Have you ever wondered why some people are able to cope with distress more ably than others? This subject has always fascinated me as I do a lot of work around strengthening resilience with clients who come to me for support. Resilience can be described as the ability to bounce back or recover quickly from setbacks. It’s actually all about your ‘survive and thrive’ instinct and it develops from the start of your life as your brain processes or learns from experiences to keep you safe and alive.
You learn your earliest strategies of resilience in infancy, through interacting with your parents, caregivers, and others who are close and influential to you. Attachment theory provides an explanation of how the parent-child relationship emerges and influences subsequent development. In the 1950’s British psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s theory of attachment showed that as babies, fear drives us to seek reassurance and protection from someone who is older, wiser, stronger and able to help. He found that ‘early attachment bonds with parents affect the formation of our “internal working model” of self in relation to others.’
In other words the way that parents respond to their baby encodes into its brain the internal working models and rules of coping by 12-18 months of age. So when a parent repeatedly responds sensitively and appropriately to the baby’s needs by smiling, holding them gently, and speaking empathically to them, this forms the basis for an attachment that is safe and trusting. If parents repeatedly respond calmly to a baby’s cry, changing their nappy and feeding them, the baby learns to soothe itself. The baby learns that when it calls for help, that call is answered and solutions to problems do exist. The baby gets a sense that “I am important. I matter. I am loved.” This is fundamental in establishing the basic patterns of resilience. As that child grows and develops it feels valued and understood which leads it to trust its own competence and cultivate the ability to bounce back. As the child matures and continues to learn strategies for communicating its needs, and more importantly, feels deserving of having those needs met, they feel the bonds of trust and love. These patterns of response then become the brains template for their lifetime.
What we have to bear in mind is that our parents didn’t always get it right and did the best they could with the knowledge and experience they had at the time. They also would have gained that experience and learnt their coping strategies from their parents and so on and so on. Fortunately, you have an innate capacity for continuing development of resilience and you can change old patterns of response. So if you did not initially learn these patterns of response for developing resiliency, as you grow older and become an independent adult you have more and more opportunities to learn this through interacting with other resilient people: role models from life, history and literature, peers, mentors, teachers, partners, therapists, coaches, etc. Over your lifetime through interactions with the above people you can learn how to think outside the box, solve problems more efficiently and handle disappointments and upsets more capably.
Neuroscientist Donald Hebb said: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This means that each time you have an experience, good or bad, whether it is an external event (something that happens), or an internal response to the event (your feelings and reaction) the neurons in your brain fire to send electrical and chemical messages which reinforce pathways in the brain. As an experience is repeated the neurons that fired together to create the pathway tend to fire together again, strengthening that pathway and this prepares the brain to respond in the same way each time it encounters a similar situation, creating stronger patterns of response, or wiring.
When you repeat a pattern often enough this is what neuroscientists call conditioning. Conditioning creates automatic habits and stores those patterns of response in your unconscious memory enabling you to respond automatically. We can deliberately use conditioning to create positive habits of resilience. For example you can choose experiences to deliberately rewire your brain to cope better. Although the initial wiring of your brain is based on early experiences, your later experiences (especially healthy relational ones) can undo and overwrite your early learning. It is from your experiences with others that you learn how to calm your nervous system, remain level headed in times of crisis, trust yourself to make good choices, and use your resources wisely to increase your options for coping.
This is where a therapist can be restorative in helping to change insecure attachment bonds by providing unconditional support to clients. In offering a quiet, non-judgmental space and deep listening you can gain support to access your deep-rooted patterns of response that formed early on and gain assistance to reform new and more beneficial patterns of resilience.
It is helpful to remember that it is not the external trigger, but rather your internal response that is important for resilience. You will find that often you cannot change the external trigger that creates stress, but you can do something to change your internal responses to those stressors. You can learn to rewire old patterns of response into new, more helpful patterns that will enable you to cope differently and more resiliently to anything.