How can we cultivate resiliency? What is resiliency and is there a way to strengthen it? How does being resilient change our lives and the ways we cope?
Resilience is defined by the ability to bounce back after trauma, to cope with or to heal after a crisis. We think of bouncing back after health challenges such as cancer, heart surgery, joint replacements, serious infection, root cannals, as recuperating, but actually we never recuperate to be exactly as we were. We may have scars, we may have new body parts, we may have a new diet or restrictions on activities or we may be advised to increase physical activity. With an on-going illness such as diabetes, MS, CP, Lupus, Parkinson’s, we may think of resilience more in terms of attitude and determination. We practice gratitude for what we have, we choose to be disciplined about therapy and we ask for help and guidance in order to enhance our lives. We continue those activities we love as best we can. Resilience after pregnancy doesn’t mean we bounce back to the person we were, even if we get our figure back. Our hearts, emotions, minds, time, stamina, are all stretched, sometimes to the limit. We give up sleep, autonomy, our own comfort; even our friendships may change. But we live more fully, deeply, richly. So resilience is not only coping or bouncing back or healing but change, growth, and transformation.
Resilience after an emotional crisis is a sign of healthy moving forward. Whether it is a loss of a loved one or our relationship with someone, a way of life or a job, a home or homeland, a dream or our abilities, we mourn and let go. Sometimes this happens in cycles, a wave of rising and falling, as we are reminded of what has been altered, perhaps by an anniversary, a special place, children and grandchildren, a certain fragrance or song. When we are resilient, we are able to feel whatever it is we are feeling, then we move on to another feeling which may be relief, gratitude, love, or acceptance. We may find ways to express our feelings through art, journaling, a support group or a friend's listening ear; we may choose to weep, scream, pound our fists; or we may draw, pray, dance, walk by a lake. But we don’t stay stuck in the past. We remember we have other relationships, ideas, projects, homes, dreams and a life to fill. We may be more compassionate; we have gained insight, wisdom and new perspectives.
Michael was the love of my life. He made me laugh and he listened to me, he took me seriously. He was the first person I ever told, “I am an artist.” He healed past physical and psychological abuse with his affection. He was fun to travel with, always ready to explore, gregarious and enthusiastic. He also had wide mood swings. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed, some days he couldn’t sleep. He would call me from another state or even disappear across the border and not call at all. He would bring home people he had met at the bar at 3 am. He was also suicidal, telling me that he didn’t want to live daily, that life was too abrasive. With a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, we began to understand his suffering was not going to be cured by will alone.
We lived in Santa Fe, a Mecca for alternative healing, and I began to search for alternatives to prescription drugs. Earthwalks for Health was part of my search. Earthwalks connected us to indigenous artists and local sages for a week-end of learning about their healing practices. This is how I met Joan Logghe, beloved Santa Fe poet.
Joan was the founder of Write Action, a writing support group. I was writing poetry with another group at the time and encouraged Michael to attend Joan’s group. He found it satisfying to pour out his brutally honest thoughts on paper and not be judged. One week, he couldn’t attend because he was going out of town so I suggested that I could go and “keep his seat warm.” I loved it and we continued attending together weekly. We felt supported and accepted. It was energizing to hear common themes go around the circle and to be reassured that coping with Michael’s moods was not isolating us.
Joan had worked with Natalie Goldberg and used the same basic writing instruction that so many writing instructors and writing groups would come to rely on: spontaneous timed writing. However, Joan used poems as prompts.
Eventually Michael became more and more mentally unstable and one night he gathered up the courage to kill himself. I wept until my eyes were swollen shut but I was released from care-giving and uplifted by a burst of creative energy. To be able to pour out my grieving heart onto the page in the writing groups was cathartic. To feel that others cared was life-saving. From that point on, writing became not only a way of self-expression but a life raft that saved me from drowning. When emotions feel overwhelming, writing helps me to stay focused. Writing helps me to analyze and understand what I am feeling and to make a shift from emotion to clarity.
There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realization. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatizing challenges –Arthur Koestler
What I learned about resiliency is that it is important to name and claim your emotions. When we feel something, the amygdala part of the brain lights up. This is called our flight or fight center. Studies confirm changes take place in the brain when we feel or name our feelings. “When you put feelings into words,” wrote UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman in an article in UCLA Today ”you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”
In one MRI study, appropriately titled "Putting Feelings into Words" participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant's amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.
Suppressing emotions doesn't work and can backfire on you. Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so. While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused.
To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here's the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.
Therefore, the emotions move from the amagdala to the prefrontal cortex, which decides how to respond. Here is where writing about our experiences not only sends helpful chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin to the brain, but the emotions move from flight or fight to determine how best to respond.
- How do you feel when you wake up? At the end of the day? After work? After your evening activities? Is there a way to express what you are feeling?
- Are you sad/frustrated/angry/lonely/upset/frightened?
- Are you relaxed/filled/content/happy/satisfied/joyful/curious?
- Keep a feeling journal and note the ups and down through-out a day.
- Chose an emotion and write to it, telling it you let it go. Use Joy Harjo’s poem I Give You Back as a prompt:
I Give You Back
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don't know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
You are not my blood anymore.