What is resilience? I think of a basketball that bounces on the court and keeps bouncing back up because it is resilient. Unless a hole causes the air to leak out, it doesn’t become deflated and stop bouncing. Every time it’s pushed, dunked, slammed, bounced, it comes back up. The harder you throw it down, the higher it bounces up.
In a Psychology Today article, “What Is Resilience?” Jennice Vilhauer, the Director of Emory University’s Adult Outpatient Psychotherapy Program, evaluates what it means to be resilient:
“Adversity is a fact of life. Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise.”
Paul’s Next-Level Resilience
The apostle Paul is one of my favorite Bible characters because of his indefatigable resilience. His perspective is unmatched. He wrote to people who rejected his authority as an apostle but accepted the spiritual directives of false apostles and teachers. He wrote to remind the church of who he is and what he had endured that truly qualifies him as a real Apostle of Jesus Christ:
“Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 (NIV)
Having endured only one of these traumatic experiences, the average person would have found another path. They would have left this line of work, retired, called it quits. And guess what? No one would have called them a coward. But Paul wears suffering as a badge of honor. He uses his experiences as validation of his calling.
But he refused to quit because he was resilient.
The Cost of Stress, Trauma, and Strain
They say that challenges in life can build resilience, but sustained adversity can break you. Difficulties can make you strong, but sustained pain can destroy you. That’s why we say if “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
You are building resilient muscles. The cycle, reps if you will, of stress and release is like body-building. But, just as we don’t work the same muscles every day but intentionally give them time to recover, we must find ways to build rest and release into our stressful, painful existence.
We’ve learned a lot about resilience in the past two decades.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) (Kaiser Permanente 1995-1997) shed light on what happens to the human brain following a traumatic experience, including the distinct phenomenon of resilience after those experiences.
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events in childhood. For example, a young person may experience violence, abuse, neglect, or witness violence in the home or community. They may have experienced having a family member attempt or die by suicide. For some, the environment may undermine any sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as what happens when growing up in a household with substance use problems or mental health problems. Parental separation or absences may also cause household instability.
These ACEs create conditions linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adulthood. Further, ACEs can negatively impact education, job opportunities, earning potential, and life expectancy. Many other traumatic experiences could affect health and wellbeing.
How big is the problem?
People who have experienced ACEs are relatively common. About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported having experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 said they had experienced four or more types of ACEs. Some children are at greater risk than others. Women and several racial/ethnic minority groups were at greater risk for having experienced four or more types of ACEs.
Researchers associate ACEs with other social determinants of health, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, and experiencing food insecurity, which can all cause toxic stress. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect attention, decision-making, learning, and response to stress. Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.
How, though, can one possibly rise above such a trial? Several factors emerge, including positivity and optimism, effective emotional and thought management, and a perspective that can see “failure as a form of helpful feedback.”
“Resilience is not some magical quality; it takes real mental work to transcend hardship. But even after misfortune, resilient people can change course and move toward achieving their goals. There’s growing evidence that the elements of resilience can be cultivated.”
How does one do this?
You Can Create This
In the study of neuroplasticity, they find that you can retrain your brain. You can reshape the neurons in your brain by practice, so practice. Practice breathing. Practice meditation. Practice spirituality, such as prayer. Practice self-talk. Also, by feeding your brain differently altering what you listen to, watch, have on repeat, you can strengthen your mind and build resilience.
It bears repeating: resilience can be cultivated. This means that a person with a negative attitude can develop a positive attitude. A pessimist can become optimistic. A person with frazzled emotions can harness their energy and regulate their emotions. This is good news! So, the way it is is not the way it has to be.
Change can take place, but change does not take place without intentionality. The law of the harvest is true. We reap what we sow. The farmer’s field, if left uncultivated, will produce weeds. That’s the natural human instinct. The uncultivated, untrained, undirected mind will inevitably produce weeds. The research shows that the average human mind is drawn to the negative. We see the negative much more quickly and efficiently than we do the positive. We are prone to dwelling on the negative, repeating the negative, and exaggerating it much more than the positive.
In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman focus on a single underestimated resource.
[a] single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.
Positive words like “peace” and “love” can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action and build resiliency.
Conversely, hostile language can disrupt specific genes that play a crucial part in producing neurochemicals that protect us from stress. Humans are hardwired to worry—part of our primal brains protecting us from threats to our survival—so our thoughts naturally go there first. However, a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain) and release dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupt the functioning of our brains, especially about logic reason, and language.
According to the authors, using the right words can transform our reality:
“By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain.”
I am powerful
I am loving
I am kind
I and graceful
I am confident
I am positive
I am peaceful
I and hopeful
I am more than a conqueror
I am capable
What words are you allowing to impact your mindset?