The Three Secrets of Resilience

Discover how to bounce back when you’re stressed

Watch Dr. Joan Borysenko’s live interview on GaiamTV.com Wednesday, June 20, at 7pm EST.

I was sitting in a CNN green room in front of a plate of stale bagels. A green room, in case you’ve never been in one, isn’t green at all. It’s just an ordinary waiting room populated by nervous people waiting to be guests on radio or TV shows. My first book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind had won me an interview on Sonya Live, an intelligent and lively talk show hosted by psychologist Dr. Sonya Friedman. Sitting right next to the bagels was her most recent book, Smart Cookies Don’t Crumble. I tried to take the witty title to heart, but the sound of the blood pounding in my ears was a distraction.

Let’s not crumble here, Joan, I thought. This interview is not a disaster-in-the-making, it’s an opportunity to get your message out. Somehow I picked my way out onto the set, circumnavigating the maze of snaking wires that don’t show up on your TV screen. Wiping beads of cold sweat from my face, I took a seat across from Sonya. She was composed, poised, and interested in my topic of mind-body medicine. And, of course, she was a pro who had been sitting in the catbird seat for years. I, on the other hand, was a rank amateur in a completely new situation … one with the potential to humiliate me from coast to coast. Worse still, my mother was watching.

Although I began the interview in a mild state of terror, by the end I’d managed to relax and come back home to myself. I not only survived. I even had a little fun. This bouncing back from stress is called resilience. It’s a graceful way of flowing through life, adapting to different circumstances with the ease of water assuming the shape of whatever container it’s poured into. Resilience is also a courageous affirmation of life in the face of more serious stresses like illness, divorce, job loss, financial setback, abuse, war, and terror.

Stress and Resilience

Let’s take a closer look at how stress and resilience work. Think of a rubber band. When it’s stretched, there’s stress on the rubber. But when you release the stress, it snaps back into shape. That’s the most basic kind of resilience. But if the rubber band is stretched for a long time, it begins to fatigue and is more likely to give out.

The same is true for the human body and mind. We give out when we’re stressed for a long time. Studies estimate that 75-90% of visits to the family doctor are for conditions caused or made worse by stress. These include headaches, digestive disturbances, infertility, memory loss, heart problems, allergies, high blood pressure, immune disorders, blood sugar control for diabetics, back pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and many other illnesses.

When an emergency calls for sudden stretching, most healthy people can rise to the challenge. Imagine that you’ve just tripped over the cord to your computer and it goes flying off the table. Without having to think about it, your body releases adrenalin and you have the sudden agility of an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox. With a little luck, you can even catch that laptop! Your sudden athletic prowess is due to an automatic overdrive system called the fight-or-flight response that kicks in for survival purposes. When the emergency is over, your “rubber band” relaxes and you return to a resting state of balance and ease.

But what if the stressor doesn’t go away? After all, life is much more complex than flying laptops with short trajectories. The fight-or-flight system evolved before chronic stresses like those of a company seeking a bailout in a struggling economy, families juggling mounting credit-card debt, or losing your pension just as you’re ready to retire. If you can’t release tension, then stress becomes chronic and you become more prone to illness, depression, anger, and anxiety. And instead of enjoying life as the creative adventure that resilient people perceive it to be, you get sidelined and stuck.

The Three Secrets of Resilience

Resilience, as you might expect, is big business for corporations. Numerous consulting companies teach businesses and their employees how to stress less and become more adaptable and creative in trying circumstances. Diane Coutu, a writer for the Harvard Business Review, summarized much of what they teach in an excellent article called “How Resilience Works,” published in 2002.

Coutu identified three traits of resilient thinking.

Secret #1: A resolute acceptance of reality

Resilient thinkers face difficult situations head on. Then they do whatever it takes to survive. For example, if your small business relies on supplying restaurants and people aren’t eating out, you’re in trouble. If you’re a construction worker and no new buildings are going up the writing is on the wall. The faster you’re able to see the truth and take a good, hard look at how you can modify your business to adjust to the situation the better you’ll do.

Rationalization (lots of people are behind on their mortgage, but the government will get us out of this soon), denial (things aren’t so bad, I’m bound to get some orders soon), and wishful thinking (I’ll just visualize myself living in a mansion and say some affirmations), are common coping strategies when things get tough. But putting your head in the sand won’t put dinner on the table. You can only get through chaotic times if you have a clear, realistic picture of what’s actually coming down. This is true both for businesses and for each of us personally.

Secret #2. A deep belief that life is meaningful

The most deeply held values that give meaning to our lives are often spiritual in nature. Feeling an authentic connection to a larger intelligence, whether you relate to it as a loving, forgiving God or a universal energy of compassion encourages what’s best in us. When times get tough, the tough often pray whether they’re in prison camps, at the bedside of loved ones, or in the unemployment line. Faith is highly correlated with resilience, providing a true north that orients us when we’re lost in a sea of change or desperation. 

The importance of finding a source of strength and guidance within and nurturing it through practices like meditation applies to everyone — the person of deep religious conviction, the agnostic, and the atheist alike. When the mind calms down it’s easier to relate to the world around us — seeing the beauty in a flower or appreciating the nuances of a smile. These deep connections— which are sacred — invite positive emotions like awe, joy, gratitude, and compassion that banish stress and cultivate inner strength.          

Secret #3: An uncanny ability to improvise

Resilient people are masters of innovation. Their fertile imaginations are expansive, and they attend to details that others might miss or consider irrelevant, using everything at their disposal to create the best outcome possible. Like a child who can use a kitchen pot as a drum, a doghouse, a hat, a boat, or a scoop for sand, resilient people use their imaginations to improvise solutions using whatever they can find.

Improvisation requires attentiveness and mindfulness, which is the ability to see your environment with unabashed curiosity. Concentration camp inmates who collected bits of string and wire wherever they found them were often the ones who survived. Fashioning a shoelace out of odds and ends could make the difference between freezing to death or living to see another day.

Living in poverty as a graduate student helped cultivate my own ability to improvise. That’s why challenge is a good thing. It’s an invitation to master new skills that aren’t needed in more comfortable circumstances. I supported my young son and student husband on a meager government stipend. When something broke, I had to fix it as my husband wasn’t handy and there was no spare cash to call the Maytag Man. Armed with a screwdriver, a few wrenches, a hammer, some wire, and the greatest invention of the civilized world … duct tape … I could have given Rube Goldberg a run for his money.

“Resilience is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world, that is deeply etched into a person’s mind and soul. Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air. Others do not.”  – Diane  Coutu



Excepted from the book It’s Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change by Joan Borysenko, Hay House, 2009. Republished with permission from Hay House.

Watch Dr. Borysenko’s live interview on GaiamTV.com Wednesday, June 20, at 7pm EST.

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