A resilience framework – connecting up, down and around

Moving from the Ds to the As


All of us are surrounded by sources of strength, resistance and resilience.  The better connected we are, socially, physically and spiritually, the more stress and challenges we can handle.

You’ll see this theme repeated in my classes and writing. For example, last month, I mentioned “Look up, look down, look around,” which is a wildland firefighting safety lesson about watching out for danger, which inspired this way of looking at resilience. In my pocket guide, Stress Management and Crisis Intervention, the theme of connecting in three dimensions repeats – out, in and up; mind, body, spirit; attitudes, activities and values.

Look around and you see social support, which psychologists repeatedly find has the strongest correlation to our resilience under stress and after trauma. Our co-workers, friends, family, mentors and other supportive people are our first line of strength when challenged or psychologically injured.

Look down and you see your body and the earth – your physical presence in creation. Through activities like yoga, exercise, sports, singing and dancing, we build and maintain connections to ourselves and the physical world. Our minds and bodies are inseparably linked when it comes stress. For example, science has found that a physical measurement, heart rate variability (HRV), correlates to both psychological and physical resilience. HRV is amazing in one respect – it doesn’t just measure your resilience, you can actually improve your ability to handle stress through biofeedback that increases your HRV. If that doesn’t convince you of how intimately our minds and bodies are linked, nothing will.

Look up and be reminded that the universe is vaster than we can comprehend, that as much as we can and should try to dissect and understand it, awe and mystery transcend logic and rationality. Spirituality in this context has to do with values and meaning, which often comes from religious beliefs.

(I included links to the Mayo Clinic web site because unlike so many stress management books and articles, they offer advice that embraces all three dimensions. Their books on stress and resilience are among the few that I recommend.)

When you are connected to these sources of strength and resilience, you know them – and they know you – with your body, heart and spirit. This is a kind of knowing that is beyond familiarity, information or even wisdom. It is a knowing that only arises from living in true relationships. It is knowing the way you know your spouse, your work, your community, your beliefs. This is the knowing that you can never completely put into words.

Looking at resilience as the result of our connections is simple and powerful. It explains our hunger for social media, as well as why it doesn’t truly satisfy (the connections are shallow and often deceptive). It shows why one-dimensional “stress management,” which usually focuses only on the physical, rarely succeeds. It helps us know where to focus when our resilience is low.

The biggest obstacle to connecting is distrust, especially when that distrust was learned at a young age. We all learn, to some extent, that we cannot trust other people, the universe or the divine, so we disconnect and become wary. If we have been deeply betrayed, some of these connections can seem threatening, even terrifying.

Distrust keeps us stuck in the “Ds” – discipline, domination, deception, drama, delay, docility, demandingness, or defiance. We are stuck socially when we don’t have people we can be real with. We are physically stuck when our health prevents us from exercising or experiencing nature. When forgiveness seems out of reach, for ourselves or others, we are spiritually stuck.

When we see and choose how to restore and nurture our weakest connections – which can be very difficult – we move from the “Ds” into the “As” – accepting, accompanying, attending, allowing, authenticity, affection, and agreement. The essence of resilience is how well we build and maintain the attitudes, activities and values that feed these qualities.