Last month we talked about resilience - what it is and where it comes from. Because that newsletter prompted more comments and feedback than we have ever had to any newsletter, we decided to explore the topic a bit more. So now let’s proceed with resilience redux…

We ended our last article with a quote from Diane Coutu’s HBR article (May 2002) on resilience. She said, “Resilience is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world…resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air. Others do not. This is the nature of resilience, and we will never completely understand it.”

Hmmm, I thought, I wonder if that is all there is to it? Is that reflex something amenable to learning and training and if so, what are the conditions that would facilitate that particular kind of learning?

Dr. Sarina Saturn from OSU is a leading authority and researcher on the neuroscience of resilience. I first came across her name in the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn, which is essentially a primer on how to make the world a better place. According to Dr Saturn, resilience is not only the ability to maintain high levels of positivity in the face of trauma, but also accelerates the rate of recovery from trauma.

Her research suggests that genes play a significant role in the amount of resilience we have to start with, but that “genes are not our destiny” and we do have the ability to increase resilience by increasing our prosocial behaviors - doing good things for others. As we engage in doing good, we increase the hormones and neurotransmitters that fight stress and give ourselves a kind of “chill pill”. That is linked to lowering inflammation and disease in the body, as well as maintaining brain health.

Even by just witnessing what social scientists call “moral elevation” - which means seeing others doing good and kind things - we strengthen the positive relationship between heart and mind as measured by heart rate and verbal descriptors.

So that lump in your throat, or teary eyes when you see the hero’s sacrifice in a war movie is actually good for you.

At the end of the opera La Traviata, as Violetta lays dying, she takes off a gold locket with her portrait and gives it to her great love, Alfredo. She tells him to give it to another woman he will come to love someday. She wants to say that she blesses this new woman who will love and comfort Alfredo because above all, she wants him to be happy. I cry every time. Her kindness, even when facing her death, reminds me that I can always dig a little deeper to find that kindness within myself even when life feels difficult or unfair.

So what does that neurobiological connection mean at a more practical day-to-day level? If we thought about resilience as a muscle, what might we do to strengthen it? We could:

Use cognitive reappraisal
How often do we consciously look at the glass as half-full rather than half –empty? Without being a Pollyanna, do we look for the silver lining in what might seem to be grim events? Do we say, “What can I learn from this situation?”

Exercise and/or movement
Movement and exercise accelerate neuron growth. Contra lateral movements particularly create new connections and pathways within the brain and strengthen the mind-body connection. A healthy brain sees many more options than a brain that is slowly withering away.

Maintain robust social connections
People who are socially integrated maintain healthier genetic profiles than individuals who are not. That doesn’t mean going out every night of the week. It does mean making the time and space in your life to have meaningful relationships with a variety of people you trust. It could also mean pets you can relate to and touch. Sorry, turtles probably don’t count. And it should extend to hugs and lots of them. It’s part of what makes us human and feeling like we are members of the tribe.