Almost every year I witness the same tragedy in Boulder. The daffodils emerge, the trees put forth tender leaves and delicate flowers, and my heart swells with the natural resurrection of life. Then we get a snowstorm and all the new growth dies. So much for spring.
But wait! As the snow melts, I’m reminded that these plants are hardier than I thought. The flowers return, more leaves grow, and it turns out they’re all the tougher for the hardship.
It’s tempting to hope for a life without hardship. But it’s neither realistic nor good for us. We’re better served by resilience. Resilience isn’t just the ability to withstand hardship, it’s the ability to utilize hardship as a means for growth. Let’s look into why we need it and how to build it.
Modern humans were already epidemically stressed. Now we’re pandemically stressed. Even if you’re healthy, you’re not scared of coronavirus, you don’t feel especially affected by what’s going on, it’s still likely that you’re going through a heightened state of nervous system arousal to adapt to these unique circumstances. And of course, if you are worried about your health or finances or loved ones or the overall state of the world, then you’re in an even more heightened state of arousal.
We can attribute today’s common usage of the word “stress” to an endocrinologist named Hans Selye who first described how organisms respond to chronic stress in what he dubbed the General Adaptation Syndrome. Most of us are going through this syndrome right now.
Here’s how it works. When we first encounter a stressor, we enter the “alarm phase.” The system is temporarily shocked, our body produces stress hormones, the nervous system gets more vigilant, and our fundamental homeostasis is compromised. Next, if the stressor persists, we enter the “resistance phase” in which the body/mind makes adaptations to manage the ongoing burden. We may feel like we’re getting used to it, but we’re actually chronically hyper-aroused and this demands a lot of energy. Eventually, if the stress continues, we enter the third phase: “exhaustion” – we just can’t maintain the constant adaptation and things start to collapse (we get sick, fatigued, anxious, depressed, etc.).
We’re probably hanging out in that resistance phase, but may get repeatedly re-alarmed when we hear more bad news. Some of us are already in exhaustion. What can we do?
In his popular 1994 book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky explains why it’s different for animals than it is for humans. They’re exposed to episodic stress – like the appearance of a predator. They react, the stressor goes away, and they return to a relaxed state and replenish from the toll of the stress. In contrast, the chronic stress we experience is taxing without any breaks.
As I see it, true resilience doesn’t just mean being able to stay in the resistance phase for a long time without getting exhausted. That might be evidence of resilience, but it could just be the sign of a strong constitution. Indeed, one definition of resilience is simply “toughness.” But the definition I find more compelling is this: “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.” I interpret “into shape” to mean the restoration of a state of fundamental wellbeing (not a state of active resistance).
To me, resilience entails returning to balance or freedom not just after, but throughout, an experience of hardship. I like the word freedom because it implies that we’re not fighting, not pushing back. Instead, at least for a moment, we’re liberated from our stress. In my opinion the single most powerful way to achieve this kind of resilience is through a daily meditation practice.
A few years ago, the American Psychological Association released a guidance document on the mental health impacts of climate change. It’s impressively holistic in its scope. One section offers great suggestions for building resilience, and I think they apply well to the current pandemic. Although these strategies we’re meant to be introduced by counselors, I believe you can apply them on your own (and reach out to us if you need further guidance).
- Build belief in your own resilience. Be compassionate with yourself. Notice all the challenging times you’ve already managed.
- Foster optimism. Actively reframe your circumstances. Stick to the facts. Choose to be an optimist – it’s a simple habit of thinking and habits can be changed.
- Cultivate active coping and self-regulation. Pay attention to your thoughts and behaviors. Look for solutions and help – there are so many good resources available to you.
- Find a source of personal meaning. Do you believe in a higher power? A personal mission? A mandate to serve the world and share your gifts? What’s the most important thing to you? Prioritize that.
- Boost personal preparedness. Managing crises holistically isn’t a matter of either wearing a mask or believing we’ll all get through this. Hedge your bets. Build resilience, stay positive, and also do some common sense things to enable you to better weather the unexpected.
- Support social networks. We need connection to other humans, not just for the psychological support, but the material support (e.g., toilet paper) too!
- Connect with parents, family, and other role models. While we generally recognize the powerful stabilizing force the family structure can provide for children, it can be equally valuable for adults. If family isn’t available or doesn’t function that way for you, make your own family and find other role models.
- Maintain connections to one’s culture. This is especially important for refugees and new immigrants, but it can also be a valuable constant – and source of stories of resilience – for everyone.
I’d like to close with two more. First, mindfulness practices build resilience, specifically in that “springing back into shape” way. Mindfulness puts us firmly in the here-and-now – the truth – over and over and over and over throughout every day. Second, finding ways to serve also “springs us back” because it’s our nature to love, to care, and to offer oneself to the greater Whole to which we all belong. We’re naturally oriented in this way when we feel free. Therefore, even if you don’t feel altogether free, acting as if you’re free – by finding ways to help others rather than being hyperfocused on your own survival – will facilitate that freedom.
So much love,