Walking in the desert canyons and stream beds near Bluff, Utah, recently, I noticed ants rebuilding their colonies the very next morning after big rains.
It had poured 2 inches in two days, lots for that high desert area. There they were: lifting and carrying and scurrying about, quickly erecting the hills to look very functional mere hours after the rains. Resilience. Big-time resilience, and if it rained more, I’m sure they would be out there soon after working again. Such faith.
Then, I was in a doctor’s office and picked up a June copy of Time magazine and there was an article about resilience. I need some these days, so I paid attention to the article and the synchronicity of it all. It feels like by the time we reach our 60s, 70s and 80s, we’ve been knocked down and had to start over many times. What makes it easier for some people to successfully adapt to changes, challenges, stressors and aging?
Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explains that some people not only get through rough times, but they actually thrive during and after them. He attributes this to a set of skills that can be learned. Anyone can develop resilience. There are many ways to intervene, so stress and trauma don’t drain us, but no one size fits all.
Things like having a tight-knit community in which to share joys and frustrations, knowing a stable role model we trust and strongly believing in the ability to solve problems have long been known to strengthen resilience. Charney and his partner, Dr. Steven Southwick, also discovered that resilient brains were able to shut off the stress response and return to baseline quickly. Resilient people have a capacity to regulate the subcortical fear circuits under the conditions of stress and anxiety.
We can train our brains to build and strengthen different connections that don’t reinforce these fear circuits. Over time, the new pathways can lead to a new response to stress.
Some of the training tips:
Face things that scare us rather than hiding from them.
Have an ethical code that guides our daily lives.
Working our muscles spurs development of new neurons, tamping down our stress response.
Mindfulness meditation helps with less emotional reactivity. It tunes us into our minds, our bodies and the present moment. Anxiety is so much about events that haven’t even happened yet – future occurrences that cause worry.
Try to find meaning in whatever has happened, and stay positive.
Learn new things as often as possible.
Recognize what makes us each strong, and own it!
I would add that doing the yoga pose the Warrior II has helped me through many difficult times.
This aging thing will only continue to challenge us through the coming years. Resilience will help. I’m joining the ants, and picking a couple of the above points to focus on. You?
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.