The COVID-19 era has highlighted how fragile many of us feel. We worry about our health, about the health of our vulnerable loved ones, about the future of our jobs and businesses, about the very fabric of society.
Our ability to cope with the situation, to maintain optimism, and to find new, innovative ways to navigate the changes, is called resilience.
Resilience is our ability to bounce back.
Think of the bamboo. It is very slender, unlike the oak tree, but it bends in strong winds and bounces back, unlike some bigger, more rigid trees. The bamboo is revered in the East for its many uses. When I was a boy in Malaysia, I remember builders using bamboo lashed with rattan vines for scaffolding—even for high rise buildings!
What kinds of resilience are there, and how do we build our resilience in this uncertain time?
We could divide resilience into four domains of our life—the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. By the end of this article you will understand that seeing them as one whole rather than separate parts is a key to total resilience.
Physical resilience is the body’s ability to bounce back from physical challenges and to maintain good immunity from disease—including COVID-19.
These challenges are called stress. Stress is a factor that pushes our system out of comfortable equilibrium. For example, exercise is stress, as are extreme temperatures.
What Hans Selye, who studied stress in the early 20th century, found, was that stress can be positive, that is, it stimulates growth and improved function. He called this “eustress” (“eu” is Greek for “good).
In New Zealand, we have pohutukawa trees which often grow by the coast. Because they have been exposed to strong winds all their lives, they sometimes have trunks which have grown horizontally. They must be incredibly strong to hold the weight of the branches.
Similarly, when we stress the body with exercise the body grows stronger. When it is exposed to pathogens from young, it builds a stronger immune system.
However, when, for various reasons that we will look at in future articles, the body is weakened, it loses resilience and can no longer deal with physical challenges (it goes into pain and inflammation), or pathogens (it often catches colds, flus, and otherwise gets sick). When there is lack of resilience, stress can become extremely damaging.
Ways to build physical resilience include increasing strength and flexibility through gentle stretching and yoga. Stretching releases waste and toxin buildup, improves circulation, and strengthens connective tissue.
We know that with advancing age comes increasing stiffness and brittleness. The best way to counteract this is to have a daily regime of gentle stretching. It is thought that one of the reasons women tend to live longer than men is that they tend to maintain better flexibility. Nowadays, many men past 40 have substantially lost flexibility, and find it hard to do physical activities. I can assure you (being 62), that daily stretching can bring back flexibility and physical resilience.
Immune system resilience can, in most cases, be maintained throughout life. Traditional systems like Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healthcare system, tell us that we can boost immune health by eating well, managing stress, and taking supportive herbs. Herbs that support respiratory resilience include Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), Vasa (Adhatoda vasica), and Holy Basil or Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum).
Naturopathy also is great for building physical resilience, because good naturopaths use evidence-based (i.e. tested) methods, diets, herbs and supplements to build immunity and all-round excellent health. Come and see us at Holden HealthCare for a tailor-made resilience-boosting programme from an experienced naturopath.
You could say that mental resilience is the ability to think clearly in all situations. When we become overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, we can no longer see our way through the woods.
Most of our thoughts are not useful. If you stopped to observe your thoughts, you would probably find that most of them are judgemental and negative. In fact researchers tell us that 90% of our thoughts are unproductive.
So, when we allow our thoughts to become a cacophony of mental noise, we can no longer make decisions confidently, we cannot learn, we cannot focus on our work, and we lose our intellectual productivity.
When we repeatedly think about our problems, we may temporarily feel we are being productive, but it usually becomes just rumination—turning the problem over and over in our minds. This eventually causes overwhelm, chronic stress, impacts our body’s resilience and health, and causes emotional issues like anxiety and depression.
One solution is simple meditation. This can be the practice of sitting and observing your thoughts. The very act of observation distances yourself from your thoughts and reduces their stressful impact, and you eventually see the futility of these thoughts. Then you find you no longer need to identify with them, you become more free—and mentally resilient.
There is a lot of concern around emotions these days. There are many therapies and workshops to “explore” one’s emotions, perhaps in the hope of finding richness in them. People seek to reduce the “negative” emotions and increase the “positive” emotions.
In Eastern mind-body systems, emotions are considered just patterns or movements of energy. The problem is, these patterns can get stuck, and we find it difficult to get out of them. The researcher Dr Candace Pert, who discovered the opiate receptor in the body, and then discovered our natural opiates, the endorphins, also found that emotions cause chemical releases that can be addictive. That is why we can literally become addicted to emotions like anxiety and depression.
The COVID-19 situation has triggered these overwhelming emotional, i.e. energetic states, in many people. Yet we are not taught how to deal with them.
The key to emotional resilience is to see emotions for what they are—temporary energetic states. We do not need to pursue “positive” emotions, because, in our natural state, we are at peace and happy anyway. This has been the message of spiritual teachings for millennia.
There are many techniques for neutralising debilitating emotional states, based on energetic release. This includes Emotional Freedom Tapping (EFT), breathing techniques, and embodied practices like yoga and aikido.
Another way to build emotional resilience is to feed your senses with pleasant and aesthetic stimuli, and to connect with others in caring ways.
Spirituality has many meanings, but, integrating these meanings, we might say that spirituality is the pursuit of connection with our world in all its material and subtle aspects.
Hence when we become disconnected, we lose the resilience to deal with life. Not only do we become disconnected from the world, from society, and from our loved ones, we become disintegrated in ourselves. We no longer see ourselves as whole and complete. We feel empty, valueless and alone.
The spiritual crisis is the deepest crisis we can have. And, without a philosophy of connectedness, that is the way the world is heading in the 21st century. Without spiritual guidelines and practices, society is disintegrating—and crime and increasing suicide rates among the young is the agonising evidence.
How do we build spiritual resilience? I believe that is our most urgent question today. Once we start to find answers to it, the significance of the COVID-19 problem becomes clearer.
One person who discovered spiritual resilience in the face of extreme uncertainty and stress, was Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, who was a prisoner in Nazi death camps during World War II. He was able to discover a higher purpose in his life that gave it meaning, that gave him a sense of freedom even within his physical imprisonment, and that enabled him to survive the experience and become an inspiring light for others.
I will have more to say about spiritual resilience in a future article, but I could suggest here that it is important to become clear about our purpose in life—about what we are here to do, especially in the context of our relationships.
We also can commune with nature, and allow it to repair our sense of connection and wholeness. We can open up to other people, and allow caring to flow towards them. We can cultivate a sense of service to the world.
The other key is to consciously reverse the way we separate ourselves into different compartments: body, mind, emotions, ego, etc. Instead we need to work towards integrating the aspects of ourselves, dissolving the dualities. We don’t just feed our mouths, we also nourish our cells, our senses, our minds, and our spirits. We accept, care for and love all aspects of ourselves.
This is the premise of Holistic Medicine—building total health and total resilience by addressing all parts of the self.
When you start thinking about it, resilience is not complicated or unachievable. It is commonsense and intuitive. It involves making the time and space to consider what we need, what rests, nourishes and fulfils us.
Bringing the above strands together is not easy. In spite of our good intentions, we often get distracted and discouraged in our efforts to improve ourselves. This us where having coaching support can be most helpful. A good coaching programme helps you gain clarity, create achievable goals, and give you a sense of accountability.
Using skills and knowledge gathered over four decades, I have created resilience coaching programmes that address these various levels of the self, that draw on what people already intuitively know they need, and that enable us to design supportive routines that holistically build resilience across every area of our lives.
Read more about stress here