What is Resilience?

“To have wellbeing you have to have resilience.” Rick Hanson

Resiliency is a key component in wellness; it is being able to return again and again to our core, to arrive again at our equilibrium, to navigate in a way that returns us to our center. Resiliency is being able to recover from adversity. It is both a practice and a way of being, demonstrating how we are in the world in addition to being something we do. Resiliency shows the connections between mind, body, emotions, and spirit.

Brené Brown calls resiliency “the bounce,” saying it is our ability to bounce back from hard times. This bouncing back is something you can cultivate and grow your skill in. Our modern English word ‘resiliency’ comes from the Latin ‘recuperare’ meaning ‘get again.’ Every time we practice resilience, we get better at returning to equilibrium, to ourselves, to balance. We recuperate, we regain the experience of wellbeing.

When we practice resiliency, we are cultivating what Jack Kornfield calls true equanimity. He says, “True equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things.” Being resilient means being able to engage in our experience with composure, to find the balance of the stress and ease. Resiliency is balanced engagement. It is knowing how to navigate difficulties so that we can care well for ourselves and the world and rebound when things inevitably don’t go our way.

“The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountain top, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion, of the world.” Pico Iyer

Resiliency & The Nervous System

How is this idea of bouncing back, of balanced engagement, grounded in the body and mind? Our nervous systems are the physical substrate of resiliency. As our nervous system perceives, transmits, and processes our experience, it assimilates the outside world on the inside, co-creating our experiences of our internal and external world. In this creation, a specific branch of the nervous system, called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), is responsible for the regulation of our physiologic systems; it answers questions of survival.

The ANS moves through different states: social engagement (rest & digest), tend & befriend, fight, flight, and freeze. These states are referred to as parasympathetic and sympathetic states respectively. A regulated, healthy nervous system is able to move through each state fluidly and as needed. A dysregulated nervous system is one that has gotten stuck. In her article, “The Healing Body,” Virginia Starr writes, “The wisdom of a healthy nervous system is that it will choose which response is most appropriate. It is designed to move through these states. Flexibility and resiliency is built up each time we come back to the state of social engagement after having been in the fight/flight/freeze states.This process of leaving and returning to balance is called allostasis, and it is how we develop the biological capacity for resilience.

Being able to move through a sympathetic nervous system response (fight, flight, freeze) – stressful events – and return to a parasympathetic state is resiliency. In other words, resiliency is being able to take what life throws at you and to navigate it while maintaining your authenticity and integrity. It is being able to move through discomfort with presence and skill. It is about engaging with the stressful events in a fluid way that allows you to regain your calm; it is about knowing you have the ability to choose a response instead of just react. Being resilient is about skillfully navigating stress and activation and balancing those experiences with rest and ease, returning to homeostasis. It is balanced engagement. Embracing the capability of our nervous system and promoting its flexibility is how we grow in our resiliency.

“The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will often come around again. Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made.” ― Katherine May

A resilient response is:

  1. Recognizing our experience (have the awareness to sense it and the language to name it)

  2. Navigating our experience constructively (maintaining integrity and authenticity)

  3. Integrating our experience (using the insight gained from this experience to inform our future care)

“Resilience is often a slow unfolding of understanding.” Brené Brown

A Note on Trauma

Robert Scaer defines trauma as, “any negative live event that occurs in a state of relative helplessness.” Helplessness is the inability to defend oneself or to act effectively. The word trauma comes from Greek meaning ‘wound.’ In this understanding of trauma, we all experience situations where we feel helpless and have wounds stemming from that; traumatic events happen at many different magnitudes and engaging in trauma informed self-care is an important layer of resiliency.

Trauma is one thing that locks our nervous system. When we experience trauma, our nervous system is overwhelmed and instead of fluidly moving between different states of being, we get stuck in one. We are not designed to exist in a state of chronic stress or chronic rest. We are made to move across the range of our experiences and when we get stuck that is where dis-ease arises.  We don’t get to choose how trauma affects us but we can choose how we heal from it.

Find resources about healing from trauma here.

Resiliency vs Stress Reduction

“Stress is more than just a mental state; it is an internal condition that challenges homeostasis, which is a state of physical, emotional, and mental balance.” Nicole LePera

We feel both stress and relaxation in our bodies, and accordingly we have both a stress response and a relaxation response. Understanding both of these responses is an important part of resiliency and we can learn how to feel and what triggers them both. When we are stressed, it triggers hormonal and physiological pathways creating a specific environment in the body. Reducing the amount of time we spend in this state (sympathetic tone) is one element of resiliency, but not the whole picture. In other words, resiliency incorporates stress reduction but doesn’t stop there.

It is a guarantee that we will experience more stress in our lives, and we will never be able to reduce our stress to zero. Growing our resiliency means growing our ability to navigate the stress in addition to reducing it. We grow in our resilience every time we leave our center and are able to return. When we are triggered/activated we leave our equilibrium. The question of resiliency is how well we navigate this activation to return to balance. It is about increasing our capacity to handle hard things.

Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” This is resiliency in a nutshell: the goal is to grow our ability to skillfully respond to difficult experiences. Growing our resiliency means increasing our capacity to handle hard things.

“Avoiding your triggers isn’t healing. Healing happens when you’re triggered and you’re able to move through the pain, the pattern, and the story – and walk your way to a different ending.” Vienna Pharoah