The Art of Resilience

I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. ” Maya Angelou

As Maya Angelou says we can be changed by what happens and this is certainly the case in the current situation. Most of the western world has been in confinement for more than a month and if the initial shock and disorientation have gone, this “new normal” is impacting us psychologically and a confinement fatigue has appeared. Negative emotion of frustration, fatigue, anger, loneliness are on the rise and it seems that we need to activate our resilience even more strongly and for even longer.

But what is resilience in the first place? It is usually defined in psychology as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and it comes from the physical definition of resilience which is for a substance or object to spring back to shape after having been stretched. So this is what resilience is: the ability to adapt and thrive when difficulties have taken us out of your comfort zone.

If I take a look at my activities, how does it look like? 

I coach online, I play chess, I exercise, I cook, I garden, I write and I go on long walks with my family. How are these activities related to resilience? Is there a wise side of myself which knows what is needed for me in these difficult times? How could I better understand resilience and come out stronger out of this crisis?

Is resilience a kind of muscle I can exercise or is this an inane ability I cannot do much about it?

Answering these questions is the intent of this article.

In “Not everything is not going to be ok…and that’s ok” article we looked at the place of optimism in the context of resilience and we took more a philosophical perspective on this question. In this article, we will look at resilience from the perspective of a muscle that we can exercise and what are the practical ways to do it. 

Resilience can best be seen as a muscle and is not an innate quality (1). This was studied by psychologists and they have show that is not a character trait that we inherit at birth but an ability that we develop through life. It starts in childhood when we learn to cope with “not receiving” what we want and the disappointment which ensues. Light setbacks in childhood initiate this process of building the resilience muscle and this is continued throughout life.

Facing reality and giving it meaning

As shown in the previous article, resilience starts with facing reality for what it is. It is about developing a realistic outlook of the situation and start to prepare for some of the consequences which might ensue. Meaning has also been found to be a key element of resilience. By being able to “explain” to ourselves what is happening, we find motivation to do something about it.

To do so, it is useful to explore different perspectives on what is happening and choose one which resonates the most so meaning can be given to the situation. Here just to name a few:

  • Learning perspective: what can I learn from it?
  • Gaming perspective: sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Loss today is part of the long game of life.
  • Focus on “what I still” have perspective: in this one, I focus on what I still have and minimise what I no longer have, it replaces the perceived loss into a bigger context and reduces its importance
  • Fate perspective: there is randomness, luck and bad luck in life and my control is mainly an illusion so replacing what happens into some cosmic event which was meant to be, helps me to relax into what is happening, as there is not much I can do, something bigger than me is at work.
  • “I am not alone” perspective: to reminds myself that it is not just me or about me, that we are all on the same boat. There is nothing special about me and my situation

An so now that meaning has been given, what kind of practices can you develop to build the resilience muscle?

Practicing Resilience in your body, mind and heart.

As in the quote of Maya Angelou “I refuse to be reduced by it”, what are our options and actions so we can become a player in what is at play.

So, when I have finally accepted what is happening and found a way to give a meaning, I still need to build my resilience muscle by practicing in my day to day life

Psychologist and medical doctors now agree (2) that our body, emotions and thoughts are intertwines and play on each other. Your thoughts might trigger emotions and weaken or enhance your physical ability. An injury in your body will trigger thoughts and emotions about it. Your mood will play on your energy level and on the thoughts that you will be having that day.

 A useful way to look at resilience is to differentiate how it play in three aspects of ourselves: 

  • in our body
  • in our mind
  • in our heart (emotions).

In our body, we can strengthen resilience by proper rest and recovery, healthy nutrition and physical exercise which gives the body endurance, strength and flexibility, recharging in nature and being outdoors.

In our mind, resilience is enhanced by being able to change perspective, reframe problems, attribute a meaning and purpose to what is happening, improvise when confronted with the unknown and see beyond the immediate facts. It is also being able to focus.

In our heart (emotions), resilience is boosted by having deep connections in our life, a sense of belonging, ability to stay with emotions instead of suppressing them, playfulness and humour, connecting with our core values and manifesting them in our day to day life.

If I look at myself, I can see that during the lockdown, I have continued and started practices which help build my resilience.

Body: I run and spend as much time in nature as possible. 

I would benefit however to resume my yoga practice and regain my flexibility which is also necessary in time of bad weather as it allows the bamboo tree to flex instead of snapping.

Mind: I work on my cognitive flexibility my doing complex chess puzzle everyday. I also write as this is a way for me to process what is happening, seek perspectives that I would like to explore and give meaning.

I would benefit however to meditate regularly to improve my ability to focus and “clear” my head from recurring thought pattern.

Heart (emotions): I am in touch with the people in my life, I seek their support and I give mine.

I would benefit to help more people outside my current network, who need support. 

So what does it look like for you? What are you doing to build your resilience? Which elements can you add that you would most benefit from?

You are and will be changed by what is happening and the question is to which extent will you accept to be defined by it?

Footnote:

  1. Neurobiology of Resilience: Interface between Mind and Body. (2019) - Biological Psychiatry pp. 410-420. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.04.011
  2. The Ontology of Emotions. (2017). Jaworski, W.

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