Those who deal best with difficulty and adversity in life have a quality that neuroscientists, psychologists, and business experts alike call “resilience.” It is a particularly important concept for those who live with CFS/FM—or the life-changing challenges of any chronic illness—on a daily basis. Frederic Flach, M.D., author of Resilience: Discovering a New Strength at Times of Stress, points out that since a person’s level of resilience is not a static ingredient in personality, it can fluctuate over time. Understanding our natural strengths and limitations can help us focus on factors that can enhance our resilience.
The Search for Meaning
While research has revealed a variety of skills and characteristics that are factors in resilience, most experts agree that one of the most essential components of resilience is the ability to find meaning in life, and often in one’s suffering. We all have encountered people who see themselves as victims of whatever befalls them in life and seem to find no value in living through difficult times. Resilient people, in contrast, have the ability to find meaning in their suffering, and in so doing they can create a better future.
Victor E. Frankl, an internationally renowned psychiatrist and author of the celebrated book, Man’s Search for Meaning, pioneered a psychotherapy technique called “logotherapy” based on his own experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Logotherapy is literally translated as therapy through meaning and emphasizes human beings’ search for meaning in the face of suffering. Perhaps no one is a better model than Frankl of human resilience and the will to find meaning in even the most unspeakable suffering.
In fact, Frankl’s book is one of the most influential works in the psychology literature, and much of what is called “resilience training” today is based on Frankl’s theory, teaching people to construct meaning in their lives. Frankl recalls the men in the concentration camps “who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” He wrote, “they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…”
Frankl’s work and resilience theory in general teach us that we can find meaning in life even as we confront problems like chronic illness that don’t have ultimate solutions—that is, “when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” Being resilient doesn’t mean that one is hardened against stress or does not experience anguish and despair. Rather, a resilient person learns to bend without breaking and finds the strength to adapt to new challenges.
In her Harvard Business Review article, Coutu called resilience “one of the great puzzles of human nature, like creativity or the religious instinct.” Indeed, a recurring theme in the research literature is that resilience is complex. According to Brooks and Goldstein, it is not something that can be discovered or attained like a “fountain of youth.” They emphasize that the process of building and maintaining the characteristics of resilience requires ongoing dedication. The authors point out, however, that these characteristics are tangible and within reach. “The more you are aware of the features that nurture resilience,” they write, “…the better prepared you will be to promote resilience and stress hardiness in yourself.”
Other experts agree. The American Psychological Association (APA) offers a publication on the topic of resilience, which states, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” By learning ways to build resilience, sufferers of chronic illness may be able to improve the quality of our lives.
Joanna Wasmuth, founder of Harmony Coaching Group and a fibromyalgia sufferer, is a speaker, author, and life coach who teaches people to thrive in spite of chronic pain. “I have learned the anatomy of a comeback,” she said in a recent interview, “over and over and over.” Wasmuth emphasized that resilience is something that can be learned. “I think of resilience as a muscle,” she said. “When you go to work out, it hurts the first couple of times and you can’t really do that much with it. But as you work out more and more, it gets stronger and stronger.”
Richard Davidson, Ph.D., professor and director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains that one way people can “train the brain” to be more resilient is through the use of meditation. His research focuses on neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to develop and change throughout life. He became best known for his work demonstrating meditation’s direct impact on the structure and function of the brain. Says Davidson, “Meditation probably doesn’t calm emotions per se but is likely to facilitate more rapid recovery following a negative event.” In one study (Davidson et al., 2003), 25 subjects were enrolled in an eight-week meditation training program and compared to a control group. Measurements of electrical activity in the brains of both groups revealed increased activation in the brains of the meditation group, in the area of the brain typically associated with positive affect and resilience. Says Davidson, “These are individuals who, when adversity occurs, will recover more quickly.”
More research is needed to fully understand how all the facets of resilience come together. Couto noted that resilient people often don’t seem to have an awareness of this quality in themselves. “Resilience is a reflex,” she writes, “a way of facing and understanding the world that is deeply etched into a person’s mind and soul.”
No matter how resilience is defined or the exact mechanism by which it works, it is probably safe to say that we recognize it when we see it. Perhaps the poet Jane Hirshfield described the concept of resilience in the most eloquent and poignant way of all, in her poem entitled “Optimism”:
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another…