Resilience – What is it? And why do HSP’s need it?
What does it mean to be resilient? It’s a buzz word that gets thrown around a lot (particularly in academic and/or self-help circles).
The simplest definition is this: when bad things happen, you handle them effectively and bounce back quickly.
I don’t know whether highly sensitive people are more resilient than the general population. I haven’t seen research that speaks to it one way or the other. Elaine Aron does talk about the physical immune systems of HSP’s. She writes that those who had stable childhoods tend to have more robust immune systems than the average person does. Those with chaotic childhoods, on the other hand, tend to have worse immune systems than the general population. But what about one’s emotional immune system? It’s not as clear. But here is one thing I do feel pretty confident about. If HSP’s want to be able to move in the world without getting blind-sighted by it…they really need to cultivate robust physical and emotional resilience.
Think about it this way – if your nervous system is more open and sensitive to stimulus in your environment, doesn’t it stand to reason that your system will be tested more frequently? I don’t mean that more bad things will happen to you. I just mean you are likely to feel agitated more often by life’s events when your nervous system is firing on all cylinders…all of the f***ing time.
This is only more true during particularly trying times (when life’s events go beyond the mundane “gee I sure wish there wasn’t traffic on this road” and more into the realm of “How am I going to get out of this unhealthy marriage?” or “How am I going to take care of my sick parent?” or “Why am I getting laid off?”
My special brand of hard…
I recently went through a pretty difficult time. It’s part of the reason I paused both writing blogs as well as recording podcasts for as long as I did. A relationship I was in was unraveling. Like…die hard status. We had been trying everything to get the thing to work well. But at the end of the day, we just weren’t compatible. We had to let it go.
Breakups are hard enough…but we were also financially intertwined. He had invested a considerable amount of his personal money into the home we were living in and into our financial security more broadly.
On top of all that, I was transitioning into a new position at work…and eventually was offered an opportunity to move out of the state altogether.
Sooo….easy, right? Handle a breakup. Settle our finances. Move states. No problem.
Except each of these steps weren’t all that easy. At least…they weren’t quick. Each of them required a clear head. Each required what felt like a hundred micro-steps and a certain amount of comfort being uncomfortable.
Remarkably, though, I got through it. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t my favorite flavor of life transition. But I was…fine. Downcast. But fine. Frustrated. But fine. FURIOUS, sometimes. But still fine.
I’m telling you this, dear reader…well lets be honest…partially to brag. Just a little. Because there have been times in my life when I needed to navigate circumstances that were far less difficult and which, I am ashamed to say, I dealt with poorly. At least – I felt more poorly while I was dealing with them.
BUT, I’m also sharing this experience with you because it serves as a great example of just how powerful some of the evidence-based resilience practices I speak about later in this article really can be. It’s one thing for me to drone on and on about what this researcher or that speaker says will help one cultivate better emotional well-being. It’s an entirely different thing for someone to say “these are the evidence based practices that worked for me…personally, while I was going through my special version of “hard.”
Now, I understand that breakups and moving and conflict and job changes…they can be uncomfortable but they certainly don’t compare to…say…war. Or cancer. But something you should know about me is that for me, a relationship falling apart felt like war. It felt like a kind of death. There are lots of things that other people get triggered by, and which don’t trigger me. THIS one, though…a conflict-ridden relationship…it was my Achilles heal. I REALLY don’t like conflict. And I really like harmonious relationships. So – as you read what, to you, may sound like a not-so-heart-wrenching story of hardship, consider what your special brand of “hard” would be and insert that into your mind as you read further.
Because I didn’t get through that hurricane of an emotional trial as well as I did by accident. My ability to navigate it with relative ease was the product of years of study in the realm of health, wellness, contentment, and all around self-love Jedi-ninja training (though…disclaimer here…I do not by any stretch of the imagination consider myself to be a fully fledged emotional Jedi ninja.)
So what was it that helped me get through all of it? And more importantly…how might you use those strategies the next time YOU are in a situation that is painful?
