Resilience: Keeping it Together When Things Fall Apart

By Posted in - Life on November 29th, 2015 Resilience

In the days following last month’s attacks in Paris, I wondered how I might prepare to work with the crisis-related stress and symptoms clients would probably bring to their sessions with me. But it quickly became obvious that there was no way to prepare and no protocol to be followed. Though there were common elements, each person I saw was affected differently by what had happened; and each, because of his or her unique history and way of being, had different qualities to summon and traps to avoid in order to deal with it. Using the tools of body attention, touch, and breathing, I went about trying to teach people to connect to and build on their own experience. What did they need to do or stop doing in order to remain as well as possible in these difficult times? This question led me to look at what it means to be resilient.


You don’t have to bounce

The Center for the Science of Human Resilience describes this quality as “the capacity and process of enduring, overcoming, and being strengthened by life stressors and experiences of adversity.” I like this definition. First, because it refers to a process, something that can be developed over time; and second, because it emphasizes not just getting through, but getting stronger.

Resilience is often thought of as something extraordinary – a trait found among a lucky minority, the tough, the heroic, the ones who “bounce back.” But a leading researcher in the field, George A. Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Colombia University, maintains that there’s no evidence to back up this assumption. In his studies of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, war survivors in Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, Bonanno concludes that resilience is the norm rather than the exception, and that “large numbers of people manage to endure the temporary upheaval of loss or potentially traumatic events remarkably well.”

So, chances are you are resilient. If you have doubts, it may be because you think there’s a right way to cope, that it should look like something specific. Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to bounce; you can be quiet and solid, fast and fluid, or bend like a tree in the wind. In fact, one of the keys to resilience is knowing your own coping style, the unique combination of qualities, actions, and resources that work for you.


Taking stock

When you lost your job, when your husband died of cancer, when the hurricane wiped out your house, when you were diagnosed with a debilitating disease, when you witnessed the shooting: what helped you not completely fall into a black pit of despair? Talking about it? Being alone? Never being alone? Sleeping a lot? Keeping busy? And if you did fall into a black pit of despair: what made it worse? What got you out? If you have had the good fortune to remain untouched by disruptive loss until now, think about a milder example: a disappointment, a time when things didn’t go your way.

“Ideally, we want to enhance resilience before trauma occurs by practicing how we would respond to a trauma,” says Rachel Yehuda, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “We don’t do that in our culture. We like to live our lives with the idea that nothing bad will happen and everything is going to be all right. Perhaps it would be more prudent to prepare for adversity.”

Thinking about past crises, what worked, and what didn’t, is like preparing your own personal, inner disaster shelter. It may not stop the disaster, but you’ll have a better chance of finding the flashlight.


Stopover in no-man’s land

A crisis puts you in an uncomfortable place. Try to own that place. However painful it may be, it’s part of you and your experience. Take the time to be angry, or to grieve, or to feel lost or very afraid. Some people jump right to the part where they need to fix something, feel better, or change the world. You stand a much better chance of succeeding at those things if you don’t ignore the disturbing aspect of what’s happened (or happening). Write it down. Talk about it if you need to. Formulate it clearly for yourself. And go beyond words and thoughts to what you feel, and how that feeling appears in your body. Make space for physical sensations; don’t dramatize them, just let them be. Face the fear and discomfort and inhabit the odd terrain that exists just after a crisis: this is the foundation on which your resilience is built.


“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”

A crisis is a glimpse of the darker side of life. To some degree, many of us live as though that side does not exist, and form our worldview accordingly. When, inevitably, we meet up with sickness and death, chaos and change, we’re not only responding to immediate events, but also to the fact that they challenge our beliefs. The world is not necessarily a safe place; not everyone is nice; not everyone wants to get along; good people do not necessarily live longer or more comfortably; life is not fair and may take sudden, unexpected turns.

In an eloquent article about resilience and human adaptability, Susan B. Fine, former Director of Therapeutic Activities at Cornell Medical Center, says that part of what informs resilience is “a belief that change, rather than stability, is normal in life and is an incentive for growth rather than a threat to security.” A fluid worldview is key to the ability to become stronger after a crisis – to not just survive, but thrive. This means fully facing the impermanence of everything we are and know, while maintaining hope, moving forward, continuing to breathe, to feel, to be attentive. Crises despoil us of our accepted narrative. This is their theft, and their gift.


Elaine Konopka

Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body, offering private sessions in body learning and pain management in Paris, France.


Further Reading

Susan B. Fine, “Resilience and Human Adaptability: Who Rises Above Adversity?” (American Journal of Occupational Therapy, June 1991, Vol. 45, 493-503)

George A. Bonanno, Rachel Yehuda, et al, “Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives” (European Journal of Psychotraumatology 2014, 5: 25338)