Four years ago, I could hardly make my son's school lunch and give him his breakfast at
the same time. I became so overwhelmed by these simple morning preparations that I felt like I was spinning, not exactly dizzy, but almost. I was very fearful of many experiences: airplane travel, being in the house by myself overnight, finding a tick on our dog. My physical reaction to these and many other fairly ordinary events was involuntary: pounding heart, muscle tension and pain. I also struggled with brain fog, strange body sensations, and constant worry.
It was a revelation to me to learn that my physical and psychological experiences had a reasonable physiological explanation based in the conditioned response of the nervous system to overwhelming life experiences. I began to use every tool and technique I could find to change how my nervous system was functioning and restore balance in the relationship of my brain and body. From this journey I have come to deeply appreciate the value of resilience and I have a solid, though ever-evolving understanding of how to cultivate it.
Some changes I have seen in my life:
I am able to effectively and calmly multi-task when needed.
I can enjoy airplane travel.
I can confidently travel by myself.
I can be alone in the house overnight by myself.
I can relate to other people without paralyzing fear of rejection.
I am in touch with what is comfortable or uncomfortable for me, and can take action from this awareness.
I can learn new skills and take on responsibilities with confidence.
I can calmly pull ticks off my dog (though still unpleasant!)
When negotiating a conflict with my partner, I am able to honor his perspective and experience without discounting my own, so we can navigate towards a resolution more quickly and effectively.
So what is resilience? Resilience may be seen as a quality of our mind or a quality of our personality, but it is most importantly and fundamentally a quality of our physiology. Physiology means bodily function, and homeostasis is the process by which our physiological processes fluctuate within the optimum range for our overall health. Resilience is our ability to regain our composure and equanimity after stressful events and challenging life circumstances. It means being able to calm down after being activated. Physiologically, it involves the return of our autonomic nervous system to a healthy balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.
It is a quality of our healthy and optimally-functional nervous system to cycle between
activation and resting states and, even after a stressful event or threat happens, to return us to relaxed alertness. The part of our nervous system involved in this cycle is the autonomic branch (ANS), which is responsible for monitoring and maintaining our critical body systems and processes outside of our conscious awareness, at the level of the brain stem. The two autonomic divisions are the sympathetic, responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response, and the parasympathetic, characterized as the "rest-and-digest" state. However, these two divisions do not operate entirely in opposition, and many of our regular activities involve both of them. A healthy nervous system cycles gently between sympathetic activation and parasympathetic settling within a homeostatic range throughout our day.
For example, think of the experience of a near-miss auto accident. Release of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) dilates our pupils and increases our respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles while decreasing it to skin and abdominal organs. It also raises our blood sugar levels to make energy available for taking action against a threat. We may be aware of our pounding heart and faster breathing, and experience fear and other negative emotions, which are a documented effect of epinephrine release. Once the danger has passed, are we able to slow our breathing, shake it off, settle, and move calmly through the rest of our day, or do we stay hyper-alert and emotionally upset?
A lack of autonomic nervous system resilience means that we are "stuck" in the fight-or flight response, or in deep parasympathetic freeze response (think of an animal "playing possum" when threatened by a predator.) Each of these states includes distinct psychological experiences and behavioral qualities, and they include characteristic physiological conditions in the body.
Signs that our nervous system has decreased capacity for returning to resting state may include hyper-vigilance, anxiety, never feeling safe, unable to completely relax, muscle tension, musculoskeletal pain, pain associated with movement, or flat affect, depression, low muscle tone, and digestive problems. After accident, injury or surgery, chronic pain (pain that lingers after the acute and sub-acute stages of healing and lasts over 3 months) can be a signal that the nervous system can't return to safety and settle down. It may become "centrally sensitized" to perceive pain in a particular body area or to associate pain with certain movement, or other situational triggers.
Many factors can limit our capacity for nervous system resilience and leave us prone to being stuck in one extreme or to cycling out of healthy homeostatic range frequently in response to situational triggers. These factors include the pre-natal environment, early life attachment experiences with our caregivers, unremitting stress, or overwhelming life events. The nature, duration, and developmental stage of the disruption all have significance.
How can we cultivate resilience and improve the symptoms of disrupted autonomic nervous system homeostasis? The fundamental task is to allow the threat response centers in the brain to re-set: to re-evaluate our situation and perceive safety. However, the level of the brain that is constantly alert for threat- the brain stem- is unconscious, well below our neocortical, thinking-brain activity, and it understands image and sensation rather than language. For this reason, body-based tools are very effective for altering the brain's threat assessment and getting us out of the fight-flight-or-freeze response cycle.
These body-based tools include:
Relaxation techniques that slow breathing and heart rate
Visualization exercises that convey safety
Bodywork, meaning massage therapy, manual therapy, or any form of therapeutic touch
Interoception, meaning awareness of the variety of sensations that arise within the body as we move, breathe, think, and experience emotions
Body postures and poses that reflect safety, strength, confidence and courage
Movement practices that encourage exploration and following one's own inclinations, known generally as "authentic movement"
Meditation practices that quiet the mind and attend to the body.
Bodywork, in particular, can be instrumental in helping restore nervous system balance. Our skin is our largest sense organ, with a variety of sensory nerve endings to detect different types of touch. Working through this sensory channel we can create a profound non-verbal experience of safety, increase parasympathetic activity, and decrease fight-or-flight activation.
Thus, cultivating our capacity for resilience is about using creative, nervous-system informed, body-based tools to balance physiology. When we know how to return to our calm center, we are empowered to live life with a sense of confidence, mastery and connection. And we can even pour a bowl of cereal and make a PBJ sandwich at the same time without being overwhelmed!