Dr. Lawrence Cheng MD, CCFP(EM), MPHFunctional Medicine, Goals, HeartMath, Mind/Body, Stress

What is the definition of resilience?

Life on earth has survived through billions of years because of its ability to adapt to changes.  All living things today are the product of this evolutionary intelligence.  We wouldn’t be here reading this article if we didn’t have resilience engineered into our DNA. We are in fact wired to survive!

What is the definition of resilience?

Resilience can be defined as a process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, threats, stress…

Resilience is a dynamic process and not a fixed trait.  Resilience is more a capacity and skill which we can continuously learn to build and grow – like a muscle.  It is an emergent property that arises from the complex interplay between your genes and environment over the course of your entire life span.  Your ability to deal with a current stressor depends on your capacity to respond (physical to psychological) which in turn is dependent on how you have learned to respond in the past to challenges.  These challenges can include anything from injury to infections, toxins, chronic stress – physical and emotional.  We can become more resilient as our systems learn to adapt to stressors over time as long as we able to continue to maintain a physiologic (homeostasis) and nervous system balance. We can learn to be resilient.

Stress is our lives is not inherently good or bad.  I have always liked this quote by Adyashanti, “Stress is what happens between the ears…everything else is just a situation”.  A stressful event doesn’t necessarily have to mean distress.  Distress is what causes a chronic unregulated flight or fright (sympathetic) nervous system state than can lead to negative health impacts.

Stress can actually be good for you.  Good stress which has been called ‘eustress” is an opportunity for growth and increasing resilience.  Hormesis is a physiologic concept that certain amounts of stress causes a favourable biologic response (exercise, fasting  are some examples).   Part of being resilient is not automatically equating a stressor as being bad and to recognize that how we perceive the stressor is critical. We have no control over most external events in our lives, but we do have much more control over the perception of these events than we think.

Why is resilience important?

Physical resilience means that you can withstand environmental stressors, threats, infections, recover quickly from injury and illness and continue to maintain normal functioning.  Emotional resilience allows you to recover in a positive way to set-backs, challenges and stresses.

Resilience on a body system level means that our cells, tissues and organ systems can maintain homeostasis when subject to changes in environment. Homeostasis is from the Greek roots “stable” and “same”.   A resilient living system is a system that can obtain all the necessary inputs for survival, maintain core physiological systems, be able to sense and appropriately respond to threats, repair damage and restore function and balance.

The levers that we can use to modulate these functions include our key lifestyle factors.  Our bodies ability to obtain nutrient rich, ideally chemically free whole foods, properly digest, absorb (digestion) and to utilize these key nutrients to drive our biochemistry is vital for growth, repair and cellular functioning.   Adequate sleep (7 – 8 hrs consistently) is non-negotiable in this regard as well.  Regular exercise which includes aerobic, resistance and stretching is key to a resilient physical body to maintain functional movement as well as optimizing our metabolism.  Given that our nervous system is what controls everything in our bodies, our ability to self-regulate our nervous system (distress tolerance) is a critical piece to being resilient.  Modern neuroscience is beginning to show us the power of awareness coupled with learned practices such as meditation, yoga, breath work etc. in terms of keeping a balanced and resilient nervous system.

A resilient body forms the basis of a resilient mind but this relationship is likely bi-directional.  A resilient mind is one that is flexible, adaptive, compassionate and integrated.  How we think and how we direct our attention has the power to create our awareness, consciousness and neural connections.  Once again, these are skills that we learn, practice, develop, reinforce and continually refine over time.

Ultimately, resilience is not just an individual attribute but an ecological/cultural construct.  Our resilience as an individual is inter-dependent of our social/community and ecological networks. We are not separate from each other or the planet and the recognition of this is key to our resilience as individuals and our survival as a species.

Resilience comes from deep inside us and from the support around us. It is a capacity that we can develop and nurture.  We can grow stronger, resist infections, heal from trauma, be more loving, compassionate, be more connected and find greater depth of meaning and appreciation in our lives through the challenges and adversities that find us along our journey.

Written by: Dr Lawrence Cheng, MD

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