Five Tools to Cultivate Resilience:
FIRST: During difficult times, remember that it is temporary. I know, I know. Cute. Just remember that it won’t last forever. THAT will work. Psh. Please. But no – seriously. The research backs this up. The trick is to hack your system so that you can actually start to believe that whatever challenge you are facing won’t last forever. For example: someone who is stuck in their story might say “I can never stick to a diet.” Whereas someone who can pull out of that “never” realm might say “I go off my diet any time I eat out.” Someone who is having a tough time in a relationship might say “I’ll ALWAYS be alone!” Whereas someone who knows that things are all temporary might say “I really need to be alone right now.”
For me, it was tremendously helpful to remember just how temporary this whole thing would likely be. I could taste what it would feel like on the other side of those circumstances. I concede that some people are living through things that maybe don’t have a clear end date. For you out there… here’s something interesting. If you are in a challenging situation and see no end to those circumstances in sight, research shows we can still hack the “temporary” mind game. It turns out that how we think we will feel in the future about a situation is quite often wrong. People who win the lottery think they will be “happily ever after” …nope! They go back to baseline. People who lose a limb assume they will always feel dejected and miserable. But no. They often go back to their original happiness baseline. So whatever has you tangled up in emotional webbing – just try and remember that what you’re feeling right now won’t last forever irrespective of whether or not your environment changes at all.
Practice: The next time you are going through a difficult time, reframe it so that it isn’t eternal. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and you think you will “never” be able to…rewrite it to say “I have not yet lost the weight…I am looking for a strategy that will work for me.” Or if you are working on your finances…don’t say “I’ll NEVER get out o debt. Instead try and say “I”m working really hard to get out of debt.”
SECOND: Change your focus. Dr. Darlene Mininni, in her lecture on resilience talks about an experiment done on a group of men. They were in the latter stages of their lives. They were asked to behave the way they used to when they were living in the 1950’s. The room these men were in had films from the fifties. There were newspapers from the fifties. The works! They were also told “Hey! Just to be clear…we are not asking you to pretend you are living in the fifties. We only ask that you try and act like the man you were during that time period.” After only a few days of this experiment, the men showed improvements in their strength, and they all looked, on average, 3 years younger. In life, we process what we focus on. We simply cannot focus on EVERY detail. And our bodies respond to whatever our interpretation of those focus points are. So if you focus on what’s going wrong in your life…you’re likely to stay miserable. But if you focus on what’s going right? You’re likely to promote emotional wellbeing regardless of what’s happening for you.
In my case, it was easy to focus on what was going well. I have a dog and a cat. I don’t know if you know this, but animals are fabulous at getting your mind off of stressful things. I also had a roof over my head. I had electricity. Running water. I wasn’t physically being threatened in any significant way. I had steady employment, and external job offers coming my way. How can one feel upset about circumstances like these?
Practice: Each day, write down three things you are grateful for. Continue this practice for at least 21 days.
THIRD: Express your negative emotions. I know….this one is a little counter intuitive considering the one that came before it. I imagine you’re thinking “so I’m supposed to be grateful AND be thinking about all my traumas? Seriously?” But sit tight. It fits together, I promise.
A study was composed that broke a group of student into two subgroups. The first wrote about truly traumatic experiences they had in the past (and/or were going through at present). The alternate group was just told to write about something mundane. I think it was about what their room looked like. The group who was asked to relive their traumas, initially, experienced more stress. But after some time – their stress levels went down. Blood tests revealed improved immune system functioning. All from being willing and able to express their most vulnerable truths. (*Note: these writings did not have to be stored. They could be tossed as soon as they were written down).
There was, of course, a catch to this. It wasn’t just that these students were asked to write down their traumas. That, by itself, didn’t do much. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t help either. The goal after getting the negative emotions down on paper was to get curious about them. Why does this particular experience have so much influence on my emotional state? Why does this hurt so much? What are some of the positive traits I now possess that are a product of this experience? What did I learn from this experience?
If one can successfully answer those questions, it can encourage what researchers call “post-traumatic growth.” Which basically means that you may not just bounce back to where you were before the trauma took place – but you may end up better for it. In her book Option B, a book about how one can recover after a difficult life event, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant speak about how this (along with a slew of other strategies) can help promote resilience in these circumstances.
