What is resilience and what makes us resilient?

Resilience is our ability to move through difficult experiences and grow from them.

It is not about willing ourselves to just get through stuff — to be tougher, grittier, or calmer in the face of overwhelming circumstances— nor is it about avoiding or removing all sources of stress. Rather, it is about resourcing ourselves with the capacity to meet difficult circumstances that inevitably arise in life and to stay connected to our sense of perspective and our sources of support.

Research in the fields of both human flourishing and post-traumatic growth highlight a handful of qualities that closely influence our ability to be resilient. These are “protective factors” for our mental health (the opposite of “risk factors”):

  • Feeling connected and present with others and enjoying supportive relationships
  • Savoring pleasant experiences and emotions
  • Paying mindful, non-judgmental attention to the present moment—thoughts, sensations, and emotions
  • A sense of meaning and purpose beyond ourselves
  • A sense of accomplishment, mastery, and engagement in our activities

In all areas of my work, I aim to support you and your community in nurturing these qualities using manageable, brief practices that can be incorporated in your daily life and your organization’s routines.

Resilience Micro-Practices

Pause for a moment and notice what you feel in your body when you ask yourself one of the following questions:

  • What’s something that’s going well right now, large or small?
  • What’s a way, large or small, that you have been supported by someone else?
  • What’s something you did recently that left you feeling energized or excited — a little bit or a lot?

What is nervous-system overwhelm and how do I manage it?

In any given moment, the human nervous system is quietly monitoring thousands of inputs — what we’re thinking, feeling, and sensing — in an effort to move away from threats and toward rewards. This process developed over millennia to help us survive as a species, but it has not updated itself for the many stimuli of our modern lives, which we often experience as “too much, too fast, too soon” in the words of therapist Resmaa Menakem.  When events overwhelm us in this way, they impact the systems of our attention and reactivity in ways that have an outsized impact on our behavior.

An overwhelmed nervous system has a hard time recognizing when it is safe, so a nervous-system-informed approach to wellbeing and resilience helps the system find perspective by fostering:

  • sensory awareness — mindfulness of present moment sensations, which help the system orient to what is pleasant in the environment as a way to establish a sense of relative safety.
  • distress tolerance — the perspective that most discomfort is not fixed, permanent, or all-encompasing.

Nervous system-informed teaching recognizes that attention regulation, emotion regulation, engagement, memory, and a whole host of other important skills are all impacted by the felt sense of safety in the body. A nervous-system-informed approach to teaching helps us to create learning environments that incline the nervous system toward regulation working with rather than against this underlying functioning.

Micro-Practices for Overwhelm

Pause for a moment and notice what you feel in your body when you ask yourself one of the following questions:

  • What are three different sounds you can hear from where you are right now?
  • What’s a challenge that seemed overwhelming at the time, but that if you had to do it now, feels manageable?
  • What’s something in your space that feels pleasant to look at?

An integrative approach to school change…

Many schools focus their mental health programming on offerings for students, often asking educators who themselves feel overwhelmed and isolated to lead it. My work emphasizes the key step of providing faculty the chance to focus on their own wellbeing first, which evidence suggests benefits both their health and their instruction.

I focus on empowering teachers with the necessary tools for emotional awareness and resilience so that they can teach those same skills from lived experience and can model wholeness and wellbeing every time they show up in the classroom, regardless of the subject matter they’re teaching.

In practical terms, this involves a four-step process:

Learn It:
Educators learn resilience practices for themselves so that they understand how and why resilience practices are supportive
Live It:
Educators get the chance to integrate practices into their own lives
Teach It:
Educators share practices with students, based on their own firsthand experience
Embed It:
Educators develop ways to integrate resilience practices into school life and routines

For a case study of this model, read about my collaboration with Holmdel Public Schools in New Jersey.

“Learn It, Live It, Teach It, Embed It” was developed by the Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School

A mindful approach to tics and Tourette Syndrome…

Many people with Tourette Syndrome and their families think of tics as the problem, and their treatment goal is to get rid of or at least reduce tics. In my experience, this is both exhausting and misguided.

Tics are an attempt to soothe a discomfort which precedes them — an experience that is clinically known as a “premonitory urge” (think premonition). Practically, you might think of it as an itch which, if left unanswered, will only get more uncomfortable until you scratch it; the urge is the itch, the tic is the scratch. Interventions that target the tics themselves don’t help you to work with your urges, but this is where the real discomfort lies.

A mindful approach to working with tics and obsessions (OCD is a very common comorbid diagnosis with TS) helps you develop strategies to tolerate and to soothe the discomfort that arises from urges and intrusive thoughts. It also helps you to foster more self-compassionate and kind inner dialogue, which contributes to your overall wellbeing and helps your nervous system to be more at ease.

Most of us have spent our lives trying to avoid paying attention to the discomfort that our urges and tics cause us, because it’s the only strategy we’ve ever had. It can be very challenging at first go towards the discomfort instead of away from it, but in my experience, it’s the only way we can actually deal with it and learn to work with it differently.

Over time — with practice, patience, and a lot of kindness for yourself — you can develop a very different relationship with your nervous system and your body!

Micro-Practices for Tics

The next time you feel the urge to tic, before going ahead with it:

  • For just 3 seconds, can you feel what it feels like before you tic? Do you feel it in the same place as the tic itself?
  • Can you notice somewhere in your body that feels different—that feels okay or just neutral?
  • Can you offer yourself some kind words, as if you were talking to a dear friend or loved one?