Resilience, redefined

Learn more during this Q&A with author Linda Graham.

By Kim Corbin

Everyone knows what it’s like to be knocked off centre, to lose their inner sense of balance and groundedness, at least temporarily, when faced with life’s unwanted curve balls. Whether it’s a troubling health diagnosis, the death of a loved one, a serious car accident, a layoff, or a natural disaster, life can intensely challenge our resilience.

In Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster (New World Library, October 2, 2018), author and psychotherapist Linda Graham, guides readers step by step through a process of cultivating more wellbeing in their lives by strengthening their resilience so that they can respond skillfully to any upset or catastrophe that would derail that wellbeing. We hope you’ll enjoy this short interview with her about the book.

Q: The title of your book is Resilience and I am curious how you would define that word.

A: Traditionally resilience has been thought of as traits: grit, hardiness, determination, will to survive, etc, which are all important.  The behavioural sciences now look at three factors that determine a person’s level of resilience: the severity of the external stressors a person is facing, the strength and availability of external resources the person can draw on for support, and the internal strengths mentioned above, grit, hardiness, etc. and qualities like courage, compassion, awareness.  I would include in that list from the behavioural sciences the strength of the internal messages a person tells his or herself that could strengthen or derail their resilience, whether those internal messages are supportive or critical.

Now neuroscience is demonstrating for us that resilience really is a capacity innate in the brain of response flexibility, the ability to shift perspectives, shift views, thus seeing more options, more choices.  So I focus on strengthening capacities in the brain of response flexibility; how someone perceives and responds to experience. As my colleague Frankie Perez says, “How you respond to the issue…is the issue.”

Q: Why do some people react to a potential trauma—losing their home or losing a spouse— by seeming to fall apart, when other people react to the same potential trauma seemingly unscathed, even growing from the experience?

A: This is a huge question.  And even the same person can react to the potential trauma differently at different times in their life, depending on the resilience and resources available at the time.  Capacities of resilience can change over time.

Trauma is generally seen as the overwhelm of a person’s coping mechanisms. So, what is important to consider, even more than the event itself, are the capacities and resources of the person to meet that event. So we strengthen resources and capacities, and even when an event has been traumatizing, a person can recover and develop those capacities and resources to cope more and more skillfully, moving through the processing of the event until they can claim their own recovery, moving into post-traumatic growth and the inner sense of strength, capacities, learning that comes from healing from the trauma.

Q: You also say that resilience is truly recoverable. What do you mean by that? 

A: Because of the brain’s innate neuroplasticity, the capacity to grow new neurons and create new neural circuitry lifelong, we can strengthen the functioning of the brain so that we can create new patterns of response to experience, new behaviours, new habits; we can rewire old habits of response to be more flexible, more adaptable.  We can fundamentally change how we perceive and respond to any events, even challenging events. We become more resilient in our behaviours, and we relate to ourselves as a more resilient person.

Q: You say that we can learn to “change our brains to change our lives for the better.”  Tell us more.

A: Any experience, any experience at all, will cause neurons in the brain to fire—to communicate with each other through electrical and chemical signals.  Repeat the experience, you repeat the neural firing. With enough repetition, you create new neural circuitry that encodes new patterns of behaviour in the brain.  When we choose to cultivate experiences that will create new patterns of circuitry in the brain, we are choosing to change our brains in ways that will change our lives for the better.

Linda Graham, MFT, is the author of Resilience and also Bouncing Back, the winner of a 2013 Books for a Better Life Award. She is an experienced psychotherapist who integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices, and relational psychology in her international trainings on resilience and well-being. Visit her online at www.lindagraham-mft.net.

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