Richard G. Petty, MD

Revisiting Resilience

“I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs, but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.”
–General George S. Patton (American General, 1885-1945)

Resilience is the process of being able to adapt and to thrive in the face of adversity, stress, trauma, tragedy or threats. A resilient person is les likely to succumb to any of these life events and is less likely to develop mental illness. But resilience is more than a passive strength or resistance to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: it is a dynamic capacity that not only protects us, but enables us to turn adversity into strength and an opportunity for growth.

Despite our extraordinary health care system and a multi-billion dollar antidepressant industry, the rates of depression are increasing throughout the Western world. A recent book has suggested that boredom was unknown before about 1760: the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. All this tells us that something is seriously wrong with our resilience.

“The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.”

–Plutarch (Greek Biographer and Priest to the Oracle at Delphi, A.D. 46-c.120)

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I pointed out some of the incredible changes that have taken place over the last one hundred years, and their impact on health. To try and apply the principles of the past to the problems of the present and future is unlikely to be crowned with success. We need to adapt. Buddhists do not normally eat meat. Except for Tibetan Buddhists, who need to eat some meat in order to survive at the high altitudes of the Himalayas. I have a good friend who created the finest integrated medicine clinic in the world, the Hale Clinic in London. Normally an abstemious vegetarian, when she was embroiled in business meetings, she would often take some meat to remain grounded. I have done the same thing myself for years. I prefer not to eat meat. I have not had a steak in more than thirty years. But if I am to do a lot of traveling and need to work with politicians and business people, a bit of chopped up fish or poultry can be essential.

The changes in our lifestyles over the past century have dramatically reduced the level of physical activity necessary to provide life’s basic resources: our effort-based rewards that are intimately involved in the regulation of mood. If you think about it for a moment, if your great-grandparents wanted to eat, there was probably a lot of effort involved. Our brains still contain a huge number of circuits that evolved to play roles in sustaining the kind of continuous effort that would be critical for the acquisition of resources such as food, water and shelter. So what happens when we suddenly on longer need much physical activity to obtain those resources? What happens to those parts of the brain that have millions of years evolving? There will be reduced activation of those brain regions essential for reward, pleasure, salience, motivation, problem-solving, and effective coping strategies. The practical consequence of that is that these systems will not sit there idling: if under-stimulated, since these systems are so heavily involved with our emotions, we would expect to see people becoming depressed. And we know that depression has been increasing throughout the Western world. Of course, many people need to stimulate these regions of the brain artificially, as with drugs, pornography or extreme sports.

Effort-based rewards are an essential component of resilience to life’s stressful challenges. Purposeful physical activity is important in the maintenance of mental health. It therefore makes sense to put more emphasis on preventative behavioral and cognitive life strategies, rather than relying solely on psychopharmacological strategies. Our strategy is geared toward protecting people from developing depression, and compensatory behaviors. One of the very interesting new ideas in pharmacology is that antidepressants and antipsychotics may act to enhance resilience at both the cellular level and in the whole person. This is a very different concept from thinking of medicines as chemicals that simply block symptoms.

Our aim is to improve resilience and gradually to increase activation of all those under-used systems of the brain to treat and then to prevent problems. All the things that mother always said were good for you: healthy exercise, meditation, a balanced diet, charity and kindness, and actions aimed at fulfilling your personal and Higher Purpose have already been shown to treat and to protect.

Here are some proven methods for improving resilience:
1.    Learn to be adaptable: the heart of resilience is the ability to take things in your stride and to be able to surf the ocean of change, rather than trying to hold the hold it back.

2.    Be aware of the blockages in your mind or in the subtle systems of your body that are preventing you from bouncing back form adversity

3.    Attitude: avoid seeing a challenge as an insurmountable problem

4.    Accept that change is part of life: you can do little about it, but you can do a great deal about how you react to change

5.    Ensure that you have meaningful goals that are consistent with your core desires and beliefs, and that you are moving toward them

6.    Do all that you can to work on establishing your own Purpose in life. You can create a purpose for your life, but also be aware that there is a Higher Purpose in you life

7.    Take decisive actions: even if the first action may not be the best one. Any action is usually better than denying that problems exist, and hoping that they will evaporate while you are asleep or watching television

8.    Develop and maintain close relationships. Even if you are not a sociable person, relationships are one of the most potent way of protecting yourself from life’s ups and downs

9.    Look for opportunities to learn more about yourself, and how you react to situations. This doesn’t mean becoming an introvert or a rampant narcissist, but it does mean taking a moment each day to review where you are and what you can learn form things that are or have happened in your life. This is a big subject, but there are many good ways to answer the question, “Why is this happening to me  again?” and from preventing habitual problems and routine self-sabotage. (I shall be publishing an eBook and CD about this crucial topic in the very near future)

10.  Work on developing a positive self-image. I have had some harsh things to say about the excesses of the self-esteem movement, but it has now been replaced by something far more valuable: the science of positive psychology. We have a great deal of empirical data on how to improve a person’s happiness and resilience. Again, we can speak about that some more if you are interested.

11.  Maintain hope for the future. We have done research that has shown that one of the best ways of predicting a positive outcome with major mental illness, or of reducing the risk of recurrent substance abuse is to instill hope. Again, there are techniques for doing this, even when the whole world seems to be against you.

12.  Maintain perspective: do not blow things out of proportion, and remember that this too shall pass.

13.  Take care of yourself, physical, emotionally and spiritually. Listen to yourself: what does your body need? What do you need emotionally? What do you need from a relationship? What do you need spiritually?

14.  Are you giving others what they need from you? If you have a nagging sense that you are not giving a child or a spouse that they need and deserve, it can dramatically reduce you resilience.

15.  Rather than just thinking about and worrying over your problems, or problems that may turn up in the future, get into the habit of thinking of yourself not just as an individual who is going through problems, but as a boundless spiritual being who is learning a lesson.

16.  Never forget to think about the legacy that you are going to leave. Not just to your family, but to the world at large. If you can’t think of one, this is a good time to begin to create one. That is an enormously  powerful perspective on the world and on your problems.

“I am an old man and have had many troubles, most of which never happened.”
–Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, American Humorist, Writer and Lecturer, 1835-1910)

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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