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Steps you can take to strengthen resiliency
As the pandemic continues, the level of continuing stress and uncertainty is taking its toll on mental and physical wellbeing. For many people, this stress is overlaid on other ongoing stresses in their lives, including the effects of systemic racism and prejudice against communities including people in the LGTBQ+ community and Asian and native communities, financial hardships, chronic health problems, and more.
We talked with Brad S. Lichtenstein, ND, BCB, BCB-HRV, a member of our Medical Advisory Board, naturopathic physician, and professor and clinical faculty at Bastyr University about the role resiliency plays in wellbeing and steps you can take to strengthen resiliency. Dr. Lichtenstein has a strong clinical and teaching focus on developing psycho-emotional-spiritual health while dealing with chronic, life-challenging illnesses, and trauma. In addition to his private practice, he speaks nationally on topics ranging from stress-reduction, mindfulness and health, mind-body approaches to healing trauma, and issues surrounding end-of-life.
PinnacleCare (PC): How would you define resiliency?
Dr. Brad Lichtenstein (BL): Resiliency is our ability to respond to events and life around us. Most people define it as our ability to adapt in the face of trauma and tragedy, but it could be any significant source of stress.
There are three different types of resiliency: natural resiliency, adaptive resiliency, and learned or restored resiliency. We are born with natural resiliency and it helps us form our fundamental coping skills. Adaptive resiliency is what some people think of as trial by fire. It’s our ability to recover from adversity, adapt, and thrive. The third is learned or restored resiliency, which we can work on through techniques to build coping mechanisms or skill training like yoga, breathwork, and meditation.
PC: Are we all born with the same natural resiliency?
BL: We are not. Our natural resiliency is affected by what happens even before birth—stress or trauma, illness, and other factors our mothers face while pregnant. The vagus nerve plays an important role in resiliency. It goes to all the organs in our digestive tract, our heart, and our lungs and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s fundamental for slowing down the heart rate. When you are in utero, the fetus is exposed to the glucocorticoid stress of the mother. This affects the fetus’ development of the vagus nerve and brain. As a result, certain people aren’t able to turn off their negative feedback loop as consistently.
If you’re born premature, your vagus nerve doesn’t develop fully and the capacity you have for handling stress is less developed. If you experience birth trauma or trauma in the first two years of life such as living in an underserved community or if you’re malnourished–all of that affects you.
PC: Is there a way to judge your resiliency level?
BL: There are some vetted scales that psychologists and practitioners use. The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale includes 25 questions and breaks down your resiliency and ability to respond to events.
Burnout, where we have feelings of depersonalization and become less sensitive to other people, even people we usually care deeply about, also comes into play. The next level of burnout is emotional exhaustion. We just don’t feel as excited about anything we cared about, like hobbies or interests. The third part of that cycle is a sense of low accomplishment. You question whether you’re doing anything in the world, whether you amount to anything.
PC: What helps us build resilience?
BL: One of the things that builds resilience is making connections. Talk about your feelings. There is an importance in making that connection and emotionally discharging. Don’t put on a happy face or ignore it. Then, you have to ask yourself, “What now?” This is the question resilient people ask instead of, “Why is this happening to me?”
Beyond making connections, we need to become aware of what is happening–recognizing your signs of stress and burnout like clenching your jaw, tightening you gut, or holding your breath. The faster you catch it, the faster you can deal with it.
The next step is community. Our nervous system responds when we have people to connect with. Call and talk to someone rather than texting, which has actually been shown to make your stress response elevated because you’re interrupting your tasks to text. The worst thing we can do when we’re anxious, depressed, or burnout is isolate, but that’s the first thing we do because it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth it to connect with others.
Figure out what your strengths are. What do you do that’s energy promoting and healing? It’s also about setting clear expectations. A lot of people have all-or-nothing thinking. They think if they sit down and meditate once, everything will get better. It’s actually a practice you have to build over time.
You also need to recognize and address your negative self-talk and find something positive about the moment. Focus on something comforting, like laying in a comfortable bed or taking a warm shower. Practice those positive sensory experiences. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are also self-regulation skills that access the vagus nerve, which then slows down your heart.