Resilience. It’s a word we’ve heard countless times over the past year and a bit because of the Covid pandemic. Most people have some sense of what it means but not really sure about their own level of resilience or, if and how, they can develop it or improve it in any way. And if they did, what that would really mean for their experience of life, their relationships, their work and more.
I confess, historically, I’ve not been the most resilient person. I’m more resilient now than ever before but still not where I would like to be, even though I work on it every day. This may not be what most people expect to hear from a life coach and resilience trainer, but it’s the truth.
My past is checkered with anxiety and depression and the trauma it left within. I would take a hit and not only go down, I’d stay down. And a hit could be something that most people wouldn’t even register as a hit or drain on their systems. I’ve needed to build my resilience and work on it to save my life. I hope I can share a perspective or two and some information that might help you make sense of your own emotions, states and patterns.
In this article, I’ll offer 2 complementary definitions or ways to think about resilience so we can really get to the heart of it.
I’ll blend 2 models relating to resilience, so you can get a feel for your own relationship with resilience, which might help you realize you could change or optimize some things in your life or the way you manage your inner world (how you think, feel, act).
Finally, I’ll share a bit about the heart itself, and how we can leverage it in mindbody self-regulation practices, as well as in connection to others, to cultivate our resilience.
What is Resilience?
The Polyvagal Theory – The Autonomic Nervous System
including the influence of the Ventral Vagus & Dorsal Vagus
Neuroception – Sensing Danger & Threat
Stressors & Triggers
Window of Tolerance
Range of Resilience
Coherence | Heart Rate Variability
Leveraging our Hearts for Resilience
According to Polyvagal Theory creator, Stephen Porges, resilience is the capacity to rapidly return to an autonomic state of calmness following a challenge (to feel safe as marked by being in the Social Engagement System).
The HeartMath Institute says, resilience is the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, challenge or adversity. I like to add, ‘so that we can not only survive, but flourish and thrive’.
The shorthand definition I use with my clients is a combination of the above: Resilience is the capacity to come back to our true selves in a state of calm after challenges, adversity, stress, pain or setbacks.
Though these definitions are clear and elegant, the reality is that resilience is much more complex and personal than we realize.
It’s not just bouncing back like a weeble-wobble after taking a hit, such as a stressful event or adverse situation. If we say it’s bouncing back – where are we bouncing back from and to?
Life can be full of constant or enduring stressful events, adversity, drains and dangers, not just one-time events that happen now and again. So, our picture of resilience needs to include a capacity to endure adversity or sustained arousal (pressure, stress, challenge) while staying in a zone of wellbeing in which we can still be our authentic selves, feel connected, vital and whole, and perform our best (managing our thoughts, emotions & behavior for the highest good).
Not everyone’s built that way and each person brings something very personal to the story of resilience – their nervous system and their personal history from a psycho-physiological perspective.
We can explore this by looking at resilience through the lens of our nervous system as informed by the Polyvagal Theory.
The Polyvagal Theory is the work of Stephen Porges, and can be summed up as the science of safety. The theory describes an autonomic nervous system that is influenced by the central nervous system and responds to signals from both the external environment and our inner world in order to keep us safe and ultimately flourishing and connected socially with others.
The theory emphasizes that the human autonomic nervous system has a predictable pattern of reacting to stimuli and it does so in a hierarchical, predictable way.
It’s called Polyvagal because it centers around the functions of the 10th cranial nerve, the wandering nerve, which has two main branches, one that reaches from our heads to our heart & lungs (Ventral Vagus) and the other essentially to our guts (Dorsal Vagus). One works with the visceral organs above the diaphragm and the other below. More detail below about the functions of each branch.
The nervous system is really complex, so this will be a very simplified model to help us understand our basic architecture or wiring. Understanding this can help you track where you are, what happens to you as you ride the wave/s of your own stress/arousal reactions and cycles and who you become or how you behave in those states.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
The part of our nervous system that we’ll focus on here is the Autonomic Nervous System or ANS, which is responsible for all the automatic & unconscious body functions or processes like our heart beating, our digestion working, our body temperature, our cells regenerating and so on.
The ANS also controls or regulates our stress response – that is what happens to our bodies and minds and emotions, when our system detects danger or a threat, that is, when it gets activated to help us get through a dangerous or life threatening situation, survive and return to a state of safety.
