I have often asked myself the question how it is possible that some people can overcome desperate and extremely traumatic life situations without their mental health being significantly affected, and on the other hand, how many people, who have from the outside looking in led a very sheltered life, sadly end up not being able to deal with life, literally.
I recently had a conversation with a family member, let’s call her Liz, who was born towards the end of the second world war. She grew up in poverty witnessing many traumatising events, most of which I probably don’t even know about. We spoke about another family member, for ease of reading let’s call her Sue, who is in her early forties and who at the time was doing a residential 5-week therapy specialised for mothers with their children, as she is suffering from depression. Liz could not get her head around why Sue would possibly need professional help, as in her view she had not had to endure any obvious hardship in her life. She kept referring back to herself, claiming that nowadays people need therapy for everything, what about her own generation, all the trauma and poverty they had to endure as children and still they didn’t have to do any therapy. Leaving Liz’s obvious ignorance about the reality of our mental health crisis aside, she did make me think about the fact, that people are all so very different in the way they are able to face and deal with difficult situations and emotional stress. It seems to me, that it is resilience, which determines how we overcome stressful occurrences and periods in our lives. But what is it that makes us resilient and if we are lacking resilience, why is this so and is it possible to foster it?
First of all, what is resilience?
The American Psychological Association gives the following description on their website:
“Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.
Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.
Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”
So, if resilience isn’t a genetic trait or pre-disposition, what influences and supports the development of resilience?
I personally believe from my own experience as well as a lot of reading in this area, that the key to our resilience lies in our childhood and factors such as early traumatic experiences and how they were dealt with, parenting styles, individual personality traits, faith, supportive and positive relationships or the lack thereof, the fostering of independence, controlled risk taking and personal interests among others, all play a part in the formation of our personal resilience. Very simply, resilience seems to be a support network made up from both internal and external factors, which helps us overcome adversity. Of course I acknowledge that this is a very simplistic explanation.
One of the main aspects that comes up again and again in many scientific research results, is that good parenting is a crucial factor in building a child’s resilience. Children take their lead from their parents or other important primary caregivers and will mimic their reaction to adversity. As I wrote in an article about dealing with anxiety in children before, it is our reaction as parents, that children will take their cue from. I know very well how difficult this can be at times but the most important thing we can do in a stressful situation is stay as calm and reassuring as possible. Young children have not developed a high degree of self-regulation yet, which is why they rely on our example in order to know what to do and how to react.
When we humans experience stress, our bodies and brains react in certain ways to protect us and enable us to react quickly, to fight or flee:
- Our breath becomes very fast and short in order to preserve oxygen that can be sent to our muscles instead, for us to be able to run or fight.
*We might feel out of breath, blood rushes to our face and it might feel hot.
- “Energy” is sent to our arms and legs in case we have to flee or fight.
*Our limbs might feel tense or even numb and tingly.
- Our heart starts to beat faster in order to get oxygen to everywhere in our bodies fast.
*We feel our hearts racing, sometimes beating so hard we can feel it in our throats.
- Our body starts to cool itself down in order for us not to overheat while running for our lives or fighting a dangerous attacker.
*We start to sweat.
- In order to save energy our digestive system shuts down temporarily.
*We might feel the urge to run to the loo or we have a sore tummy.
- As in our modern life stress often is a “false alarm” and we don’t run or fight, oxygen accumulates and the carbon dioxide levels in our bodies drop.
*We might feel dizzy or confused.
- The stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline are released.
All of these reactions are initiated by the amygdala in our brain, which is responsible for instinctive responses. This is very helpful and even lifesaving in the short term, but if stress levels are high for a longer period of time, all these stress responses stay switched on, which can have many negative effects on our bodies and brains. One of these negative effects is that the prefrontal cortex may temporarily shut down. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brains responsible for problem solving, self-regulation and attention for example, so if we are not able to access this part of our brains, our decision making and self-regulating ability is highly impaired. Also, cortisol is neuro-toxic, which means that it can damage the neurons and synapses in our brains. When connections in our brains are interrupted, the integration of our brain (how the different areas of our brain work together as one to process information and make our responses effective) is disrupted and we’re unable to function properly. From a neurological point of view resilience is traced back to our brain’s capacity to calm down the amygdala and access the prefrontal cortex, which basically means the ability to calm ourselves down and assess a situation rationally enabling good decision making. For this to happen we need a good integration of the brain and thankfully it is possible to “repair” any damage through certain exercises such as mindfulness meditation for example.
Mindfulness meditation is scientifically proven to aid the growth of neurons and to support the re-connection of neural pathways. This process is called neuroplasticity and it is now known, that our brains have the capacity to grow new neurons and synaptic connections until the day we die. In relation to resilience this means that it is possible to build resilience at any stage of our lives, which is very reassuring…there is hope for us all!!
Some additional factors, which can support and build resilience, especially in children are:
- Building and promoting positive relationships.
- Supporting emotional education.
- Spending time outdoors and promoting activities in nature.
- Encouraging independent problem-solving and controlled risk taking.
- Reducing screen-time.
- Teaching to re-frame challenges, ie. seeing something from a different viewpoint.
- Encouraging a healthy life-style including a healthy diet, exercise, enough sleep and a positive attitude.
- Supporting personal interests and creative talent.
- Building a positive self-image.
- Simplifying children’s lives and reducing material clutter and over-filled schedules.
- Encouraging phases of “quiet time”.
- Lots and lots of love and cuddles!!! Xxx
Find more positive approaches based on the principles of mindfulness in my book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution” either directly from the shop on this website or on Amazon: