Can we learn to be resilient?

Can we learn to be resilient?

“The world breaks everyone and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places.”  Ernest Hemingway

We have all felt that at some point in our life we have been broken.  Whether it was an emotional, physical or mental state of deterioration.  Many things can lead to the status many refer to as, ‘falling to pieces.’   Thankfully, most of us, simply bounce back.  This process is referred to as being resilient.  Although resilience has a clinical meaning, most of us use it for dealing with common adversity (i.e. loss of job, divorce, theft, etc..).

What is resilience?

Resilience has been studied for decades.  Most of the clinical research has been centered on survivors of horrible events, children with various mental disorders or those that are coping with severe trauma.  It was once thought that people were simply born with the attribute of resilience.  New efforts in research have revealed that resilience can also be nurtured.  Resilience can be learned.

According to Diane L. Coutu, author of How Resilience Works, “Resilience is neither ethically good nor bad. It is merely the skill and the capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.”   My interest in the topic is martial in nature. I want to cultivate Krav Maga students to be able to decisively respond to an attacker with focused aggression (and training) that leads to their survival.  The truth is that it is frightening and traumatic to be attacked.  But like any wide range of traumatic events that occur in one’s life, it is critical to develop various types of coping mechanisms.  These lead to having some form of prepared state for events that have a possibility of occurring. I want my students if faced with a frightening situation to first access clear thinking, good decision-making, strength, training and appropriate instincts.

I am referencing two of my favorite sources on the subject. Coutu identified in her Harvard Business Review article that the ability to change, adapt, and improvise, as well as maintain a strong sense of reality are the qualities that give people the ability to overcome hardships.  The second book is written by Karen Reivich, PhD. and Andrew Shatte’s called, The Resilience Factor.  This book presents a very similar list of attributes in order to become more resilient or encourage resilience as Coutu’s summation of the topic.  However, the content I found most valuable for my personal pursuit is that it identifies the need to control emotions, behavior and solve problems while under pressure.  All of which, can be learned and cultivated at any age.  But Reivich and Shatte also reveal that beyond these pragmatic attributes, being optimistic and having empathy for others also leads to an individual’s ability to ‘bounce back’ from even the most traumatic events.

Training Resilience

As I stated before, I was drawn to reading on the subject of resilience to better understand how to foster a resilient nature in my adult martial arts students (particularly those that focus mostly on learning self-defense / Krav Maga).  Most of the attributes associated with a resilient nature are being sought out by our military. Camp Lejeune, Camp Pendleton and Fort Bragg are fostering individuals that make calm decisions, possess clarity under pressure, remain focused when stressed and even retain precision with their fine motor skills during a traumatic event.   Warrior Mind Instructors (their nickname) at these various camps are currently developing these types of mental skill sets through their courses.  By first building the underlying skill, instructors believe that when faced with a battle situation, their soldiers are more likely to survive and even bounce back from a traumatic experience.

The strategy to becoming mentally (intellectually) tough should not be confused with becoming emotionally numb or apathetic. The mention of an empathetic nature by Reivich, and Shatte brings me comfort. In fact, a positive emotional state seems to be identified as an ‘active ingredient’ for resilience that in shared by much of the literature.  The combination of mental dexterity and emphasis on positivity makes me want to sit in on one of the military’s courses.  If the skill of resilience can be taught and integrated into a military course and its foundation re-iterated through advanced training, then it can be done with civilian adults and even myself.

Is Resilience Lost? 

I have always believed that resilience could be learned.   Like many things that we tend to research for our own personal growth, there comes a time to stop.  I feel very fulfilled by this recent topic of interest.  And, I realize there is more to learn.  However, my next phase of exploration is to look at whether regression occurs.  If you train to be resilient and develop the skills, but no longer are placed in positions where it is needed – do you lose your ability to adapt, react and be robust.  Is it like exercise?  Or, like a vaccine?

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