I have kept a journal since I was 8 years old. I can promise you that I wasn’t thinking at 8 that I was engaging in a healing practice. Nevertheless, some of my darkest and most vulnerable moments are captured in those pages. More often than not, the very thing I was struggling with was “what can I take from this?” I was desperate to sew the event into a larger fabric of meaning I could blanket myself with when feeling overwhelmed. I just thought it was something unique to me (because don’t we all kinda think we are super special and that our pain is oh-so-very-unique-to-us?)
But during those long nights when I felt alone and villainous and triumphant and victimized all at once…my journal was the one place I could turn to. It was the one space where I could pour out my chaotic thoughts. Often in the midst of it, I would also pull out a nugget of something useful and soothing.
Practice: Try writing about a difficult time in your life (maybe don’t focus on something traumatic as a starting point. Just something uncomfortable that you got through). What did you learn from that experience? How might it have made you a better person?
FOURTH: Connect. Are you a health nut like myself? Do you consider yourself to be a pretty conscientious person? Do you think that will help you live longer? It might. It might not. Research tells us about the importance of being socially connected. Some evidence suggests that if you have two groups of people (one who practices healthy habits, but who don’t have other people they can call upon and connect to; and one who is well-connected but has other common unhealthy habits like smoking or poor nutrition) the group who is well connected will live longer. How about dem apples.
I cannot say enough how much of a difference it made to me to have support. You know those scenes where rockstars jump into a crowd and get carried along by the fans underneath? That’s how my experience felt in moving through my tough relationship. My people are the primary reason I never hit rock bottom. They caught me and held me up. They offered up their ears, their shoulders and even their homes to me if they thought it would help. They listened to me as I stumbled around trying to come up with solutions. They gave references to financial advisors. They cooked me dinner. They shared their pain with me (so I could remember that I wasn’t the only one on the planet who stumbles). I don’t know that I have ever been more humbled. For so long in my life, I thought independence was something to strive for. And I still do cherish my freedom and my autonomy. This is all the more true for me, I think, because I’m not only an HSP, but also an introvert. But that period of time was the first time life really forced me to look up and see just how lucky I am to have truly amazing people in my life. My people were then and will forever remain on my gratitude list.
Practice: Each day for the next week, reach out to someone you love. Tell them “thank you.” for being fabulous. Or do something kind for them they aren’t expecting.
FIFTH: Stay Present. There is pain…and then there is suffering. Pain is a sensation. Suffering is often what we end up with when we create stories about the sensation (pain) we are currently experiencing. We are fretting about what it means for the future. Or we are judging ourselves for our past behavior that may have led to this painful moment. Pain isn’t really avoidable. But suffering? Suffering can be dimmed and possibly even removed altogether.
One of the best practices to integrate into your life if you want to increase your ability to stay present is mindfulness meditation. If you think meditation is just for hippies, don’t get your tie dye shirt into a bunch just yet. It has been proven to reduce stress in countless contexts. It even helped a group of med students to reduce their stress levels (though nothing changed with regard to their circumstances.)
Ironically, getting more present, even when your life feels painful, can reduce your inflammatory markers for pain (they are called cytokines if you’re curious). The primary reason it does this is because it can reduce your body’s production of cortisol. It turns down the volume of your system and inadvertently dampens the intensity of the pain you feel in the process.
For years leading up to the breakup and subsequent move, I had been working on a steady meditation and yoga practice each day. I still do. I work with a teacher one-on-one on some of these principles and it makes all the difference to have a framework to use when trying to navigate difficult circumstances. So when journaling and talking the ears off of my poor friends didn’t do the trick, I always had my breath. I had my body. I still have my breath. I still have my body. Any time I started judging myself for my shortcomings (and believe me, I have plenty of material for that) or my would-be fiance (which is silly…I have no control over his behavior. What good does it do for me to judge him for it?), I had my mindfulness practice that reminded me that judgment of any kind simply isn’t helpful.
Practice: Try this simple exercise. Breathe in for four seconds. Hold for seven seconds. Exhale for eight seconds. When your exhale is longer than your inhale, it can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system (in other words…it can help calm you down). It also just gives your brain something else to do other than fretting about things you can’t control.
Resilience isn’t a fixed trait. It’s something we can all cultivate. I would argue it’s something we all should cultivate. This is all the more true for highly sensitive people – who have a lot to offer the world and could probably help make it a better place if they had the tools to recharge after their efforts.