Building Resilience: Moving from a default state of fear to a default state of acceptance
Being dragged through the mud and coming out stronger for it. Resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, a mental toughness. It reflects an ability to embrace acceptance of what life offers, regardless of the circumstances.
The opposite of resilience is mental vulnerability which can present in all types of feelings including anxiety, anger, frustration and is underpinned by fear. Building resilience requires altering our natural fear response to becoming more accepting of life’s circumstances.
First, we must understand that fear reflects a cognitive process that engages our deeply engrained survival response. This is an automated response designed to keep us safe. When people feel threatened, they tend to fight or flee, or for some of us freeze completely. All of these responses are designed to protect us from harm. These actions indeed increase our chances of survival when faced with threats in our environments such as predators, like we faced back in the beginning of human evolution.
In the present day, a classic example of the fight-flight response is panic shopping, including fights over scarce supplies in the supermarket. These behaviours are underpinned by a triggered survival response. For those of us observing from afar or on T.V, it may be horrifying to fathom people behaving like this. Yet these antisocial behaviours are governed by a fear-based response triggering our survival brain, the first of the 3 brains to develop in human evolution; also known by many other names including the reptilian brain. The survival brain has one sole job: Survival. Just like a reptile’s brain, it is a very small brain with limited functions. It governs predominately automated responses to promote survival; there is no thinking or reasoning when this brain is engaged.
Our survival brain is very important in keeping us safe from harm. The problem is, it was designed to engage in short bursts to protect us when there is imminent danger, not in a chronic prolonged setting. When we are faced with ongoing threats, real or perceived, the chronic engagement of the survival brain results in diminished mental wellbeing. The impact of the survival brain continually engaged or triggered can be severe; try picturing fighting a tiger continually or hiding on high alert expecting one to pounce at you at any moment! We can only put up with being in that space of constant alertness for so long without it impacting on our general ability to function.
To further complicate things, as the survival brain does not host logical reasoning, our interpretation of threat can be obscured, which can lead to the perception of threats that may not actually reflect reality. This can lead to major complexities both in the context of the workplace, as well as in people’s everyday lives. The altered state of reality can feed a pattern of survival responses, engaging a looping effect, leading to chronically diminished wellbeing. In extreme cases, this is the space where suicide can be perceived as the only way out.
Mental wellbeing in relation to any fear based triggers, is dependent on taming that survival response. Now resilience is interesting in that it describes the mental state of not triggering survival responses in situations where we may usually feel threatened, or to be able to quickly move to engage a higher level of the brain allowing us to reason logically. Resilience is integral to mental wellbeing when faced with ongoing challenges. The good news is that ongoing challenges have the potential to build resilience and resilience is a state of being that allows us to embrace what life has on offer, take risk and evolve through innovation.
The first step to being able to move to a place of reasoning, which is required to achieve acceptance, is to disengage or satisfy the survival brain that we are no longer in imminent danger. From there we then can engage the second brain, the mid brain/emotional brain, which is where we can begin to make sense of things based on our emotions. Eventually, we can move through to the neocortex (the thinking brain) where truly detailed reasoning and creative thinking occurs.
A few tips to supporting someone who has their survival brain engaged:
- First off check for real threats that require immediate action – equivalent to that tiger!
- Provide the space for the person you are supporting to talk through what is going on for them (when and as they want to), they may need to go over things over and over; this process enables making sense of the situation no matter how difficult.
- Validate their feelings. Validation simply is about affirming that what the person you are supporting is going through is valid. Validation is different from agreeing with what the person is feeling or how they are responding to a perceived threat. The worst thing you can do is place judgement on their reaction based on how you would react differently. Everyone is different and when the survival brain is engaged, all this well-meaning advice will do is turn you into another ‘tiger’ that needs to be escaped or fought. For someone who has a freeze response, they may shut down communication completely.
- Offer practical steps where appropriate/required. Crisis response is the one area where directive action is appropriate and helpful. As we have learnt, the survival brain engaged can compromise cognitive reasoning. In the event where action is required, it is appropriate to be directive to help the person make a decision. For example, ‘we will both go to the testing station and get tested first thing tomorrow’.
- As the person moves to a space of disengaging the survival brain, they then can explore the alternative meaning. This is the space where finding their own experiences of tough times from their past can be helpful. For example, ‘I have had other troubles and I have gotten through them’, ‘I couldn’t see it at the time but now I see how this has made me stronger’ is the type of meaning that facilitates the building of resilience.
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