Build Resilience, Naturally
Hemingway borrowed from biology to describe the gift of resilience enjoyed by some. He guides us to a source of information and inspiration as we work to find resilience in our own lives.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” (Ernest Hemingway)
In the first article on this topic, we discussed the importance of resilience, and surfaced the scary reality that not everybody has it in equal measure. This may contribute to the continuum of success we observe in human populations. Some have it in abundance and keep bouncing back, all the way up the ladder. Others seem to wither at the first obstacle.
Having used a physical analogy, let’s follow Hemingway into Nature to learn how we can be more resilient.
First, let’s understand that resilience itself is a behavior, not an attribute. It’s the outcome of a number of mindsets. Like the symptoms of a disease, we’re better off understanding the underlying cause. You can’t work on your resilience. You can’t say to someone, “be more resilient”. It’s not something you can just turn on. Instead, we need to look behind the scenes to understand what drives resilience. Then we can find things to work on.
Our psyches are fundamentally biologic in origin and design. They’re hard to study directly, so using the construct of our physical body may be helpful (as it was for Hemingway). In our bodies, we have the opposing forces of degeneration and rejuvenation going on all the time. This is no different in our mental and emotional domains.
The default is degeneration. If we do nothing else, life breaks us down.
So, the first learning is that we must actively drive mental and emotional rejuvenation if we want to be resilient. Stephen Covey calls this “sharpening the sword”.
Exercise, caloric balance and sleep drive physical rejuvenation at the cellular, chemical and even genetic level. What drives psychic rejuvenation and how can you foster resilience?
Feed the army of good. Just as your physical body has two armies at work: one destroying, and one building, so too your mental and emotional being. We must find and feed the mental and emotional “builders” within. Four mindsets favor resilience.
- A neutral emotional response to setback enables rapid recovery. You won’t often find me recommending that you disengage emotionally. Most of the time I advocate (strongly) for the value of emotional engagement. It has tangible physical benefits that drive health and happiness. But, think about the way that your body copes with injury. If your immune and inflammatory cells went into mourning when you sustain a minor laceration, complaining that life was miserable and unfair, you may never heal. Instead, without hesitation, your body sends in the cells of rejuvenation to repair and heal your injured tissue. We should emulate this in our lives. Setbacks are just that. Life is full of them. Get over them fast and heal. Like your bones, your mind will remodel to cope with the new stress or circumstances that could otherwise derail you.
- Second, embrace your vulnerability. Some animals have surrounded themselves with hard exoskeletons for protection. Not humans. We have chosen to enjoy the immense benefits of a soft and delicate exterior. Similarly, we’re not always right in our attitudes and planning. Things go wrong. That’s ok. Be vulnerable. Mistakes and setbacks are loaded with learning. Embrace both, and bounce back stronger, like bone.
- Yield to forces greater than your own, again, like bone. This seems strange advice in an article about success and determination. But there are forces in life that are bigger than we are. This may differ over time, and certainly differs between the various facets of our mental and emotional repertoire. I call this the art of situational yield. As we get older, our bones become harder. This may seem like an advantage. It is actually a disadvantage when we encounter trauma. Hard bones are more brittle. Instead of yielding to the stress, they fracture. While embracing an overall determination and unwillingness to give up, recognize where victory is critical, and where yielding protects you and preserves your strength for more important matters.
- Your psyche thrives on positive thoughts. Feed it. Your cerebral cortex is under your voluntary control, and has the ability to overrule both your emotional and primitive reptilian brain. Actively engage in the proliferation of positive thoughts. Social scientists recognize that we learn helplessness. There are circumstances that render us impotent. In the third article in this series, we will look at how to recognize, avoid and even immunize yourself against this destructive tendency.
Finally, sleep is the physical mode in which mental and emotional rejuvenation occurs. Many ambitious people believe that they can repair and refuel on the go. Not true. We are built to recover while we sleep, and sleep debt reduces your resilience significantly. While you sleep, you feed and nourish the army of good.
Build an external environment that favors resilience.
Recoil requires soft landings and energy. Loving friends and family help with both. There is strong evidence that we have become more fragile, less resilient as we have advanced socially towards more insular, independent lives. Whereas autonomy is empowering, we need to actively maintain those close relationships that support and stimulate mental and emotional recoil.
Positivity is mirrored. Surround yourself with people that understand the value of resilience; friends and colleagues that appreciate the value of making mistakes, and the power of creativity that gets you into trouble in the first place. Surround yourself with people that give you energy rather than sucking your energy. Incidentally, the best way to ensure this is to be that person, so make sure you give more energy than you consume.
It is no accident that the two drivers of emotional health (social engagement and a life of purpose) both involve relationships beyond ourselves. This is where we find strength, beauty and resilience.
We are the architects of both our internal and external environments. Smart design in both arenas enables resilience, which drives success.
In Greek mythology, a magical creature symbolizes human resilience. The Phoenix is an eternal bird that dies in a bright flash of flames, only to be reborn out of the ashes. May the recurrent rejuvenation of this magical creature inspire you towards the physical, mental and emotional resilience required to attain the abundant prosperity you deserve in all facets of your life.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced his own health and happiness crisis. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of trauma, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create distress, and prevent us from reaching our full innate potential.