Can you lose resilience? And how to build it back
Today we look at the recent buzzword - resilience. Many people are talking about using it to get through these unprecedented times, but is resilience something you can lose if you’ve been through too many rough patches? If yes, then how can you nurture it again with tried and tested methods? Find out.
A while back, I attended an online session and while it did what it promised, I felt it was only touching the surface of this ocean called resilience. But what is resilience to begin with? Some words that come to mind are the ability to bounce back, and the ability to recover quickly from difficult situations. Think of it like those inflatable toys that you could punch and it would bounce right back. It was usually a creepy-looking clown and was quite popular with my generation.
What resilience does not mean is not feeling discomfort. It isn’t the same as being pain-free, and feeling happy all the time. It means you still feel discomfort, but you’re able to get through it without feeling like you can’t.
It reminds me of a popular quote - when the going gets tough, the tough get going. You know it’s tough, you know it’s going to be difficult, but you keep moving forward because somewhere you know you’ll recover.
The good news is that resilience can be learned. It is a neuroplastic process, which basically means you can teach your brain a new way of thinking. Imagine this - you have an empty canvas in front of you, you reach for black paint and spread it across the canvas. You do the same the next day, and the day after and repeat it until it becomes intuitive for you to paint the empty canvas with only black paint.
One day, you decide to try something different reach for gold. As you see it across the canvas, it feels strange, it feels different but as the days wear on, it becomes more comfortable. Perhaps you’ve also begun to add the green, the blue, the yellow. And even though the black paint is there in your palette, you’ve learned to use all the colours to brighten your canvas.
That canvas is like your brain. The various colours represent your resilience. You can teach yourself to reach for the colours that build this quality. But can that colourful paint wear out over time? What if you are someone who has overcome adversity time and and time again - can you use up your supply of resilience?
In the session I attended, I asked the same thing. The answer is yes.
Resilience can decline after repeated and elongated exposure to extremely stressful situations, trauma, or after a sudden and significant event in our lives. We may have trouble sleeping, are easily angered, become isolated or cling on more, and feel a lack of hope among many other things.
And this reduced resilience can actually be seen in our brains!
Richard Davidson is a distinguished professor in the world of psychology, a Harvard and New York university graduate, the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, and has done extensive research on mediation with the Dalai Lama.
In 2012, he found that the more white matter there is between our brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part that controls thoughts and actions) and amygdala (the part that controls the fight-or-flight response), the more resilient we are. The opposite is also true, so the less the white matter, the less the resilience.
So, now we know that resilience can be learned, and it can also decrease if you’ve taken a lot of emotional hits. But if you’re someone who’s taken those jabs, how can you channel your inner Rocky Balboa and re-build your resilience?
First, put on the Rocky theme song and then follow these 3 tips:
1) Take a cold shower
This was something that the speaker in my session suggested. In order to gently build back our resilience, we need to factor moments in our day to day that discomfort us, but not overwhelm. Find other mini-challenges that gently nudge you for a short period of time to feel like you are out of your comfort zone. This could even be learning a new language, waking up earlier to take a 10 minute walk in the park, or making small-talk with the guy at subway if you’re shy. It doesn’t have to be a cold shower, especially if it’s not medically recommended for you, but find something that you can safely do which will still present a tiny challenge. And do this regularly. Be gentle with yourself if it doesn’t go as you want it to. The key is consistency, not perfection.
2) List the good in the bad
Another science-based practice is everyday, for 3 weeks, think about an upsetting incident and list 3 good things that have resulted from that. For example, I recall a period of time in school when I was made fun of for not speaking English, since it’s my third language. The 3 good things from that for me are (1) Eventually, it hardened my determination to learn the language, (2) it made me find courage to speak out because I could finally find the right words, and (3) knowing English has given me the privilege of having your time today and being able to share ways that I hope you find helpful. Recall an incident, write 3 good things that came from it and do this everyday for 3 weeks - carry on if you want.
I think I sensed some people rolling their eyes at this moment - ah gosh, meditation again! Haha.. trust me on this one. There are various kinds of meditation and it can be overwhelming or confusing to not know where to start. In spite of being born into a culture where this is almost in our DNA, even I took to mediation late. And now that I do it, I wonder why I took so long.
This seemingly simple activity has been proven to have various physical and psychological benefits on our mind and body. They’ve done studies with college students, marines, to convicts - all show positive results of calm and an increased sense of mental well-being, and of course resilience. Why? Because consistent meditation helps us re-frame our thoughts in a manner that is healthier.
If you’re just starting out meditation, start small and find the right guidance. Join classes near your home, or use any of the free apps. A personal note from me to you - many people will ask you to empty your mind - no. This will never happen. Your focus should not be to empty your mind in the beginning, it should be to sit.
Day in, day out, to simply show up to meditate and sit. The key for this is consistency - in fact for all of these 3 tips! Just because you don’t see a result on day one, doesn’t mean you won’t see it 3 weeks down the line.
So remember, resilience doesn’t mean there is no pain - it just means you no longer doubt your ability to get through it. Yes, you can also lose your resilience over time, but there are ways to nurture it back -pick safe, little challenges (cold shower, learn something new), list 3 good things resulting from tough incidents, and make it a habit to sit so you can meditate.
Do these things regularly, and you can train your brain to create a healthier emotional space for yourself. You can always add new colours to your canvas and paint a wonderful picture.