Many of us know about the ANS consisting of 2 main branches but the Polyvagal Theory adds a third element. The two main branches are the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The third element or branch we live in is called the Social Engagement System (SES) in the Polyvagal Theory.
To help explain this, we can think of our ANS kind of like a car, which has a gas pedal, a foot brake and an emergency brake.
From here on, I’ll use some acronyms – so this might help:
The Sympathetic Nervous Systems (SNS)
The Sympathetic Nervous System or SNS is like the Gas Pedal – it mobilizes energy – it gets us moving. It kicks into gear if we are in some kind of danger (a stressor) to protect us and keep us alive through what’s commonly known as the Fight/Flight response. It shuts off many important functions in the body in order to summon as much energy and survival power to the organs and parts that need it. We’ll explore that more later.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
The Parasympathetic Nervous System or PNS is like the Brake Pedal – it slows things down and immobilizes us, and regulates or offsets our stress response (Fight/Flight) so our bodies can reinitiate those important functions that weren’t needed for survival but are needed for health, growth and restoration, like digestion, immunity and repair for instance.
The Emergency Brake
And, like a car, we also have an Emergency Brake – a part of the PNS initiated by the Dorsal Vagus Nerve that initiates a Freeze response to completely immobilize us and slow everything down. Our evolutionary ancestors needed this response to get through situations where they couldn’t flee or fight. Often just freezing in place, like a scared rabbit or feigning death like a possum, is what helped them survive because their predators lost interest in an object that didn’t move or seemed dead. It also helps, under very dire circumstances when survival is at stake and the only way to get through it is to bide our time and conserve as much energy as possible.
Let me introduce a popular graphic supplied by therapist Ruby Jo Walker that people have been using to show a stress activation cycle:
Our body, as a system, has a threat detection system on at all times that operates unconsciously. Sensing for danger or threat is called Neuroception. With a neuroception of safety, we are in our Social Engagement System marked by feelings of connection, calmness, openness, presence, compassion and pretty much all the feelings that make life feel rich and wonderful.
As soon as the body detects real or perceived danger (we can create a stress or danger response by thought alone), we leave the Safe & Social SES, the brake comes off the PNS and the SNS is activated until the danger is resolved. We may feel anything from slight tension to worry to irritation to anger to complete panic or rage – depending on which response is active – flight or fight – which depends on our histories and our homeostatic baseline (where we live most of the time – ideally in SES but not necessarily true for everyone).
In survival terms, it’s easiest and most efficient to avoid danger – to flee. We don’t have to see it as cowardly running away from a threat – it just makes sense to sidestep it altogether if possible. For example, it would be dangerous and harmful to put your hand on a hot stove. As soon as your hand comes close to so much heat, your SNS kicks into gear and you mobilize energy and pull your hand back without even thinking about it. Thanks SNS!
Say we’re not talking about a stove but a mean, hot headed boss… we may want to avoid her too because fighting with her may not be the best option for your career.
What happens when we can’t avoid or flee a dangerous situation, we start getting annoyed, irritated or angry. Some people go here right away – they don’t flee from confrontation, they charge ahead with some hostility as their best defense. If they were a dog, they’d be showing their teeth.
The greater the danger (which is unconsciously subjective), the higher the arousal level in our bodies and depending on who or what our opponent is (person or situation), that may be enough to handle the danger and the brake pedal or PNS kicks in to bring our arousal level back down, the Ventral Vagus Nerve activates and brings us back to feeling safe and social, the state for health, growth and restoration.
What happens when the danger is prolonged or beyond our ability to cope? That’s when we reach our tipping point and we move into overwhelm. The dorsal vagus nerve puts on the emergency brake. It clamps down on the SNS and immobilizes us. We are in a state of fear and immobility – kind of like having the gas and the brake pedals fully pressed down at the same time, which is marked by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, shame, or shutdown. We dissociate more than normal, and can become quite disembodied, numb and depressed.
If the threatening situation resolves, it may take some time to come out of the freeze/faint response but we don’t go straight to Safe and Social (SES). Our bodies must go through a deactivation cycle – meaning we re-enter Sympathetic activation before we come back to SES, which is often alarming and quite taxing, feeling like it’s just too much, often sending the person back to shutdown.
I’ve taken another graphic from therapist and human-equine trauma recovery trainer, Sarah Schlote, and flipped it upside down and modified the coloring somewhat to tell the same story from a different perspective.
