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Resilience; an Integrative Perspective

resilience benefits written on board

By Dr. Lawrence Cheng, MD (from Summer issue of LivePure Journal)

Life on earth has survived through billions of years because of its ability to adapt to changes. All living things today are the product of this evolutionary intelligence. We wouldn’t be here reading this article if we didn’t have resilience engineered into our DNA. We are in fact wired to survive! And resilience is a part of that wiring. 

What is the definition of resilience?

Resilience can be defined as a process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, threats, and stressors. 

But resilience is a dynamic process and not a fixed trait. Resilience is more of a capacity and a skill that we can learn and continuously practice to build and grow, like a muscle. 

Resilience is an emergent property that arises from the complex interplay between your genes and your environment over the course of your entire lifespan.  

Your ability to deal with a current stressor depends on your capacity to respond (physical to psychological), which in turn is dependent on how you’ve learned to respond to challenges in the past.  

These challenges can include anything from injury to infections, toxins, or chronic stress, both physical and emotional.  

As we learn and grow in our lifetimes, we can become more resilient as our systems learn to adapt to stressors over time. As long as we’re able to continue to maintain a physiologic (homeostasis) and nervous system balance, we can learn to be resilient. 

Stress in our lives is not inherently good or bad. I have always liked this quote by Adyashanti, “Stress is what happens between the ears. Everything else is just a situation.”  

A stressful event doesn’t necessarily have to mean distress. Distress is what causes a chronic unregulated flight or fright (sympathetic) nervous system state than can lead to negative health impacts.

But stress can actually be good for you. Good stress, which has been called ‘eustress,” is an opportunity for growth and increasing our resilience. Hormesis is a physiologic concept that certain amounts of stress cause a favourable biologic response, exercise and fasting are examples. 

Part of being resilient is not automatically equating a stressor with being bad, and to instead recognize that how we perceive the stressor is critical. We have no control over most external events in our lives, but we definitely have much more control than we may think over the perception of these stressful events. 

Why is resilience important? 

Physical resilience means that you can withstand environmental stressors, threats, and infections; that you recover quickly from injury and illness and continue to maintain normal functioning. Emotional resilience allows you to recover in a positive way after setbacks, challenges, and perceived stressors. 

Resilience on a body-system level means that our cells, tissues, and organs can maintain homeostasis when subject to changes in environment. Homeostasis is from the Greek roots “stable” and “same.”   

A resilient living system is a system that can obtain all the necessary inputs for survival, maintain core physiological systems, be able to sense and appropriately respond to threats, repair damage, and restore function and balance. The levers that we can use to modulate these functions include our key lifestyle factors.  

Our bodies’ ability to obtain nutrient rich, ideally chemical-free whole foods, and then properly digest, absorb, and utilize these key nutrients to drive our biochemistry, is vital for growth, repair, and cellular functioning.   

Adequate sleep, at 7 to 8 hours consistently, is non-negotiable in this regard as well. Regular exercise that includes aerobic, resistance, and stretching is also key to a resilient physical body; maintaining functional movement as well as optimizing metabolism.  

Given that our nervous system is what controls everything in our bodies, our ability to self-regulate our nervous system (our distress tolerance) is a critical piece of resilience.  

In terms of keeping a balanced and resilient nervous system, modern neuroscience is beginning to show us the power of awareness coupled with learned practices such as meditation, yoga, breath work, and others. 

A resilient body forms the basis of a resilient mind but this relationship is likely bi-directional. A resilient mind is one that is flexible, adaptive, compassionate and integrated.  

How we think and how we direct our attention has the power to create our awareness, consciousness and neural connections. Once again, these are skills that we learn, practice, develop, reinforce, and continually refine over time. 

Ultimately, resilience is not just an individual attribute but an ecological/cultural construct. Our resilience as an individual is inter-dependent of our social, community, and ecological networks. 

We are not separate from each other or the planet, and the recognition of this is key to our resilience as individuals and our survival as a species. Resilience comes from deep inside us and from the support around us. It is a capacity that we can develop and nurture.  

We can grow stronger, resist infections, heal from trauma, be more loving and compassionate, be more connected and find greater depth of meaning and appreciation in our lives, even through the challenges and adversities that find us along our journey.

Dr. Lawrence Cheng, MD, CCFP(EM), MPH, is clinical co-director and co-founder of Connect Health Centre for Integrative and Functional Medicine.