As a mental health professional, I often ponder why some people seem to fare better than others with their emotional well-being. It’s a complex issue, for sure, due to the many factors involved in one’s emotional well-being. For me, one of the important factors to consider when pondering emotional well-being is resilience. Resilience is usually understood as one’s ability to successfully “bounce back” after experiencing difficulties in life. Currently, on a global scale, people all over the world are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial, social, and emotional impact of the COVID-19 virus will likely be felt for months, even years, to come. As I write this article, our country is also challenged to examine the issue of racism and policing. These are complex issues. They provide us with an opportunity to grow as a nation and as individuals or remain polarized and unhealed. In this article, I’d like to discuss the concepts of resilience, spirituality, and connection. Now more than ever we are stretched in our ability to manage the global and national impact of these current challenges as each of us seeks to be the “hero” in our own personal and professional journeys.
In the Hero’s Journey, resilience or grit as described by Angela Duckworth (2017) is required to persevere and thrive despite life’s circumstances. Duckworth (2017) dispels the myth that special talent is the reason for success in life. Her research identified how gritty people are able to achieve success in life through practice, purpose, passion, and interest. Hou and Skovholt (2020) examined resilience within the context of understanding the characteristics of resilient psychotherapists given their role to sit with clients to hear mental health difficulties day after day and year after year. The authors state that “resilience qualities are acquired through resilient reintegration, a process when individuals move forward from dwelling in negative emotions associated with disruption and become ready to cope and incorporate new worldviews, insights, and growth gained from reflection on adversity” (Hou and Skovholt, 2020, p. 387).
Resilience goes beyond coping skills and requires our ability to “dig down” deep within ourselves to tap into our internal mechanisms to find meaning, purpose, and positive outlook despite the difficulties we are facing in life. Garrido-Hernansaiz, Rodriguez-Rey, and Alonso-Tapia (2020) state, “resilience in the face of different adversities may be explained in different ways; therefore, the exploration of its underlying processes should consider the effect of the type of adversity” (p. 2). The authors examine the correlation between coping skills and resilience in four different populations of people facing different adversities: individuals in the general population, individuals living with HIV, individuals with cancer, and individuals who have children with cancer. Their research found that resilience across these four groups of people was similar on average, and differences among their styles of coping emerged. Coping skills can help us tolerate our emotional distress while we access our ability to persevere through difficulties. The Hero’s Journey requires that we access our internal resources, use healthy coping skills, and grit to continue our journey with authenticity and resilience.
What characteristics are associated with resilience? In a review of factors contributing to resilience, Southwick, Pietrzak, Tsai, Krystal, and Charney (2015) report the following factors were consistently reported in the literature to be associated with resilience: “positive emotions and optimism, active problem-focused coping, moral courage and altruism, attention to physical health and fitness, capacity to regulate emotions, cognitive flexibility, religiosity/spirituality, high level of positive social support and commitment to a valued and meaningful cause, purpose or mission” (p. 1). The authors state neurobiology, development, and genetics also play a key role in resilience.
The connection between spirituality and resilience is notable. Spirituality is often viewed as separate and connected to the concept of religion. Religion generally ascribes to a specific set of doctrine and practices. Spirituality is often explained in more general terms. I conceptualize spirituality as a manifestation through a particular religion, although, many people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Many of the characteristics of resilience described above can also be associated with spirituality. Dowrick (2011) describes spirituality as a connection to our deepest, most authentic selves in connection with others. Spirituality is often associated with a sense of inner connection with ourselves and strong sense of altruism manifested in connection with others. Weber (2004) examines spirituality within an existential framework. He advocates that spirituality propels us to seek our higher purpose in life and for a broader recognition of spirituality beyond religious doctrine. He argues that spirituality requires one to freely choose to explore and challenge one’s beliefs, culture, and understanding of himself, and his connection with others to find a deeper meaning of one’s self and connection with others. This is the challenge currently occurring in our country as Americans are faced with issues of racism, policing, and public safety.
Resilient people seek to find meaning and purpose in their difficulties to help them maintain a positive outlook while maintaining authentic connection to others. In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown (2015) discusses the importance of authenticity as a resiliency factor against the negative impact of shame on one’s social emotional wellness and relationships. Her research focuses on shame and shame resiliency to dispel long held myths about shame and create a culture of authenticity. Her subsequent book, Braving the Wilderness (2019), recognizes the importance of first and foremost, our need to create a sense of belonging deep within ourselves for true authenticity to occur. This journey toward authenticity is a spiritual journey of self-discovery that must take place in order for authentic and loving connection to occur.
Connection with others is heavily influenced by our attachment style, or pattern of attachment that we experienced growing up with our caregivers and other important people in our lives. Our ability to connect authentically with others and thus use these supportive relationships to create resiliency is essential for the Hero’s Journey. These attachment patterns are a manifestation of neurobiology that is heavily influenced by our relationships experiences. Infants are born with sensory-based neural pathways to help them read facial cues, voice tone, and touch during interactions with caregivers. Infants and young children are dependent upon their caregivers for their survival. This early “wiring” is essential to help them assess safety and their ability to trust caregivers will meet their needs for survival through their caregiver relationship. Over time child and caregiver relationships become more complex as the child grows and develops.
These child-caregiver interactions become stored away within implicit memory and create the foundation for understanding relationships. Implicit memory is formed through experiential sensory information received and is stored in our brain without language. Infants and pre-verbal children have not reached their developmental milestones to communicate through language since those areas of the brain are still developing, so it makes sense that their experiences are stored in the brain without language. Those memories are stored away in their brain and influence later experiences. For instance, a child who has regularly experienced safe and loving touch, voice tone, and facial expressions from their caregivers. Their safety neural pathways will register that their caregiver is safe and reliable to meet their needs because those implicit memories with all of the sensory information and meaning attached to them will be activated during their interactions to signal safety and trust. Child-caregiver relationship interactions will influence attachment style development for the child and their ability to engage in authentic connection with others.
Thankfully, our brain has the capacity to heal and become resilient even when negative experiences have occurred. The Hero’s Journey provides each of us with the ability to develop resilience through difficulties and requires us to persevere. Spirituality encourages us to maintain a hopeful and resilient view of ourselves, others, and the world. It requires us to demonstrate the courage to be authentic within ourselves and within our relationships.
Duckworth, A. (2017). Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success. London, UK: Vermillion.
Garrido-Hernansaiz, H., Rodríguez-Rey, R., & Alonso-Tapia, J. (2020, April 2). Coping and Resilience Are Differently Related Depending on the Population: A Comparison Between Three Clinical Samples and the General Population. International Journal of Stress Management. Advance online publication. doi.10.1037/str0000156
Hou, J., and Skovholt, T. M. (2020). Characteristics of highly resilient therapists. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(3), 386-400. Doi.10:1037cou0000401
Southwick, S. M., Pietrzak, R. H., Tsai, J., Krystal, J. H., and Charney, D. (2015). Resilience: An update. PTSD Research Quarterly, 25(4), 1-10.
Webster, R. S. (2004): An existential framework of spirituality. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 9(1), 7-19. doi.10.1080/1364436042000200799