Whether it is grief, addiction, a broken relationship, debilitating anxiety, or depression, there are parts of us that hurt so bad sometimes we do not know how we will get through another day. The ability to persevere through unimaginable challenges and trauma is resilience.
Resilience: Many of us walk through life feeling overwhelmed. We begin to cultivate resilience by working to feel calm and safe in our bodies. Often, in therapy, we begin this by engaging the vagus nerve through diaphragmic breathing. This slows our heart rate and the release of adrenaline into our nervous system when we are frightened, stressed, overwhelmed, or experiencing any of the symptoms of flight or fight. By slowing down our autonomic nervous system in this way, we can begin to engage our parasympathetic nervous system. When in the presence of an emotionally safe person who listens and understands our story, perspective, and feelings, we come down from flight or fight nervous state reactions and engage with the world in a new and calmer state. We then learn coping strategies to manage living in the world in a variety of contexts that previously felt overwhelming.
Arielle Schwartz defines resilience as an ability to adapt to challenging, adverse, or traumatic life events. Developing this ability to adapt and be resilient requires intentionality. As we start to take the steps toward healing, we begin to hope that growth is possible. It is an iterative process; the positive change accumulates.
After learning how to feel calm and secure in our own bodies, we are better able to integrate our other sources of strength that together form resilience. The first source of strength I will highlight is faith.
Our belief that God is with us through this pain, strengthening us and comforting us, helps carry us through these difficult times. David states in the famous Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” In our suffering, God is with us. We pray, we meditate, and we seek the presence of God in the midst of our pain. We demonstrate spiritual resilience.
God shows his love to us by placing people into our lives to abide with us through these hard times. Kindness shown to us amidst suffering can bring incredible strength to our spirit.
Another source of strength that we can grow is our mental game. One of the most prominent researchers on resilience is Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University. She developed the term “growth mindset.” A person with a growth mindset believes that their abilities are not fixed, not set in stone. Our abilities can be grown and developed by incorporating better approaches and strategies. For instance, in educational settings, sometimes children think they are unintelligent because they have earned low grades. Sadly, this perspective might stick with them for years. Rather than a consequence of a lack of innate intelligence, often the grades earned were due to other factors, like not having a quiet, set place to study and do homework. A fixed mindset says, “I’m just not smart; I give up.” A growth mindset says, “I am smart; I just need to try something different.” A growth mindset contributes to resilience as we learn to adapt our approach to deal with challenges. Using a growth mindset to deal with hardships is the mental part of resilience.
The third source of strength I will highlight is the physical aspect. Somatic (body-based) movement helps release stress and calm our nervous system. Whether it is playing a musical instrument, dancing, exercising, or painting, creative somatic expression helps calm our nervous system and release positive feelings (due to endorphins and dopamine) into our bodies that help us feel good, empowering us to face our challenges with strength. Sleeping well and eating well help heal and fuel our bodies, decreasing our stress and increasing our strength.
The final source of strength is trauma treatment. Our brain, body, emotions, thoughts, and spirit are all connected. Trauma experienced throughout our lives is stored in the brain and throughout the body. Untreated trauma can cause deep emotional stress that research has shown contributes to many types of health issues. Using evidence-based trauma treatment methods alongside verbal processing, trauma in the body and brain can be worked through, healed, and learned from. Working through trauma and finding healing and freedom can be an incredible source of strength.
Wendy Jacobsen is licensed as an LMFT in Alabama and California. She has also worked extensively with couples and in community mental health with people of all ages. She is a Level 1 trained PACT therapist. Wendy’s therapeutic approach is trauma-informed, humanistic, and multicultural. Therapeutic modalities she utilizes are trauma-informed, evidence-based and incorporated as determined by the client’s needs. These include Trauma-Focused CBT, psychobiological approach to couples therapy (PACT), somatic mindfulness, and attachment-based therapy.