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Our brain is wired to protect us and keep us safe. It has an amazing ability to react to any perceived challenge or threat without us consciously even being aware of it acting. We only become aware of its effects after the fact. We find ourselves breathing faster, our heart starts to pound, and we become aware of feeling emotions such as anger, fear or anxiety. These reactions are driven by the stress hormones the brain releases. These hormones also cause reactions we don’t feel such as a surge in our immune response, increased blood pressure, and an increase in blood sugar and insulin. These are all helpful and good responses to help us meet the challenge. Once the stressor is managed then all of these responses turn off as the stress hormones are no longer released…or at least this is how it is supposed to work.
Robert Sapolsky, a noted brain researcher, wrote a book some years ago entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In the book he goes into great detail about the physiological processes I just outlined. He literally spends time in Africa studying zebras and their responses to being chased by lions and other predators. He describes how you can see the immediate brain stress response happen as a herd of zebras reacts to the presence of a lion. They thunder across the Serengeti in a panicked run until the lion fells one of them. Then amazingly they slow down and begin once again to go about feeding themselves. The lion has his lunch so they can go back to theirs! The stress response is quickly turned off once the threat has subsided. If only we were capable of such a response. Instead, because of our innate ability to be conscious and aware of ourselves, we struggle with turning the response off. If Zebras had our ability they would be upset that a fellow zebra was being eaten. They would replay the scene over and over again in their mind wondering what would have happened if they had lagged behind when the attack began. They could have been the lion’s lunch! They would have trouble eating and sleeping for days.
When we are unable to turn the stress response off, the good and positive effects of these hormones begin to turn against our body and cause damage. Over time, the immune system begins to backfire and cause autoimmune diseases. Sustained insulin and blood sugar begins to lead to diabetes. High blood pressure becomes the silent killer. While we will not experience these more lethal outcomes for years, the clock has begun to tick, and our life span will be shortened unless we become actively involved in caring for the amazing gift of body and mind that we have. This is where actively becoming resilient comes into play.
The Headington Institute has been researching what it means to be resilient for the past ten years. Our focus has been on humanitarian aid workers and recently has included homeless shelter staff. We have found that resilience is not something a person possesses as much as it is what a person does. Sure, there are some individuals who are born with certain traits that may give them an advantage. But we all have the capacity to build on what we have. So it is with resilience. We need to start with whatever we have been given and then actively grow ourselves to be healthier. How do we do this?
The first step in becoming resilient is to pay attention to the basic maintenance requirements our body and mind need to function well. This involves paying attention to sleep, exercise and nutrition. There are certain rules of the road that come with being the ‘temple of the Lord’. Yes we can ignore the rules and speed limits and seemingly get by, but the cost is an increase in stress hormones circulating and doing damage. We all need to intentionally comply with the following speed limits and rules. 1. You need seven to nine hours of sleep per 24 hour period. Less than this does not let the brain adequately clear out waste from the day before and reset for the day ahead. 2. You need to get physical exercise. We were born to be active. I ask the aid workers for 20 minutes a day, five days a week. I think the same should apply to homeless shelter staff. 3. You need to have a balanced and nutritious diet. Grabbing a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar or McDonald’s fries clearly takes intentional effort. Try to make the right choice more often than not. Many of us give little thought to these basic maintenance requirements. Being resilient means we actively monitor these to ensure we are keeping within the speed limits. This will help our brain to turn off the stress hormones.
Our research has identified seven key areas of ‘doing’ that help us to be more resilient. Engaging in physical exercise is one of them. Exercise has been shown to not only help us physically but also is essential for good brain and mental health. Briefly, the others are as follows. Adaptive Engagement - developing a lean forward attitude that is flexible and adaptive to changing circumstances. Spirituality - Nurturing your faith by actively participating in personal and corporate practices. Emotional Regulation - competently knowing what you are feeling and being able to express it in a way that can be heard by other people. Behavioral Regulation - practicing self-control in limiting damaging behaviors towards yourself or others. Meaning and Purpose - Keeping your focus on the bigger picture and greater mission of why you are doing what you are doing. Life Satisfaction - Actively engaging in healthy social relationships and taking the time to notice and appreciate the small blessings in life.
Each of these areas of doing, if intentionally practiced, will help us be more resilient and live and work more effectively. In an effort to help individuals and organizations assess their current levels of resilience and know how to improve, we offer the opportunity to take the HIRI (Headington Institute Resilience Inventory) as part of a paid consultation service. Organizations can receive aggregate team scores that show how their organization compares with others in the industry. Individuals can receive a personalized report. In combination with other measures of personal or organizational health, these tools become a helpful barometer for staff wellbeing and are useful before and after deployment. If you would like more information about this service, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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