Life is full of good moments, but it isn’t always a smooth ride. There are many ups and downs, such as love and loss, success and struggle, happiness and heartbreak, and joy and trauma. Furthermore, none of us have a road map or a chapter index for our life journeys. Therefore, we never really know when our lives will be altered. Some of our experiences can inspire or motivate us. We may feel content and blessed, enjoying the warmth of sunbeams illuminating the path forward. Then, when we least expect it, dark clouds of trouble can cover our skies, and we might struggle to see where we are going. We might feel lost and unsure how to move on. We are all affected differently by life’s unexpected twists and turns and react to them in our unique ways. Some of us find a way around these obstacles, whether large or small. Some change the direction of their path. Others look for a guiding hand to figure out how to proceed. No matter how we continue on our journeys, we might be flooded with thoughts of uncertainty and feel stressed and insecure about our future lives. Yet, those equipped with resilience may find it easier to bounce back from adversity and adapt to new situations.
What Is Resilience?
Imagine two trees in the path of a hurricane. On the outside, both trees look almost identical. However, at a closer look, the first tree’s roots are dense and run deep, whereas the second tree has a few primary roots close to the soil’s surface. So, what would happen to these trees after the hurricane reaches them? You might have guessed that the tree with shallow roots would initially sway side to side or lean backward to resist the push of the winds. But eventually, it could be pulled out of the soil and lose its ground, especially if the winds persist or gain strength. In contrast, the other tree with deep and dense roots has a better chance of withstanding the strongest winds. This better chance doesn’t mean the well-rooted tree won’t experience any damage. After all, the hurricane can break many of its branches and severely harm its stem. Nevertheless, after the winds calm down, the tree can start to mend its injured parts, grow new branches, and bloom when it’s time to bloom again. Resilience is similar to having roots that keep us grounded. It is our dynamic ability to cope with and recover from adversities while regaining and maintaining our mental health (Herman et al., 2011). Just like every tree has roots, we all have some degree of resilience. Those with stronger resilience are like the well-rooted tree. Others may have relatively delicate resilience, which can help them overcome minor problems. However, becoming more resilient can not only help them handle these challenges with ease but also gain the ability to bounce back after more traumatic events.
To understand why strengthening resilience is vital to overcome challenges, we might benefit from considering how adversities affect us physically and mentally. Let’s start with the fight-or-flight response.
Sometimes life events can overwhelm you, stress you out, or make you sorrowful. You may even find it difficult to cope with them. Maybe it is the deadlines on your work or school calendar, the pile of bills you haven’t paid, or the loss of a job or a loved one. Whatever the cause, these experiences can drain your energy, leave you feeling frustrated and confused, and trigger your body’s hard-wired survival mechanism, known as the fight-or-flight response. What do scientists mean by the fight-or-flight response? Let’s imagine an individual strolling through the wilderness. They might hear grass and leaves rustling behind them and turn around to come face to face with a bear. In order to survive, this individual has to pick between two options: fight the bear or run away as fast as possible. Hence, the name fight-or-flight response. Regardless of whether the individual chooses to fight the bear or escape from it, they will need all the focus and energy they can muster. And this is precisely what the fight-or-flight response does. Once triggered, it prepares the body of this individual for the task ahead. It reallocates the body’s resources, increases focus and alertness, and boosts energy (Dhabhar, 2018). In other words, the fight-or-flight response is akin to an emergency plan for our bodies, which reprioritizes bodily functions and shifts our resources toward processes that increase the chances of beating the odds. Obviously, most of us will never face a bear except when visiting a zoo or a wildlife refuge. Yet, our fight-or-flight response can’t distinguish whether the danger in front of us is a big growling grizzly, a demanding boss, deforestation, or the cancer diagnosis of a loved one. In other words, no matter what adversity we experience, our bodies respond to them with the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response owes its energizing effects to several key hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Collectively, these hormones are often referred to as stress hormones. You might be wondering how hormones have anything to do with reacting to a bear or a pile of unpaid bills? Consider stress hormones as messengers of danger. Once you feel threatened by adversity, the specialized glands of your body release these hormones like a memorandum to tell its citizens (i.e., cells of most organs) to get ready for an emergency. As a result, the organs that have received the message generate specific actions to prepare your body for strenuous activity. For instance, adrenaline and noradrenaline instruct the heart muscle cells to constrict more frequently. As a result, your heart starts beating faster and increases your cardiac output. Similarly, cortisol causes the constriction of your blood vessels, which elevates your blood pressure so that your muscles can have speedy access to blood’s nutrients and oxygen (Hamer and Steptoe, 2012). These hormonal changes and the fight-or-flight response ensure that your body can handle the demanding situation and get out to safety in the short term. Unfortunately, if the demands persist, so does your body’s reaction. Worse, imagine you don’t have an effective way to deal with adversities. In that case, the fight-or-flight response and its associated changes can remain elevated as if your body is in a permanent state of emergency. This may damage the affected tissues and organs. As a result, physiological and emotional symptoms of long-term stress may sneak into your life. Some of these symptoms are fatigue, hypertension, elevated resting heart rate, chronic pain, immunosuppression, irritability, digestive problems, insomnia, loss of libido, and social withdrawal (McEven, 1998).
Stressful events, obstacles, adversities, and disasters are not always avoidable. However, the more resilient we are, the better we can deal with negative situations that arise. We can all become more resilient if we are willing to do so. Luckily, we have a much better grasp of resilience and its dimensions, thanks to numerous peer-reviewed studies. With a science-based approach, we can utilize the insights from reputable studies and create strategies to boost our resilience. Through the next 5 blogs, I will offer a step-by-step science-based approach to help you boost your resilience.
The Five Steps to Being More Resilient / Manage Emotional Reactivity / Regulate Emotions / Be Kind To Yourself / Improve Your Outlook / Take Positive Action
Each resilience blog presents one of these steps with clear lessons, exercises, and relevant thought experiments. As you go through each blog in this resilience series, they will help you understand the key concepts and strategies, whereas the exercises and thought experiments will help you build or improve related skills. You’ll have a firm grasp of individual dimensions of resilience and strategies to strengthen them so that you can handle whatever life throws in your way.
Linsey Adams-Aharony MSW, CTMH, CFT, CCTP, CCFP, CMHIMP, ICADC, CPLC, CBDT, CGCS, CAMS-II, CDVS-I, CCATP, CAMC, CPLC, ADHD-CCTP, C-PD, ASDCS, CSTS is a trained trauma-informed, licensed Israeli Social Worker in Central Israel. In March 2018, Esther made Aliyah to Israel and resides 20 mins outside Ben Gurion airport in Sitiriya, Israel where she runs her private practice on a horse farm. She conducts animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as well as traditional therapy with holistic properties to boost her client's wellbeing and meet treatment goals.