Resiliency – Facing Fear
Posted on December 6, 2013
Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Excited to be in Pittsburgh this week speaking on the trauma informed paradigm at the World AIDS Day Conference. Great folks! And I learned so much from my fellow presenters. Since we are well into the holiday season I thought I would pick one of my favorite topics for the next few posts.
Living on the north face of a mountain our house does not get much direct sun this time of year. As southern sun crosses the mountains it can seem like a sunset most of the day. Enjoying this effect yesterday I realized that soon the sun would hit its low point and then start to rise gradually again after the solstice. This made me want to talk this month about the resiliency research I have been doing lately, like the southern sun, we too can rise out of darkness.
Writing about resiliency the day that we lost Nelson Mandela was a powerful thing. If we need a role model for resiliency Mandela provide such a wonderful example of the concepts I will be covering over this month.
The first aspect of resiliency research I want us to consider is facing our fear. Beginning as stress, fear is an internal reaction to a stimulus in the environment that pushes us towards an action response. When stress overwhelms our capacity it can become traumatizing and we are left with fear even if the threat has past.
I really like Al Seibert’s definition of resiliency: “Resiliency means being able to bounce back from life developments that may feel totally overwhelming at first. When resilient people have their lives disrupted, they handle their feelings in healthy ways. They allow themselves to feel grief, anger, loss, and confusion when hurt and distressed, but they don’t let it become a permanent feeling state. An unexpected outcome is that they not only heal, they often bounce back stronger than before.”
Fear is a tricky thing. We use fear to keep us away from danger. In our evolution we have had much to fear—from predators to other humans trying to harm us. Our brain grew up in a dangerous world and evolution structured our brains to fear things that were unknown or represented something that caused us or our tribe harm in the past.
Resiliency involving rising back up stronger when we are knocked down. In order to build resiliency we must face the thing that knocked us down in the first place. Fear is designed to keep us from getting knocked down by a similar thing that hurt us in the past. The tough part comes when we fear that thing so much that we cannot summon the courage to get back up. When we are down, our limbic system is in control. The limbic system is great at the fight, flight or freeze response that helps us survive the fall, but it is not as helpful in the recovery process.
Resiliency can only happen when energy shifts from our emotional systems to our cognitive systems. This might sound simple but our brain is designed to hold on to fear and hardwire the memories associated with the harmful event into our long term memory. We are designed to avoid fear and use our limbic system to provide the energy to fight or escape experiencing pain in the future. It takes courage and mindfulness to conquer fear and not be conquered by our limbic systems.
Let’s look at this mix of courage and mindfulness in more detail. We must have courage to face something that was bigger than ourselves and overwhelmed our coping ability. Facing what knocked us down means also facing the powerful emotions associated with past harm.
Courage to face the memory destabilizes it in our brain for a brief moment. This destabilization allows us to reconstruct it through mindful practice before it is reestablished in our long term memory. Initially facing fear will bring up the intense emotions associated with the pain. If our courage allows us to persevere through the pain we can use mindful awareness to gain cognitive control over our fear essentially taking away its power over us.
Mindfulness gives our cognitive brain an opportunity to restructure our brain by introducing statements such as:
- The danger is past and my response is no longer keeping me safe.
- I am a stronger person from having survived this pain and it will allow me to be stronger in the face of future challenges.
- This event happened to me and is not a reflection on the person I am today.
- Others have experienced similar pain and have become stronger because of it. I can become stronger as well.
These mindful reframes sound simple, but have been proven very effective to quieting our limbic system and giving our cognitive brain control of our actions. Mindfulness helps us catch ourselves when we fall back into fear based responses. Awareness allows control and control is a key to the recovery associated with resiliency.
Without courage and mindfulness we will remain a prisoner of fear. Resiliency is a complex psychological phenomenon but it starts with facing the very thing that knocked us down and reclaiming the power it took away from us. This process not only allows us to bounce back but we come back with wisdom gained from the experience. Wisdom can help us prevent being knocked down in the future and also help us recover quicker the next time something difficult happens in our lives. Resiliency can become a skill that can be generalized to other struggles we may encounter.
In the next few weeks we will look at other aspects of resiliency. This week I would like you to consider your work with traumatized clients and ask “how do I (our programs) promote courage and mindfulness for those living with the fear of their traumatic past?” If you have a moment, and some courage, post your thoughts in the comments!