Imagine being in the Social Engagement System (SES) feels wonderful, expansive, open, loving and free. We are in our best selves. We are in SELF (our core essence – see Self Leadership), connected to ourselves and others, open, warm-hearted, compassionate, curious, creative, courageous. The Ventral Vagus nerve is active and thus, we are feeling safe. We can be active/aroused without fear (play, sports, challenge) and we can also be passive/still without any fear (intimacy, mediation, presence).
The image above shows gradients of color. We don’t just jump from calm and connected (green – safe – go) to fight and flight. We can enjoy some sympathetic activation and play in this space without getting fully triggered to a flight or fight reaction. The more intense or dangerous (as deemed unconsciously by neuroception) a situation gets though, and we will leave SES for SNS. We’re leaving the gradient of green/yellow to yellow (safety to danger) and when we flip the image upside down as I have above, it looks our expansive world is shrinking, we’re being gripped and choked by fear, more constricted and contracted the more dangerous and arousing a situation is, falling down a steep hill that’s hard to climb back up again.
Let’s skip the sabre-tooth tiger ‘survival scenarios’ and talk about real, modern life. What activates us or triggers us today is very different than what triggered our ancestors. To be clear, what stresses us are situations that we feel or fear are too much to handle – beyond our perceived ability to cope. What triggers us could be anything to remind us of what stresses us, or puts this kind of pressure or squeeze on our system (usually driving a sympathetic response).
A simple thought of sharing our honest opinions and feelings with others may feel quite dangerous to our nervous system. We could offend someone or we could be judged harshly, which threatens our feelings of safety and belonging. Especially if we really care what other people think of us.
Simply going to the office, for some people, may bring them into SNS all day. The pressure, the deadlines, the culture, may all contribute to feeling unsafe and bring on a stress response.
If we’re chronically stressed, guess what, we’re not healing or restoring properly, we’re not digesting properly, other systems aren’t functioning optimally like our immune systems. Also, our heart rate is up, blood pressure is up, adrenaline and cortisol are flowing through our bodies. We’re in survival mode and as a result, we are impaired – our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains responsible for conscious, deliberate thought and executive functions is limited, which makes things feel even more stressful because we really can’t think effectively.
What do we do? We try to get some kind of fix. We adapt in some way. We don’t necessarily quit our jobs or abandon relationships. We endure them but have a variety of soothing and stabilizing behaviors like finding a friend to help us co-regulate, or fawning – appeasing and people-pleasing behaviors to reduce the potential for someone being angry at us or not liking us. Or we consume substances and engage in activities that provide some temporary relief, which may turn into habits and addictions as a way of coping with life.
We may then go into flight and then fight. Some people jump to fight right away, however. Imagine that really defensive kind of person who can’t take any kind of critical feedback. As soon as you offer one bit of feedback that suggests they’re not absolutely perfect, they lose their ground and center, and get overly emotional (aroused), sometimes acting like a child throwing a tantrum. Others who get threatened by feelings of inadequacy may bully and dominate others and push them around, which is non-physical form of the fight response.
The places we go, the responses in us that are triggered come from our past experiences, especially the ones in childhood. These events and whether or not we had the loving, attuned presence of caregivers to soothe our nervous systems (co-regulate with us) and bring us back to feelings of safety, set our nervous systems up for life. Our past set our baseline and range of resilience.
Adverse and traumatic experiences, which are more common and every day than we realize or are willing to recognize, as well as long-term, unresolved, chronic stress, can throw the system into dysregulation and change our baseline later in life as well.
Moving from the yellow zone toward the yellow/red gradient and into red, our body is pulling the emergency brake (the dorsal vagus nerve). When we get overwhelmed, which for some can happen very quickly, and we can’t resolve our stressors or change them, we may go into our freeze response and begin shutting down. This may be very short (a moment of forgetfulness, the loss of our words and ability to think clearly) or it may last for months and years (depression). The person, never really feeling safe, not feeling that they have it in them to handle and cope with the challenges in their lives, their attempts at evading danger or fighting for themselves have failed (or bypassed altogether), and so the only thing that may work to keep them alive is to zone out and shut down.
Remember, these aren’t conscious, deliberate choices we make. Our bodies (nervous systems) are doing it for us to help us survive.
