More On Resilience

Sometime last year (or the year before?) I wrote some posts on Resilience.  As time passes there’s so much good research that comes out, especially about this particular construct.  As this month’s Scientific American Mind has a feature article on Resilience (“Ready for Anything;” July/August 2o13 SI Mind), I thought I would recapitulate some earlier thoughts and add some from more recent research.

Resilience is usually thought of as the capacity to bounce back from difficult times, but there’s another dimension altogether that can’t be overlooked.  Besides the capacity to bounce back, resilience includes the capacity to ward off diminishment due to stressors in your life.  So one way to think of resilience would be one’s recovery from a depressive episode.  Another way would be one’s ability to prevent falling into the depressive episode in the first place.  Both qualities of resilience are a combination of personality traits and learned skills.  One can become a more resilient person through practice and commitment, but one is born with some level of innate resilience.

The most recent edition of SI Mind makes several good points about resilience that bear repeating.  Here is a synopsis of those points.

1. “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.”  If we focus on the word “adapting” in particular, I think we can see that resilience can be found in deciding to work with a new but adverse condition, seeing how this setback creates opportunity for deeper and more meaningful living.  I can think of many of the people I’ve worked with or taught over the years who suffered a tragedy but then converted those painful emotions into the energy they needed to create positive change in their own life, often times on societal levels.  For instance I can think of one person who lost a dear friend to suicide, then decided to dedicate her life to helping people who’ve reached that dark place find a way out of their suffering.  Her pain over this loss caused adaptation, and this adaptation in and of itself is emblematic of her resilience.  Can we do something similar when life brings us tragedy, seeking to find ways to relieve our own suffering, to some extent, by relieving the suffering of others?  And, if we can, does this not become our own healing, our own journey to renewed life?

2. “A resilient person is…not someone who avoids stress, but someone who learns how to tame and master it.”  Oh, to have a stress free life.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  It may sound great, but it’s an illusion.  Life brings stress; pain happens.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a pessimist by nature, but you have to admit that things seem to go wrong pretty regularly without any help from you or me!  So the question we must ask ourselves is not only “how do I eliminate stress?” but also, “how do I thrive despite stress?”  I think that this statement, quoted above, is important to incorporate into our foundational mindset.  We must reframe stress as it arises in our life.  If we begin to see stressful events as inevitable and understandable, then we can begin to see that the problem isn’t that stress happens, the  problem is how well I actually handle stress.  It’s an important reframe because it leaves one able to say, with sureness, that my life, and life in general, is good, even when things go wrong.  Accepting this statement as true frees us to be solution oriented people rather than problem oriented.

3. “Two approaches that have received increasing scientific support (in resilience research) are cognitive reappraisals and mindfulness meditation.”  In the first two sections of this post we’ve looked at how choosing an adaptive response can help us to be resilient and how changing our attitude about stress can make stress more survivable.  Now, let’s take a look at how a person can use the mind itself to manage stress.

Cognitive reappraisal is a learned mental behavior, it’s that simple.  Another phrase for this behavior is perspective taking.  Bad things happen.  Sometimes our point of view is accepting, seeing things clearly, and then responding with skill.  But sometimes our point of view is aversive, seeing things in a distorted way, and then responding in concert with the aversion and distortion, often with little skill.  It’s difficult to recognize and accept our aversions and distortions, because often we’ve learned them through our family of origin or overall life experiences.  And those aversions and distortions may actually have been quite functional at one time and in one place, but may be quite out of touch right here, right now.  It’s good to be humble.  Did you ever meet someone and think “wow, this guy really sees things the wrong way?”  Well, guess what, sometimes each of us is “this guy.”  When things are getting worse rather than better consider the possibility that you might be seeing things completely wrong, and you need to reappraise, take a different perspective.  Someone else’s insult may be evidence of their aversions and distortions, not yours.  Your loathing for a person may be evidence of your pain, rather than something that’s wrong with the other person.  Life may not be fair, but it can be lived as fully as possible.

But taking a new perspective isn’t always easy, especially when what we’re feeling and thinking seems SO RIGHT.  That’s where mindfulness practice can be helpful.  When we meditate by centering our minds on a single object, such as breath, non-judgmentally, our bodies and minds slow down with time and practice.  But more importantly our capacity for broad mindedness, to see new perspectives, for cognitive reappraisals, gets so much stronger.  We notice the ebb and flow of our minds, and realize that thoughts are just thoughts, feelings just feelings.  They may or may not be true representations of our life; we get to decide.  This openness allows us to see our internal experiences with equanimity, which can then become our calmness toward the world.  The meditation work itself may not actually relieve our stress level, but it may just open our minds enough so that we can see things differently, and respond with much greater skill.  Mindfulness might not be the answer to our problems, but it may make it possible to find the answer.  I can think of no greater skill that’s made my life easier than my capacity to be mindful.

Well, that’s the scoop from this wonderful article in SI Mind.  I highly recommend this publication, as it is constantly filled with thought provoking articles about the mind. Hope this was helpful!

Peace,

Jim

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