With a view toward re-establishing durable dynamic resiliency, we must evaluate the stressors and the resources in any system. Symptoms manifest as a signal that challenges outweigh our resources. So, what resources do we help people call forth? In my experience, there are differences between qualities of resources. First of all, every person is different and has a different way of weighting their resources. For example, I have met people whose greatest resource is their marriage. Or nature. Or exercise. Or their faith in God. Or laughter or music. One size most definitely does not fit all here. One of my favorite questions for a new person is “What are your deepest resources?” (of course, I also want to know where are the challenges: a surly boss, compulsive patterns of avoidance? Triggers of shame? Or even eating terrible food?)
A few years ago I started exploring resiliency and the balance of resources and challenges after a conversation with a friend of mine who provides psychotherapy to Tibetan political refugees who have survived being tortured in prison. He said he was surprised at how mild the trauma symptoms sometimes are in monk clients who endured horrific torture. What is the resource from which they draw, I wondered? Then I read an article in the Shambhala Sun (May 2006 issue) by Christina Feldman in which the Dalai Lama reportedly found a similar phenomenon in an old monk who he interviewed after surviving a lengthy incarceration. His one concern was that he might lose his compassion for the Chinese. That article is worth reading and easy to find. Over the past few years, Richard Davidson, PhD at the University of Wisconsin has conducted a series of experiments known as the “Lama in the Lab,” studying the brains of long time meditators and normal controls. His team found very significant brain changes in monks who had meditated for many years when they were asked, while lying in a functional MRI machine, to mentally cultivate compassion. Traumatic residues in human nervous systems will occur to anyone who faces extreme enough circumstances. This fact was established by observational studies performed after World War II, which I read about in Judith Herman, MD’s classic 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery. Having a dysregulated nervous system, then, is not a matter of being broken or mentally ill, or being a weak person. Our psychological symptoms are better understood as messages from our ecology of imbalance in the system. The art of medicine unfolds as the healing partners (aka “the doctor and the patient”) discover together how to address missing resources and achieve success in moving forward.
When people grow up in environments where resources that they needed were not available, then the healing process also need to establish a ‘new normal’ (a great phrase I borrowed from a willing healing partner). In such cases, a person might not even know what it feels like to be truly relaxed. The term “complex PTSD” may apply in circumstances where a person who is knocked way off balance by a relatively minor current challenge. Bob Scaer, MD’s The Body Bears the Burden explains how a 5 mile per hour fender bender can trigger a major health crisis in someone whose nervous system already bears the mark of unresolved earlier trauma. One of the most important medical studies, Vincent Feletti MD’s Adverse Childhood Event (A.C.E.) study, has shed light on this very real phenomenon. The rates of several adult diseases are directly and linearly correlated with the amount of adverse events a person endured in childhood.
The message here is that a healthy person is a dynamic and complex equilibrium. This equilibrium is for all of us inclusive of the current events as well as the patterns in our bodies recorded by years of bodies in use. Our capacity for abundant health is limited only by the perception of limited resources. Challenges promote growth and greater resilience, unless we are inadequately-resourced in the challenges we face.