The science of resilience

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on January 09, 2019 # Health

I was a terrible football player in high school, a full-game/every-game benchwarmer for my entire “career.” Unless I went out of my way to get dirty during warm-ups, my uniform never had to be washed. I went to every practice, thinking, I guess, that I might miraculously get better, but I just got beaten up by this big brute of a fellow lineman for a couple of hours and hit the shower. My end of senior year letter jacket was the equivalent of a T-Ball “participation” trophy. I got it for just showing up.

For many years, I wonder why this was the case. Clearly I had no skills but it didn’t take much skill to do with I was asked to do – be an offensive linemen who gets in the way of some bruiser in front of you. I must have lacked “guts,” I concluded, backbone, mettle, that fire in the belly to get mad and fight, fight, fight. This notion bothered the hell out of me.

In the years beyond high school, I took enough risks, stupid and otherwise, and stood up to enough obstacles to be able to poke holes in this no-guts theory. I was a terrible football player and that was that. After I became paralyzed at 51, I surprised myself and handled it with much less fear, trembling, and angst than I imagined. It took years to deal with the fallout but I didn’t have a nervous breakdown or hide under the sheets or become a dope addict, I’m happy to report. I didn’t even take a time-out to let it sink in.

I continue to wonder why that was the case. Why do some people deal with extreme trauma like paralysis with reasonable resilience and others don’t? Why do some find the emotional resources to bounce back and others get stuck in a maelstrom of suffering and self-destruction?

The answer is, I have no idea. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field of post-traumatic psychology, but a recent op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times pinpointed one way to look at it. And this was written by a genuine authority, Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Like all good experts, Dr. Friedman turns to other experts to discuss the question of resilience, which has gone from a fuzzy issue of character or fate in the past to what he calls “the science of resilience.” He begins by admitting that some people simply have an innate advantage, in his words, “they have won the genetic sweepstakes and are naturally tougher.” But the good news he reports is that for the rest of us poor suckers, the human brain is mutable and we have the power to “remodel our brains” to become more resilient. Call this a new definition of “interior” designer.

One study he quotes found that “higher functional connectivity in the brain’s central executive network” – fancy words for more active, productive thinking – seems to strengthen resilience. Mindfulness training, for instance, is a way of learning a measure of self-control through focusing attention and regulating emotions. This is proven to enhance “functional connectivity,” building new links between mind and body. The upshot: “Clearly self-control,” says Friedman, “is one critical component of resilience that can be easily fostered.” Maybe if I had meditated in high school, I would have made All-State in football! Unlikely.

The article also quotes studies that pinpoint certain brain molecules, called growth factors, that can have an effect on resilience. These growth factors, with catchy acronyms like FGF2 and BDNF, are “proteins that act like a kind of brain fertilizer.” We have, it seems, some control over bolstering these growth factors by doing practical things like physical exercise and building social support networks.

Maybe someday we can get doses of resilience-reinforcing BDNF in a pill or injection advertised on TV and we can all up our ability to deal with stress, trauma, and being steamrolled by reality. Meanwhile, as Dr. Friedman concludes, we have to work at it, mindfully. This is no longer just self-help gobbledygook espoused by health nuts and navel gazers. The empirical proof, or at least a smattering of it, is out there, so, as my high school coach used to bark, “Get off your butt, Rucker, and do something!”