“Resilience” is a new buzzword I’m seeing these days in a many different contexts.   We need to develop “systems resilience” to deal with potential cyber attacks.  We need more “resilient communities” to prepare for tragedy and the unexpected.  The government is creating programs to help develop “family resilience” to better cope with the stresses of military life. And the military seeks to develop “resilient soldiers,” less susceptible to traumatic stress disorder, better prepared to positively respond to stress and change. 

Resilience is clearly a good thing. So what exactly is it, and how do we get some?

Like many things, resilience is both simple and complex.  In essence, it seems to come down to an ability to cope, and to respond well to adversity and stress.  The opposite of resilient  might be ‘fragile,’ ‘rigid,’ ‘delicate,’ or even ‘sensitive.’   Persistence is usually, but not always, associated with resilience.

When we talk about people being resilient, we really have to define the context, since resilience manifests itself differently in different contexts.   Different contexts may demand physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or other types of resilience – or some of each –  to respond to different types of adversity.    Being resilient in one context does not assume resilience in another.  We’ve all seen people who may be mentally and physically very resilient in combat or high-stress environments (physical/mental resilience), but who emotionally over-react or are unbending with their families and friends (emotional/social resilience).   My graduate students are very successful in their personal and professional lives, but sometimes have views of the world that are quite rigid.  Graduate school seeks to develop ‘intellectual resilience’ by forcing students out of comfortable mental models, to try on different viewpoints and different ways of thinking.

So how does one become more ‘resilient?’

Aristotle said that if you want to become courageous, you need to do things that require courage.  He would say the same thing about resilience.  One must be willing to get out of one’s comfort-zone, and stretch one’s ability to adapt to a different environment, if one wants to develop greater resilience under stress or adversity.  In other words, one must subject oneself to the stress of not being comfortable.  In today’s culture, there is a temptation to find a comfortable niche, settle into a ‘comfort-zone’ and fight never to leave it.   We commit to career, marriage, family, community, mortgage – what one young friend of mine called  ‘the whole catastrophe.’    We seek stability, predictability, and… we get comfortable.

To stay nimble and resilient, we must occassionally force ourselves into endeavors and environments where we are not in complete control – and force ourselves to adapt.  We must be willing to at least consider, and accept with some equanimity,  the possibility that the things we count on can be taken away – our job, our money, lifestyle, health, friends, loved ones, our title and our reputation.   And we must be willing to ask ourselves that ‘existential’ question:  What is left, and who are we without those things?

To step out of our comfort-zone, we risk failure. Only by trying and failing, and trying again, do we develop the resilience to deal with things happening in a way that does not suit us.  Without learning to deal with failure, there can be no resilience.  Not getting what we want means to suffer, and, as the Greeks believed, wisdom only comes through suffering. 

In dealing with difficulties and discomfort, we frequently use something called ‘self talk’ as a psychological tool to help ourselves deal with  difficult circumstances.  Self-talk has been shown to actually change the way we think, behave, and perceive our environment. “I can do this.”  “This too shall pass.”  “This is my opportunity.” “This is God’s will (or this is my fate).  I must deal with this as best I can.” “I am strong.”   “I am confident.”  Prayer is a form of self talk.  A wise person once warned against asking God to give us the result we want, recommending instead that we pray for the strength (resilience) to deal with what He gives us.

My old friend Master Chief Will Guild suggested two essentials to resilience:  a sense of humor and love.  A sense of humor gets us outside of ourselves and our own ego-driven self absorption.  It can deflate the pressures of fear, anger, panic and resentment.  Love likewise gets us outside of the immediacy of our personal anxiety– loving others, in spite of their failings, and loving ourselves, in spite of our failings. Indeed, Aristotle saw self-love, or ‘proper pride’ as a fundamental virtue.   Maintaining our self-respect and personal sense of dignity, when all is going wrong, is essential to a resilient response to challenge and adversity.  Without self respect and ‘proper pride,’ collapse in the face of adversity is predictable.

SEAL training is very much about developing physical and mental resilience to respond to adversity in battle or special operations.  SEAL basic training creates a somewhat artificial adversity in a controlled training environment that serves as a crucible to develop the resilience needed to respond well to the real fear and adversity of combat.  Master Chief Guild used to teach SEAL trainees four key techniques for developing the resilience necessary to succeed at their baic training, and by extension, in combat. These are variations on what sports psychologists teach to professional athletes to help them perform their best under stress and pressure.

First, maintain a positive attitude – believe in yourself, keep your sense of humor, and use self talk to stay positive. 

Second, learn positive visualization. Visualize and believe in your own success, whatever that looks like. Positive visualization prepares us mentally for the challenge at hand, and for what it feels like to succeed. 

Third, practice segmentation.  Break the challenge you are facing into bite-size goals -– this event, this day. Set simple, achievable, short term goals. Don’t look beyond getting through the challenge of the moment, the event, or the day.

Fourth, learn arousal control.  Learn techniques to calm yourself when fear, panic and anxiety seem ready to overwhelm you.  These techniques include meditation, deep breathing, heart-rate management.  And again, self talk.