The body conserves energy making one feel tired, heavy, sluggish, in a fog, disconnected from their bodies, numb, depressed and without any hope. They may avoid people, wall themselves off, withdraw from their social networks and lose all interest in any activities that were once engaging and enjoyable. The color here, continuing with the metaphor, turns from red to blue to symbolize being frozen or shutdown. This can be a very scary place to some people, and like home to others.
Let me introduce and transpose a model proposed by neuroscientist, Daniel Siegel, called The Window of Tolerance. A zone marked by the range of activation or arousal we can effectively or best live in.
A healthy or optimal nervous system can tolerate fair amounts of sympathetic arousal and will come back to parasympathetic rest and repair with ease and grace (SES). Vacillating like a wave up and down, and up and down, in flow, without getting stuck in one state.
The zone is different for everyone. Some may have a narrow or contracted window, others larger or wider. Some may be in higher arousal, some lower. This would be their typical, habituated baseline.
For those with adverse childhood experiences and/or those with some kind of trauma, or chronic toxic stress, or said another way, for those who’s nervous systems don’t function optimally, once triggered, may get stuck in SNS or stuck in PNS for extended periods of time.
If SNS is stuck on (Hyperarousal) we may feel: anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, inability to relax, exaggerated startle response, restlessness, hypervigilance, digestive problems, emotional flooding, chronic pain, sleep issues, hostility/rage.
If PNS is stuck on (Hypoarousal) we may feel: depressed, flat, lethargic, chronic fatigue, exhaustion, disconnected, disoriented, numb, frozen, low blood pressure, poor digestion, sadness, helplessness and hopelessness.
For resilience, we want to be able to expand our window or zone of tolerance, to have a bigger plate so to speak, so our plates don’t get so filled so quickly bringing us into overwhelm or shutdown.
There is work to do in our lives to reduce our stressors and the drains on our nervous systems – not by avoiding everything important and hiding away but by responsibly, bravely and with much self-compassion, taking a stand for ourselves and putting an end to situations we are no longer willing to tolerate. This means leaving toxic environments for enhancing ones, asserting ourselves and meeting our needs more effectively and wisely, ending or transforming abusive relationships, especially with ourselves.
We can work to empty our plates more often, but also to learn how to increase the size of our plates so we can be effective in more situations without being highly triggered and overwhelmed.
This is easier said than done and requires working with multiple factors – our physiology, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, our repertoire of adaptive and life-enhancing principles and behaviors and more. Indeed, for most of us, much healing is needed and that is best done in connection with others.
The ultimate aim is to get us back (or finally for once) into Safe and Social (SES), back into our true selves and connected with others. It is here where we can not only rest and digest, restore and repair, tend and befriend, but since all of our faculties are at our disposal, we can deeply learn and grow and begin to reset our nervous systems to a new baseline.
And what is this state of feeling safe like, you might wonder? Just think what we all really want – we just want to feel at peace, calm, and at ease. If you’re not feeling those feelings, you’re not in the SES.
We can increase our range of resilience but to do so, we need to intervene at a deeper level in the body. This can’t just be top-down – from the head or intellect. We can’t forcefully think or talk ourselves into feelings of safety. Our bodies just don’t believe us.
One of the reasons I called this article the Heart of Resilience is because we can leverage our hearts to help us bring the mind and body together into a more optimal state of being.
I have an article on HRV and Coherence in the works, so this will just be a brief primer.
We all know we can measure our heart rate – e.g. 60 beats per minute. Most people think the heart beats at equal intervals – e.g. 1 beat per second. But our hearts don’t beat in perfect rhythm – and they aren’t meant to.
When we inhale, the SNS is activated and our heart beats more quickly. When we exhale, the PNS is activated and our hearts beat more slowly.
Try this: Loosen up, take in one long breath through your nose, hold it for a second or two, then extend the exhale through your nose or mouth – as long as you comfortably can. How do you feel? A tiny bit more relaxed?
That’s because you activated the parasympathetic system.
The space between beats is always different and it has a meaning that our brains and bodies respond to. This space between the beats is called Heart Rate Variability (or HRV).
When we’re in the yellow to red zones (SNS to PNS), our nervous systems aren’t in homeostasis. We’re meant to get out of danger, resolve the stressor, and get back to safe and social. Until then, our bodies aren’t in their optimal state. Optimal to survive perhaps, but not to conduct every day life.
Recall all the states shown in the polyvagal charts above: worry, concern, anxiety, fear, panic, annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger, rage, shame, helplessness, guilt, despair. Ever feel any of those? Of course you do, you’re human.
