Build Your Resilience in 6 Steps


In recent posts, I’ve talked mostly about ReBalancer, the force that kicks in when our default stabilizer, Balancer, gets thrown out of whack by the UnBalancer. ReBalancer handles out-of-the ordinary stresses, but ReBalancer alone can’t keep us on an even keel. For that, we need Balancer to be healthy and strong.

Balancer doesn’t ask us for much. Much like our immune systems, it chugs along on autopilot, making minor course corrections when needed. Only when it encounters something it can’t handle does it call on ReBalancer to provide assistance.

This Balancer/ReBalancer tag team works very well most of the time. But if Balancer is weakened through too much stress for too long, or was never very robust to begin with, we become much more vulnerable to UnBalancer. Then if Balancer gets overwhelmed by a sudden stressor (an accident, a death, a financial crisis, etc.), it may crash before ReBalancer can take over. Recovery from such crashes can take a long time, and if the crash is sufficiently severe, the damage can be permanent.

It’s always helpful to teach ReBalancer new tricks, such as Mini Self-Care, The Experiment, and other techniques described in earlier posts. But it’s equally important to deliberately strengthen Balancer itself. Just as we can help our immune systems to better handle assaults to our bodies, we can better equip Balancer for handling whatever UnBalancer throws our way.

To do that, we need to build Resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back. In a physical object, it is elasticity, the tendency of an object to return to its original shape after it’s been deformed. In an ecosystem, it is the environment’s capacity to rebuild itself. In a person, it’s the ability to recover from shocks to our systems. Without sufficient resilience, we are overcome by obstacles in our path. With it, nothing can keep us down.

Resilience in materials is intrinsic, but in people it’s a dynamic quality. Like a muscle, resilience can be damaged by too much stress or can atrophy if neglected. But it also gets stronger with exercise.

Human resilience has two aspects: physical and psychological. Both are partly determined by nature, partly by nurture. Just as some people are born with greater resistance to disease, some of us show signs of greater psychological resilience even at very early ages. But the larger share of resilience is the product of our own efforts to build and maintain it.

In the Balancer/ReBalancer/UnBalancer framework, resilience is the property of Balancer that allows it to spontaneously recover from the negative effects of UnBalancer. Rather than calling in the troops for reinforcement, a resilient Balancer takes a momentary hit, adjusts to the impact, and bounces back, carrying us along with it.

When I was young, I was fascinated by the properties of natural and man-made materials. I still remember experimenting with the bounciness – the resilience – of round objects. I studied tennis balls, rubber balls, badminton balls, golf balls, glass marbles, ball bearings, always looking for something that could bounce higher than the last thing I tried. I ended this quest when I found, in the toy section of our local pharmacy, the Super Ball.

Super Balls, invented in 1964 by chemist Norman Stingly, are made from an amazingly elastic synthetic rubber called Zectron. When dropped, a Super Ball bounces nearly to the height from which it fell. When thrown down hard, it can easily bounce over a house.

In my therapy practice, I see many people whose resilience has been beaten down or in whom it was never sufficiently developed. They’re like worn-out tennis balls.

After we deal with the problems that brought them into therapy, much of our work together involves creating a more resilient approach to life, so they can transition from worn-out tennis ball to Super Ball.

These are the six main factors I’ve found that can build psychological resilience and keep Balancer on track:

  1. Creating a resilience-friendly environment
  2. Adopting growth-oriented attitude and a positive bias
  3. Bolstering support from individuals and systems
  4. Increasing emotional adaptability
  5. Practicing balance-enhancing activities
  6. Monitoring for signs of imbalance

1. Create a Resilience-Friendly Environment.

Stress is one of the most insidious challenges to building resilience. It can be a constant strain on Balancer, gradually wearing down its efficacy and slowing its response time.

Basic ways to reduce stress often recommended by therapists include changing your emotional relationship to the stressor and practicing stress reduction techniques such as meditation or coloring. But the most effective method is often to remove or change the stressor itself.

Begin resilience-building by evaluating your environment – your home, your car, your job, your relationships. Focus specifically on ways to reduce unnecessary stress. Jobs, schedules, or aspects of your home, neighborhood, relationships, or weekly routines that interfere with living a peaceful life are all candidates for stress-reducing changes.

Removable stressors can range from simple things, such as sharpening dull kitchen knives, creating a system so you don’t misplace your keys, or replacing a cell phone that keeps losing its charge, to more challenging ones like ending a toxic relationship or transitioning from the wrong job. Regardless of the source, though, the first question to ask yourself is, “Can this change?” and if the answer is “yes,” change it!

