The Nature Of Resilience

Resilience has been a buzzword in mental health circles for nearly 3 decades. I first became interested in it during undergraduate studies at University of Alaska, after doing some research on factors that promote recovery from trauma. Resilience comes from the latin term meaning “to spring back’, and it has been used to define the capacity of organisms to survive and thrive in the aftermath of exposure to stress. Many examples of resilience can be found in nature. For instance, the iconic bristlecone pine pictured to the right is what many people would think of as an organism that has evolved to be highly resilient. Incredibly, there are bristlecone pines alive today that were hundreds of years old when the Egyptian pyramids were being built. What is the secret of their incredible longevity? For one thing, the trees only grow in a very harsh ecosystem that is not conducive to survival for other organisms. The trees grow just below the tree line, at very high elevations, in poor, alkali soils, with scant rainfall and frequent exposure to cold and high winds. In these conditions, the tree grows at a rate that is measured in centuries, not seasons, with a metabolic system that is exquisitely engineered to conserve internal resources, while simultaneously resisting the stresses of the environment. It is truly a remarkable example of natural adaptation.

As you might expect, there are some examples of adaptation we can borrow from the bristlecone that apply to the human experience; lessons that may be relevant for people that have been exposed to traumatic stress. The tree has acquired some natural defenses to stressful events that are expected to occur in its environment. For example, the bark is resistant to fire, and the wood fiber is resistant to rot and insects. A parallel lesson for human resilience, is that it is good to anticipate and/or prepare for those hardships that can be reasonably expected in life. Another example of adaptation is that the tree specializes in maintaining an essential core of healthy living material and withdraws nutrients from nonessential limbs when those areas become damaged.or conditions become too harsh. An appropriate lesson to borrow here might be to cultivate a willingness to temporarily withdraw from nonessential endeavors to focus on priorities during times of hardship. Another example of adaptation can be found in the bristlecone’s preferred habitat. Like the tree, humans can find it easier to survive and thrive in adverse circumstances once they’ve located their “niche”; a place where they can utilize their particular skills and talents to their best advantage. These are adaptive strategies that may or may not resonate with you, but I find nature fascinating for the many lessons we can find and apply to our daily living.

​Randy R Ashford, MS, LMHC

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