Under these conditions or states, what our HRV looks like when it’s represented as a wave – is more erratic, jagged, and chaotic. This is an incoherent state.
When we experience positive emotions, we must be somewhere in or very close to our SES (social engagement system) and our HRV rhythm is balanced, smooth and even.
When we are in Psycho-Physiological Coherence, we are in mental, emotional and physical harmony, an optimal state of functioning.
The Ventral Vagus is in direct contact with the heart (and everything above the diaphragm). High HRV, high coherence, is roughly the same as saying high vagal tone.
What that means, very basically, is that we are excellent surfers, riding the waves of arousal (fear or stress provoking situations, environments, relationships, etc.), always coming back to ourselves, to our hearts, back to safe and social, back to health, growth and restoration.
As discussed above, in this state we are:
- more intelligent,
- more whole brained,
- more creative,
- more resourceful,
- more balanced,
- more peaceful,
- more calm,
- more contented,
- more energized,
- more relaxed but also calmly alert,
- more curious,
- more compassionate, caring, interested for the welfare of others,
- and our bodies are working the way they’re meant to, our immune system functions better, our bodies heal better and more quickly.
We actually can have a lot of conscious control over the process of creating increased coherence and that’s really good for us.
In The HeartRich Resilience Fundamentals, I train people in a variety of mind-body exercises, one of which is The Quick Coherence Technique developed by The HeartMath Institute.
It involves rhythmic breathing, while focusing attention on our hearts, while generating a heart-rich emotion like love, compassion, appreciation, gratitude, care, and the like.
It may sound hokey and even convoluted but I offer this practice because it’s been studied so much and applied around the world by many credible sources. It’s been one of the most important practices I’ve ever learned and I practice it and apply it daily.
Much like a mindfulness practice (it is a mindfulness + heart practice) it requires devoting time to practice formally, and to use it throughout the day whenever one feels they could use it to shift back to a more calm/safe/coherent state.
It can be used before, during and after any stressful activity like an uncomfortable conversation, a presentation, a speech, a sale, or a date. Use it any moment you want to have greater access your heart to be more kind, caring and compassionate to someone who needs it, when you want to bring out the best in yourself, and others.
Why not give it a try now?
Activating Our Hearts for Connection
Many people naturally gravitate towards others for connection when they’re feeling scared, stressed or sad. The caring, attuned presence (and coherence) of another person, can help us come back to regulation. This is called coregulation. With the ventral vagus activated, our hearts are open, our faces look calm and caring, our voices are prosodic (melodic not monotonous). When in the presence of a person in this state, we feel seen, heard and understood by them. Lovingly held by them, so to speak, which calms and soothes us, and our nervous system returns to the Social Engagement System or close to it.
Trying to connect with others who aren’t present, attuned and in their own social engagement system, but are in sympathetic or dorsal dominance, might seem like a losing battle. We can each add further dysregulation and stress to our systems. We can trigger and provoke each other, and increase our stress responses, taking us further away from the SES and from one another. Some people, based on their attachment histories, simply don’t feel safe with other humans but they might with other types of mammals, like our pets. I know many people who prefer the companionship and connection of their dogs or cats or horses, to other humans for just such reasons.
That said, there is plenty of reason to hope, we can learn to open and activate our hearts for connection and coregulation, even if we have to start alone in the safety of solitude. There are many exercises and practices we can learn to nurture our felt sense of safety (peace, calm, ease) and connection to our selves, which we can then bring to connection with others.
- Time in nature
- heart focused breathing & a whole variety of breathing & self regulation practices
- nurturing positive emotion
- feeling gratitude and appreciation
- loving-kindness meditation
- singing, chanting, humming
- some forms of yoga
- some forms of exercise
- intentional cold exposure (like cold showers)
- doing kind deeds for others
- prayer to a loving source
- tai chi / qigong
- calming music
The heart of resilience, the core of it, is the ability to quickly bring our whole selves back to a state of optimal functioning – one that’s only possible when the body feels safe. In this state, our bodies, minds and sense of self (spirit) are in harmony, not only with ourselves but with others.
I hope this was helpful and that you’re taking away something that will help you whatever your history and range of resilience, to come back to your Self, back to Safety, and back to your heart so you can not only cultivate your own resilience and wellbeing but be a safe, caring and attuned presence for others.