The best literature I’ve read on resilience is from the Roman Stoics and from Viktor Frankl in his classic short book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Vadm Stockdale wrote extensively about how Stoicism helped him survive seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.  Stoicism divides the world into two spheres – things we can control, and things we can’t.  The Stoic believes that we develop psychic resilience (and serenity) by learning to accept fate’s dictates, assuming full responsibility for our actions and attitudes, and developing the “wisdom to know the difference” between what we have to accept and what we can affect.  Viktor Frankl’s book is about the resilience that comes from having a purpose for living – a goal for one’s life.  This greater sense of purpose provides the strength and motivation to overcome life’s challenges.  Man’s Search for Meaning is about how Frankl found meaning in his suffering in a German concentration camp, and how his belief in his own life’s purpose was key to his survival.  Both Stockdale and Frankl would argue that a strong will to adapt, survive, and prevail is essential.

In conclusion, there is much that can be said and written about resilience.   It is key to success and survival in dynamic, stressful, and rapidly changing environments.  As with leadership and character, resilience seems to be at least partly innate – some people are naturally more resilient and adaptable than others, and some people seem to be born with a stronger will to succeed.  But as with character and leadership, resilience and strength of will can be improved through experience, training and education.   We can intentionally develop more flexible mental models, a broader perspective, and we can learn to imagine things as different than they are.     It can help a lot to have a resilient and inspiring teacher, leader, or mentor who believes in us. 

It is useful to remember that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection put a very high premium on resilience.

4 thoughts on “Resilience

  1. Bob,

    I enjoyed your article and think almost all of it is spot on. Your last comment was curious, though: “It is useful to remember that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection put a very high premium on resilience.” As a trained ecologist, I would narrow that to say, “some individuals’ behaviors within a species are the result of selective processes that favored resilience.” Some are not–most bird behavior is innate, not learned nor resilient. The female bluebird in my yard has been persistently attacking her reflection in our windows for weeks, testing our resilience. She is very rigid in her thinking, but this tends to work well for most bird species.

    On the other hand, your statement is true for plants which can only change their environments in subtle ways.

    Closer to home, many mammals literally shake off terrorizing events. This is the basis of the psychologist Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, the Innate Capacity to Overcome Overwhelming Experiences. Levine describes prey species like a deer shaking off the biochemicals of a fight or flight response after a chase: “This process begins with a very slight twitching or vibration in the upper part of the neck around the ears, and spreads down the chest , shoulders, and then finally down into the abdomen, pelvis and hind legs.” The deer moves back and forth between hyper-vigilance and relaxed alertness dozens of times per day, but does NOT display any sort of post-traumatic behaviors. I can remember coaches teaching me to “Shake it off.”

    Levine goes on to say, “Nature has endowed nearly all living creatures with very similar nervous system responses to the threat of danger. However, of all species, there is only one that routinely develops long-term traumatic aftereffects—the human.” Levine then describes how the neo-cortex, our rational brain, often overcomes instinctual methods of de-compressing or chooses inappropriate methods, so we do not embed recovery periods amongst our stressors or we abuse substances, for instance. Levine’s solution, far over-simplified here, is called somatic experiencing, a getting in touch with bodily sensations, emotion and meaning. This ties into Will Guild’s arousal control and Victor Frankl’s search for meaning.

    Connecting bodily sensation ( similar to arousal control) to meaning (a la Frankl) and emotion (positive attitude) fits well with what Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment calls “a well associated memory.” A well associated memory has five elements summarized by the mnemonic SIBAM. Picture a star with connecting lines among each pair of the following five things: Sensation )literally gut feelings, heart rate, breathing rate, queasiness, heat, weakness and so on), Image (visual, aural or other), Behavior, Affect, and Meaning. A memory with all of those elements is firmly in the past and does not elicit full (especially overwhelming) emotions, and thus is not traumatic. A traumatic memory by definition is dissociated. So a car backfires and a traumatized soldier might immediately experience the terror of combat and run for cover, without incorporating the meaning: “I am walking down Main Street in America.”

    Perhaps a key to resilience under immense stress is integrity—being whole—connecting all of the elements of SIBAM: “I heard an intensely loud sound and I see Main Street scenes (Image), I feel terror (Affect), I feel weak in the knees, dry in the mouth, with racing heart (Sensation), my emotion is not surprising given my background but I am NOT in danger (Meaning), so I am going to take several deep breaths, a sip of water, celebrate my current safety and carry on calmly (Behavior). The soldier would still flinch because reactions from the amygdala are milliseconds faster than those that have to go out to the neo-cortex and back. This, too, is adaptive from an evolutionary point of view. But the neo-cortex would choose better behavior in the coming seconds (arousal control) and minutes (“I’m going to relax for a few minutes before making that stressful phone call I was about to make.”)

    Thanks for getting me thinking, Bob!


  2. Pingback: Self-talk – Just Keep Going | Bob Schoultz's Corner

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