We’re all survivors. Every human being on the planet has had to survive some unwelcome life event: breaking up, getting fired, the death of a family member or loved one. Life is unpredictable at best.
Some of us have endured more than our fair share of life challenges. When these hiccups in life come along, each one of us deals with it differently. What to some seems like a relatively minor problem can completely throw others into a panic. Different things trigger different people.
Then we come across people who have endured incredible amounts of loss, hardship, pain or trauma and have managed to overcome with dignity, grace and an almost incredible sense of peace and acceptance for what has been. These people have learned the secret. The secret of resilience.
As I mentioned earlier, we all deal with crappy situations differently. Some people are born survivors. It is hardwired into their DNA. These people are born with a kind of inner steel. When things get rough they grit their teeth, set their jaw and prepare to ride out the storm. It’s a natural instinct to survive. In their psyche, it is not an option to run and hide or crumble in to pieces.
Running away is a very useful, primal instinct designed to preserve us from death, real or imagined. However, this state of heightened alertness or readiness to deal with the imminent threat cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Once the threat has passed, we need to make a deliberate effort to return to a more relaxed, calm state, but most of us have never learned this skill. To recover from a stressful situation or life event, we need to allow for time to mentally digest what has happened, allowing the body to physically rest and recooperate; allowing any emotions triggered by the event to come to surface, and be processed.
The body’s initial reaction to a stressful or traumatic situation is to flood itself with adrenaline and other natural chemicals that heighten our alertness and make us feel stronger and braver than we normally are. This is why people are able to perform amazing acts of bravery in the face of extreme danger in order to rescue someone from a potentially life-threatening situation without thinking twice. This very useful, natural physiological response can, however, turn against us if we do not know how to “reset”.
This is where resilience comes in. The word resilience means “to bounce back from” or “the power or ability to return to the original form”. The concept of resilience has become so popular in the last few years. We are beginning to recognise that this ability to endure stress or hardship but not become brittle or broken is the key to success for individuals, families, businesses and organisations. It is the key to life!
We are amazing as human beings. We have the capacity to survive all kinds of heart wrenching, spirit crushing, physically debilitating circumstances. But it is our learned ability to rise from the ashes, heal ourselves and carry on without bitterness or regret and continue life with love, passion, purpose and a full commitment to being here, that shows true resilience.
But can it be taught or is it something you are just born with? I strongly believe that some people are just born survivors. But does this mean they are resilient? Fortunately or not, I can say that I am one of those people who are born survivors. For years and years I held on to life with a white-knuckled grip. It makes me sad now to think how many years I held on and held on waiting for the storm to pass and guess what? It never did. This was because my mind and emotions and body were stuck in survival mode.
Life was going on around me. People were laughing, playing, enjoying life. They were making friends, socialising, falling in love, having families and all the while in my body and mind I was stuck in a war zone. I had survived the storm but never realised it was over and the sun was shining again, the birds were chirping, the clouds had dissappeared. I began to realise after way too long that I was doing life the hard way. There had to be an easier, softer, more joyful way.
This is when I discovered the secret of focusing on the present moment. I slowly learned to focus on all the things I did have in my life and not the things I didn’t. I began to learn to bring my awareness back from ruminating about the distressing and painful events of the past and gently redirect it back again to the now. This became my daily practice.
It is difficult to do because it is in our nature to project our thoughts into the future or dwell on things of the past. It’s what we do as humans. And it isn’t always bad things that take our attention away from the present. It can be sadness that we no longer have a particular person in our life anymore. We can sometimes habitually think back to a time when we were perhaps younger and carefree and in a place where everything was perfect for a moment. This can cause us to feel dissatisfaction with our current situation where maybe we don’t look so youthful anymore, our social circle has changed or a number of other reasons.
Or we can project into the future through excitement about highly anticipated events. We might be going on a holiday or getting married or building a new house. These are all happy, positive things but can also take away from our appreciation of the awesome things that are happening right now. This projection into the future can also produce anxiety, frustration and/or disappointment. Nothing in the future is certain. We never know how long dreams might take before they become a reality. All of this produces a mental, physical and emotional state of dis – ease and dissatisfaction with the present moment.
A new way of thinking and acting, in a more resilient way, can definitely be learned. But like I mentioned, it needs to become a daily practice, just like exercise. Being fit and healthy isn’t something you achieve, then stop doing. It doesn’t work like that. If you want to be fit and healthy all the time, then you need to make it a part of your daily practice. It takes time for new neural pathways to be produced in the brain that cements a new behaviour or way of being into a new default position.
Spending time regularly practising being in the moment helps break those hardwired patterns of fight or flight. This is the only answer to staying flexible and buoyant enough to deal with everything life throws at you. One can only survive for so long in that state before tiredness, fatigue and despair set in. Living in the present means keeping life flowing through you, instead of constantly bracing your self against it.