Maintaining ‘Hardiness’ on Life’s Shifting Sands
By Loi Eberle, M.A., C.C.
Our language is filled with metaphors describing life’s ecstatic peaks and depressing valleys. They inspire our art, generate plots for our books and cinema, and resonate in the sound of our music. But when the unthinkable occurs: a natural or man-made disaster, why is it that some people can somehow survive situations that incapacitate others? How is it that some people can dust themselves off and “get back on the horse”? What qualities do they possess? How are they different from those who remain traumatized and frightened after experiencing an intense ordeal?
Psychologists have learned that some people develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] as a result of their trauma. Traumatized people can become at least temporarily debilitated, fearing the future, haunted by their past. Some people never recover. This condition deserves compassion and therapeutic attention from qualified caregivers. We are also learning that while some people develop incapacitating PTSD, others don’t, because they are resilient. They remain functional in the face of tragedy and loss.
Can resilience, also called ‘hardiness,’ be an acquired trait? What qualities help people become “survivors”? Why can some people endure tragedy, and remain able to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological functioning? Psychologists have recognized these “survivors” are not callous, nor are they experiencing delayed grief. Though stricken by their grief and the enormity of their loss, they find a way to function. Because they have resilience, they are less incapacitated by the traumas and the tragedies of life.
Sometimes resilience or ‘resourcefulness’ is due to protective factors in one’s upbringing, such as emotionally stable parents, and a supportive community. This acts as a ‘protective shield’ to help buffer people from risk factors. People born into these settings are fortunate. Some people born into extremely difficult environments also have qualities of ‘hardiness’ as they have found ways to build their resilience. One quality present in resilient people is that they ‘manage their feelings’. Skills helpful in managing strong feelings and impulses include: learning how to make realistic plans, developing self-confidence and a positive self-image, and using good communication skills.
Spiritual teachers and psychologists both recognize the benefit of understanding and working with the mind to learn these skills. Tom Pilarzyk, a social scientist and yoga instructor, explains that yoga as well as cognitive therapy both teach the mind to become less distractible and more aware of one’s patterns. He writes in Yoga Beyond Fitness: “Yoga [teaches]… the development of self-understanding, non-attachment to expectation and outcome, all-encompassing love, acceptance of self and other, and taking responsibility for one’s own contentment.” Psychologists would consider these skills to be part of cognitive self-regulation.
Both disciplines agree that by working with our mind, we can learn various techniques to enhance cognitive self-regulation and maintain focus on our goal. We can choose which beliefs we wish to embrace to motivate ourselves. The important skill of self-efficacy can be learned by accomplishing a series of small tasks so we can demonstrate step-by-step to ourselves our ability to accomplish our goal. Acknowledging our small successes gives us ‘evidence’ to build a belief in our self-efficacy.
We can also learn how to enhance our self-esteem by connecting to an idea that has many names: our inner divinity, our loving heart, our True Being, our soul, our inner Buddha nature. Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodran, explains our “noble or awakened heart…is said to be present in all beings. Just as butter is inherent in milk and oil is inherent in a sesame seed, this soft spot is inherent in you and me…” Through honest reflection, we can begin to connect with that place within ourselves. When we are connected to our true being, our needs become simple; we no longer strive for substitutes for that sense of connection that speaks to us at our core. As we begin to experience a more positive sense of self, it is important to be mindful about avoiding negative internalized self-perceptions. Berating and criticizing ourselves interferes with resilience! It is more helpful to be compassionate with ourselves as well as others.
Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche explains, “It’s easy to achieve lasting happiness – we just have to understand our basic nature. The hard part is getting over our bad habit of seeking happiness in transient experiences. If we really understand that our basic nature is already whole, pure and complete…why do we expect things that are ephemeral and changing by their very nature, to provide us with something stable and secure?” Even in meditation, we have the bad habit of mistaking the fleeting experiences of peace and relaxation for the true relaxation of “feeling at ease with whatever manifests in the present moment. We think that calming the mind means to get rid of thoughts and turbulent emotions, rather than to connect with the natural spaciousness of awareness itself, which doesn’t get any better when there are no thoughts or any worse when there are. We chase the ephemeral experiences of bliss and clarity, all the while missing the profound simplicity of awareness that is with us all the time…The purity of our true nature can’t be found anywhere but in the present moment…it is always right in front of us.”
Another way to develop better cognitive self-regulation is learn to look at our experience in a way that includes objective and reality-based approaches, recognizing how our beliefs can influence our perceptions of events. Also, by developing an “internal locus of control” we determine our actions based on satisfying our own needs and enjoying an action because it aligns with our sense of who we are, rather than doing something for an external reward.
Resilient people have high expectations of themselves and have found a sense of meaning in their life. They are involved in activities they feel good about. They have personal goals, and a belief in their personal agency, their inter-personal problem-solving skills. They have learned that at least to some degree, they can initiate, execute, and control their volitional actions in the world. Also they recognize they are responsible for their actions. With this sense of ‘agency’, they feel capable of taking action to help themselves, while still balancing their personal interests with a sense of responsibility for the greater good.