I encountered a striking example of the efficiency and effectiveness of removing the stressor several years ago. I was working with a bright, affable 12-year-old boy who, despite an obvious interest in learning, was always getting suspended from school. When I asked him about the events that led to his suspensions, I noticed that he always smiled when he talked about getting his teachers angry. I visited his home and discovered that he had an angry and imposing stepfather. Provoking his teachers was my young client’s way of dealing with his resentment toward his stepfather – he could provoke his teachers and they wouldn’t hit him, but his stepfather might.

A typical intervention in cases like this is family therapy, so with the family’s permission I returned a week later. My client lived in a house adjacent to his mother’s business, and there was a constant interchange between the two locations, affecting all members of the family in some way. During the session, I asked each family member to imagine what their lives would be like if they woke up the next day and all their problems were solved. The first thing each one said – even the five-year-old – was that they’d be living somewhere else. A month later, they moved, and very soon afterward, my 12-year-old client stopped acting out in school.

A related aspect of creating a safe, resilience-friendly environment involves “cat hairs.” When you find yourself overreacting to a comment, a tone of voice, or a situation, or you inexplicably feel sad, angry, jealous, or some other difficult emotion, you might have a problem with cat hairs.

Of course I don’t mean literal cat hairs.

The term “cat hair,” in this context, comes from an experiment with lab rats. Researchers wanted to see if rats are genetically programmed to fear cats. They placed several rat pups who had been exposed only to people and other rats – never to a cat – in a cage and monitored their playfulness for several days. The rats played together freely until the researchers took the smallest cat stimulus they could think of, a single cat hair, and dropped it into the center of the cage. Soon, the pups stopped playing and ran to the edges of the cage, trembling with fear.

After 24 hours, the researchers removed the cat hair. They continued monitoring the rat pups, but days later, the rats had not returned to their baseline playfulness. Where there had been a cat hair, the pups seemed to feel, there might still be a cat.

Fear and trauma can leave an indelible imprint on us, too. Our automatic fear-handling mechanism makes us prone to reacting to our “cat hairs” with fight/flight/freeze responses. Such triggered reactions can negatively affect our jobs, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, cheating us out of a more full version of ourselves. Fortunately, we have more options than rats do for dealing with our “cat hairs.”

Reminders of traumatic experiences that trigger strong emotions can often be removed. Sometimes these are physical objects, but more often they are habitual actions. For example, if a certain phrase or tone spoken by a friend, relative, or romantic partner reminds you of a bad relationship or a difficult childhood, you can ask him or her to change it. Most people will comply with a request like this when it’s presented in context.

When cat hairs can’t be removed, we can learn to see them merely as hairs. If your emotional response seems stronger than the situation merits, ask yourself what triggered it. Did the triggering object, words, tone, or action really mean what you felt it did, or did it just stir something inside? Over time, triggers that we understand to be only triggers – not cats but merely cat hairs – they gradually become less threatening. Then we can use our fight/flight/freeze mechanism as designed, to protect ourselves from actual threats rather than reacting to cat hairs.

What to do:

  1. Notice what is causing increased stress or a triggered response. Simply paying attention to the feeling and looking at what caused it often provides some relief.
  2. Remove the stressor, when possible.
  3. Change your relationship to stressors that can’t be removed. For most of us, our attitudes toward stressors and the emotional responses they generate are more than half of the stress. Even triggered responses can be detoxified by changing our relationship to them.
  4. Accompany the stress or triggered response. Feelings that are pushed aside tend to stay stuck, frozen within us like an ant in amber. Feelings that are fully experienced soon become different feelings. Sadness can turn into acceptance. Anger can turn into understanding. Envy can become motivation.
  5. Develop self-soothing skills. When we are able to self-soothe, sometimes even the cat becomes just a kitten, purring on our laps. (More on self-soothing in Part 5.)

COMING NEXT: How to Adopt a Growth-Oriented Attitude
(and more!)

Related Posts:
The Under Toad and the UnBalancer
The Balancer/ReBalancer Tag Team
A Mini-Lesson on Mini Self-Care
Gyroscopes and Personal Flywheels
Hanging in the Balance
Balancing the Books
The Experiment
How to Design an Experiment
Build Your Resilience in 6 Steps

From Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
“Maybe our attempt to ‘change the world’ didn’t die with the ’60s after all. Maybe it is alive, in its own form, in the generation that succeeded us. Maybe what we planted still grows and we shall all, one day, reap its harvest.”
– “Change”
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Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)

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Copyright 2017, David J. Bookbinder

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