Man's hand on the heart

“I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
Louisa May Alcott

I was walking from my parked car to my office one morning, deep in a worrisome thought and not paying enough attention to where I was walking. Suddenly, I mindlessly stepped into a sidewalk of freshly laid wet cement—up to my ankles. And the inner reactions just started cascading one after the other: “How careless! Look what you’ve done. You’ll be late to work; you’ll probably lose your first client; you’ll have less income today.” I was just about to fall into an all too familiar rabbit hole of berating myself for always being so stupid when another inner voice piped up: “Wait a minute!  So I was pre-occupied! I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being stupid.”

I stood there in the cement, noticing all these different reactions rushing through me, and realised that I did have a choice about how I was going to handle this. I picked up my feet and stepped onto dry land as construction workers headed over to help me. As I picked my shoes out of the cement, I tried a little bit of compassion for myself. “Shit happens. I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because they weren’t paying attention. And this probably isn’t the only mistake I’m going to make today. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed in front of these guys, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me except that I just wasn’t paying attention.”

I took a couple of deep breaths, gave myself a quick little hug, and walked over to a faucet conveniently sticking out of a nearby apartment building to wash off my shoes and feet. As I began to have some hope that I might even save my shoes [I did!], I noticed also some pride emerging that I was coping—with the outer event and with my inner reactions to it—as well as I was.

By the time one of the construction workers gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes and feet, it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens. Life is happening this way to me in this moment. But shift happens, too.” I could open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective had allowed me to cope resiliently right there, right then. The experience also taught me, right there, right then, that shifting perspectives and responding resiliently is possible in any moment, any moment at all.

The capacity to cope

It’s the capacity to shift gears, to move from automatic reactivity to more flexible responsiveness, that is the hallmark of resilience.

Resilience is the capacity to cope with the disappointments, difficulties, and disasters in life with flexibility, bouncing back from life’s setbacks with skill and adaptability, even grace. We are all called upon, every day, to cope with disruptive, unwanted changes in our lives—losing our wallet and car keys, discovering mould in the bathroom, leaving our laptop on the plane, dealing with the washing machine going on the fritz or the car needing a new transmission.

Occasionally, we have to respond with grace to greater troubles and tragedies: infertility or infidelity, a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, losing a job, placing an aging parent in a nursing home—things we never asked for, things we deeply, deeply do not want. Resilience is what allows us to cope with the pain and suffering inherent in the human condition by staying open to our experience and skilfully shifting gears.

Capacities of resilience are innate in the brain, hard-wired in by evolution. Some are unconscious and automatic—we don’t have to ‘learn’ the survival responses of fight-flight-freeze in the lower brain. They happen automatically without any need for conscious choice or processing. Other coping strategies are learned from interactions with other people, especially early on in life. We learn to withdraw in the face of criticism; we learn to walk out the door in tight-lipped anger when we feel insulted. These strategies can also operate unconsciously; 80 per cent of the time they do. But they can be brought to conscious awareness and rewired to become more resilient.

It’s the capacity to shift gears, to move from automatic reactivity to more flexible responsiveness, that is the hallmark of resilience

» Learning to be resilient

Human brain
Neurons that fire together, wire together

Because of the brain’s neuroplasticity—its lifelong capacity to grow new neurons and create new neural structure—we can also learn new more resilient coping strategies and rewire old, less adaptive ones, when we know how.

Modern brain science is illuminating how the brain ‘learns’ its patterns of response to life events in the first place so that we can learn to change them now. Any experience, any experience at all, positive or negative, causes neurons in the brain to fire. Repeated experiences will cause repeated neural firings. “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” strengthening the connections between them, and creating new neural pathways, even new neural circuitry.

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A version of this was first published in the January 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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