Develop resilience by understanding how you’re affected
Developing resilience is invaluable. But it can all too easily be done without fully acknowledging just how much we are affected by what goes on around us. We can aim to be strong individuals, but if we ignore the reality (the reality that we are greatly affected by our environment and our past), it can be disheartening when we inevitably falter and experience moments of weakness.
This is for anyone who has ever tried to remain calm, tried to be resilient in tough times, but failed despite those good intentions.
Mind / body
Dr Gabor Maté writes that even the saying that your mind and body are “connected” or “linked” implies some kind of separation. In reality, they are one. This is not a metaphor, nor is it simply a popular idea that just sounds nice. When you look closely, there really is no separating the mind and the body.
For example, you have more nerve fibres going from your intestine to your brain than the other way around. Your heart sends more information to your brain than your brain sends to your heart. This shows that not only does your “body” affect your “mind”, but that you have a mind (or an intelligence) throughout your body. In fact, your immune system has its own memory because it has to remember what is good and what is bad. In this sense, Maté observes the immune system is a kind of floating brain because immune cells are everywhere in your body.
You might think that you can train your mental brain to be the ultimate determining factor for your resilience. You might think that your will power and intention are what truly matter. And you might think (or at least hope) that this resilience and strength can be accomplished regardless of any other circumstances. This puts all the responsibility and pressure on the greatness of your mind. But because that’s not the whole story, this belief can lead you to beating yourself up and telling yourself you should have done better. The reality is, it may have been something outside of your control.
If you’re trying to be resilient but your immune system is going haywire, simply looking at the bigger picture or working on a backup plan (as you might do in tough times to strengthen your resilience), won’t get to the source of the problem. That’s like having a house on fire and getting the fire fighters to hose down the house next to it.
Just like your mind and body cannot truly be separated, so to the past and the present (and some even say the future), cannot be separated in the way we normally think of time. You may have heard the often espoused idea that you just need to keep moving forward, to not look back at your past, to not fall into self pity or fear, and just “stay on course” (whatever that means).
It would be nice if in this moment we could wipe the slate clean and be unaffected by what happened in our past, but that’s not the case. Our past is affecting our present whether we like it or not. This is true whether you’re poor or rich, failing or succeeding, just starting out in the workforce or taking your leave.
You just need to look at plants to see that the care we give to plants when they are young, affects how they grow and ultimately how they’ll live and survive throughout their life. If a plant isn’t given the right nutrients or it’s not grown in the right environment, that will stunt its growth. Yet we can miss this lesson when it comes to ourselves. Human history is filled with people who overcame tremendous odds, but their determination (despite being for a greater good) was still affected by their past.
When we were children we depended on our parents or caregivers to regulate our state. While we may be grown up and no longer in need of our parents in that way, many of us have not made the transition to being able to regulate ourselves in a healthy way. When something difficult happens, we’ll often turn to our phones, food, alcohol, drugs, sex etc, to help us temporarily regulate our state.
There have even been experiments where parents were instructed to keep a blank face while looking at their babies rather than making silly faces as parents often do to a new born child. Within less than a minute, the babies became upset and in a sense lost control.
Now think about what happens when you take a phone away from someone who’s on it most of the time. That person can, in a sense, lose control. They’ve traded their parents with a phone in order to regulate their state.
Much of how we respond to the world, how resilient we are, how mature we are, has to do with our childhood. How did your parents treat you? What was the environment like growing up? What emotions did you experience most often? etc. Research has shown that whether or not you felt loved as a child, has a big impact on your health today (and thus your resilience).
You might think “well, nothing terrible happened to me” or “I’m over xyz, I’ve moved on, it no longer affects me”. However, there’s often more going on than we realise, and the little things do add up. We suffer not just when something bad happens (eg: someone humiliating us), we also suffer when something good is withheld (eg: a parent physically being around, but not truly being present when we were children). These little moments where something was withheld has happened to all of us because no parent gets it right 100% of the time.
There was a study done on rats, which found that rats that had been licked and groomed by their mothers had more receptors in a part of their brain that enabled them to “cool down” after experiencing fear. In other words, the way rats were cared for when they were young, affected physical characteristics in the adult rats brains. These physical changes meant that the rats who had been better cared for were more resilient to life. They could experience fear, but the emotion wouldn’t be maintained as long.
There is even evidence to show that we are affected through generations. As an example, how your grandmother was treated may be affecting you today.
Affected by the world
But it’s not just our mind/body and our childhood and ancestry that’s impacting us, the environment around us is important to consider. We don’t live in isolation of our environment. We are affected by things such as our socio-economic circumstances.
For example, research suggests socio-economic circumstances are the main causes for cardiovascular disease (not lifestyle or medical factors). Further studies suggest that job strain is a more important factor for heart disease than high cholesterol, smoking and hypertension combined.
That’s a lot of things that are affecting us that we don’t often consider addressing when we’re wanting to be more resilient. This goes back to the knowledge held by indigenous cultures (which science is now starting to prove), that we are connected to everything and everyone, and that we are all one.
The solution to handling all this and being resilient, is not to shut down emotionally and become robotic, cold, rigid individuals. We’re human, shutting down has consequences. The solution is to move through the ups and the downs, to process and release emotional distress without suppressing negative emotions.
But even with this there is more than what we see at first glance. For example: if as a child you consistently experienced high levels of stress, it’s the absence of stress that will cause a sense of unease, and the presence of stress is what will feel “normal”. How many people do you know that feel uneasy being by themselves or always put themselves in stressful situations?
Understanding these extra elements and then working in a way to address these elements, can help us be more resilient in a more holistic and truthful way.
You can click the links below to learn a highly effective method for releasing stress from your mind/body, your past and the things that affect you in the world:
When the body says no: the cost of hidden stress by Dr Gabor Maté
Sand talk: how indigenous thinking can save the world by Tyson Yunkaporta