emotional regulation is the capacity to tolerate stress with awareness and composure. From the brain’s perspective, when we encounter something dangerous, we need to do something and we need to do it now! This reactivity is generated below the level of our awareness. Fortunately for us we have a lot of cortical real estate which gives us the opportunity to learn to down-regulate, inhibiting the reactivity of the lower, more primitive parts of our nervous system. We can aim to interact, rather than react.
Putting all of this together, I hope you can see resilience as I see it – an adaptation under stress. I hope that the acronym will be useful as you work with yourself and others to BOUNCE back.
In summary, I believe that working on resilience is such an opportunity. Being resilient is not something that you either have or you don’t. It is an integral part of our stress response and so there are aspects of it that we all navigate every day. The things we need to do to help someone heal from significant adverse experiences are the building blocks of what we all need to do to live healthy lives with healthy minds. When you show up with a healthy mind you make it easier for those around you to lean into their own healthy way of being.