Updated: Mar 1
Resilience. Many of us have heard of it, and read about it on blogs or in parenting books. But do we understand it?
As adults, we know resilience is important, that recovering from crisis is a key life skill. But how can we do this? Is it innate, or something that can be cultivated?
Sunrise teacher Katia Rheault has been studying resilience recently, and brought some of her knowledge on the subject to the Sunrise Waldorf School (Sunrise) community last year in a parent enrichment evening. Ms. Rheault has a background in psychology and volunteers as a counsellor in her spare time. She shared her notes with us as a basis for this article, in the hopes of offering the Sunrise community an introduction to resilience and how to nurture it.
What is Resilience?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, resilience is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”
Scientists have discovered there is a genetic component to resilience. W. Thomas Boyce, MD explained how a certain genetic element (an allele) was found to be related to a lack of resilience in some children. However, he goes on to explain that children’s environments also have an important impact on their personalities. He cited a study on Romanian orphans who lived in atrocious conditions. Children with a particular allele fared the worst in the orphanage. However, the ones with the same allele who were adopted into good families thrived.
The ability to be resilient, then, seems to be a delicate combination of both nature and nurture.
“Individual resilience is the capacity to stay with challenges and be able to respond to them,” wrote Ms. Rheault.
Ms. Rheault also described the difference between feeling stressed in a fight, flight, or freeze state, and feeling regulated and calm. She wrote, “When recovery is achieved, people are able to experience stillness and feel peaceful, not triggered and vulnerable.”
Part of resilience, then, is the ability to move into a calm state once stressed. Ms. Rheault explained that, for the most part, people are able to move back into a regulated state when they believe adversity has been overcome.
Of course, adversity comes in a variety of packages. There are smaller difficulties, like not being able to find our keys in the morning, and much larger problems. This is where trauma enters the picture. According to Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician and author well-known for his work with individuals in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, trauma is a psychological wound that leads “to a disconnect from yourself.”
Ms. Rheault explained that if we have trauma that hasn’t been processed, it can impact our nervous systems. “If the cues for safety haven’t returned and the nervous system remains disrupted and in a state of high alert,” she wrote. “The nervous system hasn’t re-calibrated and still perceives that there is a physical or psychological threat even though the specific danger is no longer present.”
As adults, then, one key to resilience is processing past trauma. There are a number of ways to do this, including talking to friends, journalling, or seeking trauma-informed therapy. Ms. Rheault also noted, "Successful trauma work is done step by step, in order to avoid being overwhelmed and retraumatized."
Strategies For Individual Resilience
Even though some people may have more resilient temperaments than others, resilience-enhancing skills can be practiced and exercised like muscles. Here are some essential strategies.
Human beings’ brains are wired to focus more on the negative than the positive in life. This is called negative bias. But resilience is based in a positive outlook. Ms. Rheault wrote,
“Positive emotions and states of mind create expansiveness, a broader perspective and meaningfulness. Therefore, a sense of well-being and positive experiences can help us tap into resilience.”
Of course, it’s difficult to cultivate a positive outlook unless we understand ourselves. We also need to cultivate a healthy curiosity about our thoughts and motivations, and a
willingness to reconsider them, if we find they are not serving us.
Many people begin to become more self-aware through therapy or meditation. Journalling can also be a good way to explore our own inner depths.
We can cultivate a positive outlook by noticing and redirecting negative thoughts and self-talk. Practicing appreciation or gratitude are also helpful. “Noticing the simple and mild versions of joy and beauty is what helps increase positivity,” wrote Ms. Rheault.
This is also where processing past trauma comes into play. If we have wounds that are unhealed, they affect our reactions to current circumstances and can make it difficult to be resilient in the present.
No single solution will work for everyone. Ms. Rheault pointed out, “Understanding what makes you different from others and what are the things that bring balance, health, meaning, and joy to your own life is crucial to being resilient.”
Self-care is another key component of resilience. It’s much more difficult for people who are stressed, tired, or haven’t eaten breakfast to find a state of equilibrium.
Ms. Rheault explained that self-care is not about indulgence, but about meeting one’s individual needs for nourishment, rest, and relaxation. Exercise is also an important aspect of self-care.
These strategies don’t exist in isolation. “When our needs are met, there is repair, recovery, contentment, peacefulness, and love in the present. Relish these states; take the experience in fully and savour it. This creates positive emotions,” wrote Ms. Rheault.
Another core human need is connection with others. Even though there are days we all wish we could be the rulers of our own personal islands, the truth is that we suffer from isolation. One of the worst punishments for any prisoner is solitary confinement.
In life, relationships aren’t always perfect. “Relationships don’t have to be very harmonious, just clearly supportive, close, and functional,” wrote Ms. Rheault.
She also pointed out that, like any living thing, relationships require some care and attention in order to thrive. Taking time to nurture the relationships in our lives is vital.
This may seem surprising, but there is research showing that helping others can improve personal resilience. Adam Grant, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview, “When we know that others need us, we find strength we didn’t know we had.”
In the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, some people coped with the crisis through altruism. Some reports show that the number of mutual aid groups grew significantly during this time. Volunteers may not have realized it, but they were actually boosting their own resilience as a result.
Ms. Rheault also pointed out that resilience can be understood on a collective level. Families, organizations, and societies can also suffer trauma and recover with more or less resilience.
“When suffering affects a group of people, it becomes collective trauma and, if it is not worked with and integrated, it exists in what Thomas Hübl calls ‘the cultural permafrost’,” she wrote.
Collective trauma could include a family catastrophe, natural disasters, war, or the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Recovering from collective trauma is similar to the process of recovering from individual trauma. The wounds need to be seen and understood in order to be healed.
This is not always easy to do. Ms. Rheault pointed out that many aspects of our current culture impede resilience. These include social isolation and political divisiveness.
Strategies to Increase Collective Resilience
Collective resilience and individual resilience are linked. A group of stressed and cranky people can’t communicate with one another or get anything productive done. And an individual can’t live happily on a desert island.
To Ms. Rheault, the first step in building collective resilience is nurturing individual resilience. “Traumatized individuals cannot help traumatized societies,” she wrote. “Individuals who have worked on their own suffering can act as the social immune system: they can hold conflict and create coherence for others.”
There are some other strategies that are important in building social resilience.
A community is only as strong as the relationships between its members, which need to be protected and cared for.
Like smaller-scale relationships, community relations don’t always have to be harmonious, but they should be supportive – recognizing we are all influenced by our unique life experiences and circumstances. “We have to be able to navigate the dichotomies of life with compassion and kindness, in the best-case scenario, but at least with a minimum of genuine respect,” wrote Ms. Rheault.
In some cases, where there has been trauma in a community, it may be necessary to process it collectively. Truth and reconciliation hearings, for example, have been used to help name and heal collective wounds.
Altruism benefits individual and collective resilience. People who help others feel more resilient, and altruism strengthens community. When we see people pitching in to assist others, it creates a sense of safety and a culture of kindness.
Rooted in Care and Compassion
Resilience is an essential skill in a world that is always changing and posing new challenges. It’s not necessarily the types of challenges that appear, but how we react to them that matters.
Taking care of ourselves with compassion helps us do the same for others. Ultimately, this strengthens us as individuals, and our communities.
If you’d like to read Ms. Rheault’s findings on resilience, you can find them here. Stay tuned for our next post on Resilience in Children!