When life goes downhill our natural defence mechanisms usually kick in, that is, our flight, fight or freeze responses. Let’s say your relationship ends, the pain of heartbreak might make you shut down and freeze. What if you got fired from your job? Some people might fight back with anger. If someone’s financial situation starts to crumble, their natural instinct may be to flee, to avoid dealing with it.

Each person’s defence mechanisms will be slightly different but, they will usually appear for at least a brief period. Such is the nature of being human, these are our natural warning signs to say that something is going wrong.

The problem comes when:

A tendency to shut down after a break up turns into a person’s long term reclusive behaviour. Some days they don’t even want to get out of bed.

A person’s anger after being fired starts turns into prolonged resentment. The ongoing stress affects their sleep and overall health.

The instinct to avoid facing financial struggles means that a person’s debts get greater and greater as they bury their head in the sand.

Any of the above could lead to other behaviours such as seeking solace in alcohol, drugs, comfort food and overloading on other hedonistic activity.

Rather than helping a person to be resilient, to bounce back from their challenges, the above behaviours simply take a person deeper into them. They keep a person in a spiral of fight, flight or freeze. They keep them in defence mode.

Resilience is not about defence, it is about adaptability and growth

‘The human being cannot be in defence mode at the same time as growth mode’. Gabor Maté

At some point, our natural, instinctive defence mechanisms need to end and growth must begin. The fear response of the amygdala must calm down to allow the advanced brain to think about how to move forward.

This is quite complex in today’s world. Resilience is no longer just about adapting to protect our body from a sabre tooth tiger attack.

More than physical adaptation, today we require complex mental and emotional adaptation to the world we live in. And, we require it on a big scale and at a fast pace in order to keep up with the ever changing environment. Therefore, we have to make a conscious choice to build our resilience in the modern world. We have to learn how to do it.

Resilience is harder for some than others

Some people have been taught resilience at a young age just by virtue of the family they grew up in, and so it may come more easily to them. But, by this same mechanism, many people are conditioned at a young age to defend rather than grow and adapt.

A representative study estimated 50% of the UK’s population (Bellis et al, 2014) have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). The same study estimates 8% of the population experienced four or more ACEs. Whilst every experience is unique and each child will react differently, generally ACEs condition people for defensive traits rather than growth and adaptability. This diminishes people’s resilience and so as adults they find it harder to bounce back from life’s challenges.

But, resilience can be learned at any age

If resilience doesn’t come ‘naturally’ to us, we can choose to work at it. It can certainly be developed with practise, focus and consistency. It’s just like going to the gym – it might be painful sometimes and it gets really, really tough. Often, you might not think you’re making any progress and some days you just don’t want to do it! But you can do it if you really want to. And in my view, it’s not even about wanting to. Building our mental and emotional resilience is an absolute must in today’s modern world.

About the author: To find out more about Pinky Jangra, click here.


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