There are more people who are shown to be resilient during and after violent and life-threatening events than what we might expect. Most current research shows when we can find a way to experience and express positive emotion in the wake of trauma, we are more resilient to loss. Evidently, after experiencing trauma, resilient people experience their emotional pangs and rumination as transient, rather than enduring. Even though they felt sadness, it did “not interfere with their ability to continue to function in other areas of their lives.” They still had the capacity to generate positive emotions and find positive meanings within the problems they have to face.
These ‘resourceful’ people use positive emotions to help them be able to avoid being mired down. Research psychologist Gerorge A. Bonanno defines resilience as “the ability to maintain a stable equilibrium.” In his January 2004 article, Human Resilience, published in the “American Psychologist”, he presents evidence that people who are resilient to loss are the ones who are able to experience their loss in a way that is generative; it creates positive growth.
Granted, being a ‘Pollyanna’ and always looking for the silver lining might annoy some people. Yet, this might be resilience speaking: reminding us that no matter how bleak a situation appears, something positive can possibly emerge from it. Feeling part of something larger than one’s self, both socially and spiritually is also shared by people who are resilient; possibly a source of their strength. Positive emotions can help reduce distress after a disastrous event, helping to quiet, or undo negative emotions. This can lead to increased contact and support from important people in the person’s social environment. Expressing positive emotions such as gratitude, interest and love are ways resilient people cope with traumatic events, and are ways communities buffer their members from risk.
Cognitive skills and attitudes can be developed. Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, in his book Infinite Life suggests we seek deep-seated satisfaction by adopting a new, inspiring, empowering world view. He encourages us to: “liberate ourselves from laziness and despair by using creativity, overcome self-loathing with true self-confidence, and get inspired to eliminate our addictions.” Granted, he is blithely advocating some very challenging tasks. Thurman recognizes that attitudes can be developed through the intentional practice of meditation by adopting the goal of deepening one’s awareness and honesty with oneself. Thurman describes this as using “Creativity Yoga” to change one’s self concept and self efficacy with the goal of finding joy, enthusiasm, unshakable self-confidence, and positive inspiration. This is the antidote, he feels, for laziness, addiction, self-loathing, and despair. Gary Renard, in The Disappearance of the Universe states, “the universe of love does not stop because you do not see it, nor have your closed eyes lost the ability to see.” We can become energized as we become more aware of the love in the world.
Meditation can cause helpful biological changes. The newly emerging field of study about the neurobiological bases of resilience to stress has discovered that the neuropeptide Y (NPY) and 5-Dehydroepiandrosterone (5-DHEA) are thought to limit the stress response by reducing sympathetic nervous system activation and protecting the brain from the potentially harmful effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels. [Charney, DS (February 2004. Am J Psychiatry 161]. Also, the relationship between social support and stress resilience is thought to be mediated by the oxytocin system’s impact on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
A simple way of reducing sympathetic nervous system activation can be done through breath/relaxation techniques and social bonding. All the attitudes described so far can be adopted through intention and practice. Recognizing the benefit of attitude adjustment might be harder on a gray day during mud season, though being motivated to stay vigilant about not allowing negativity to invade one’s thinking will help.
Of course it helps to have a supportive community where the ‘protective factors’ of good parenting and healthy relationships are providing care, support, love and trust. Creating a network of positive engagement in church, school and community life also helps people feel a sense of belonging and involvement which helps reduce feelings of alienation and disengagement. A variety of research shows another way to build protective factors into a community is by helping people socialize into productive roles of work and social leadership, and emphasizing relationships rather than material goals. These protective factors provide a shield that can help buffer all its members from the ravages of stress in high risk situations.
Robert Genn writes in his “Twice-Weekly Letter” [firstname.lastname@example.org]: “So who are we going to blame for our disappointments and our failures? ‘Overcoming’ is also basic to the human psyche, though apparently less frequently applied. I’ve run into quite a few damaged, deafened or distracted artists who have nevertheless made successes of themselves. Crippled, bedridden or battle-scarred does not seem to hold back the tough-minded. Drive, steadfast study and focus add up to character–and, in many cases, character makes success. I hate to drop this little nugget, but a human psyche in possession of even a small amount of personal success is often, but not always, quite deliriously, even delusionally, happy.”
Whether we are coping with the disappointment of a less than successful art show or are reaching deep inside ourselves to find ways to survive a trauma, awareness, contentment, love and interconnectedness can help us get through the darkest night. Feelings of love and interconnection with oneself, with all of life, and the entire cosmos can be a path to experiencing our true being. What better way to inform our art? Expressing our creativity through our art, our prayer and our meditation can lead us to experience our connection to a universal source of energy and find inspiration that can be our source of strength under even the most dire of circumstances.
Loi Eberle is an educational consultant, college placement consultant and parent coach helping struggling teens and others.