Currently among my wise men, those who inspire me and who both seem to have original ideas and exhibit common sense, are Stephen Porges and Peter Leving. Porges has been researching the vagus nerve for the past thirty years and Levine has been working to develop his own psychotherapeutic techniques called Somatic Experiencing which has been found effective in curing PTSD, or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Their works have actually begun to complement each other in some interesting and common sense ways. Porges shows us how the vagus nerve, which many call the ‘anti-anxiety nerve,’ is important to the adrenal system’s fight-or-flight system, but also controls an older and deeper system within the adrenals: the ‘freeze’ or play dead system. He theorizes that many of us have learned to play dead in too many situations as the default coping mechanism we’ve adapted to allow us to feel safe on this unsafe planet where we live. He also has demonstrated that while we think our brain is the controlling organ of the body, actually the brain is in every cell of the body, as 90% of the fibers that connect body and brain go to the brain, and only 10% come from the brain and go to the body.
Levine’s work with PTSD encourages clients/patients to slowly activate their physical being in its ‘stuck’ fighting, fleeing or frozen places…that frozen shoulder, that frozen thought, or that frozen emotional attitude, and to slowly work to release the physical sensations so as to find and release that which is stuck underneath, thereby freeing every cell’s body brain. He realizes trauma is stored in all parts of the bodymindcore, and that the best we can do is allow ourselves to become vulnerable, explore slowly, and allow self to release that which has become embedded in our tissues, causing us to remain in fight, flight, or freeze mode instead of in ‘feel’ mode.
In the recent book Trauma Proofing Your Kids (Peter Levine, Maggie Kline, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA and ERGOS Institute Press, Lyons, CO, 2008) these authors suggest that resilience is the quality that both makes people healthy and keeps them healthy. Those who are resilient are less likely to respond to a traumatic experience by freezing or playing dead; if an experience does overwhelm them, they can use that resilience to unwind the trauma from their bodymindcore and proceed back to health. They can release the anxiety in that anti-anxiety nerve, allow the signals from the body’s brain to reach and recharge the brain’s body, and remain alive, energetic and enthusiastic.
So, what makes us resilient? Again, here I refer to these wise ones as well as others who follow common sense. While I understand the nature/nurture debate, I imagine much of resilience is genetically given, but much of resilience is taught. Can we learn to teach our children to be flexible, to be adaptable and less easily disappointed, frustrated or thwarted when things don’t go their way on the first and second try? Can we teach our children that life may or may not be fair, but their perception will color it and make it seem more of whatever focus they choose to give it?
It seems we’re raising more and more generations of children who believe foremost that life owes them something wonderful (One book I enjoyed was titled something like Not Everyone Gets a Trophy)! We hear of ‘helicopter parents’, defined as those parents who continually hover, never giving their children the chance to self-determine and self-develop. How can such a child become resilient if they’ve never had a chance to make their mistakes and learn and profit from them so they can move on and achieve success based on failure?
Some may be born resilient, and some probably are. Many, too many, I think, are never given the chance to develop their resilience by parents and societies that encourages fear, mistrust, suspicion ,and a belief that someone else is supposed to take care of them.
Ah, there’s the rub. Too many of us still want someone else to do the heavy lifting when it comes to living, to getting better, and to making decisions and abiding by the consequences of those decisions. We’re creating generations of society who believe that they must be taken care of, and they have no say in what their life will be.
I’m reminded that Ida Rolf reportedly used to say, “Strength isn’t strength; flexibility is strength.” These seem to me to be wise words. One who is weak certainly isn’t seen as resilient but as a pushover and pliable. One who is strong is probably tight; one who is tight is brittle, and one who is brittle is actually therefore fragile. I think Levine, and Porges, and Rolf, are wise elders. Resilience is a trait we’d all benefit from developing and fostering in each other, and especially in our children. Let’s teach our children—and ourselves—to be resilient.