Severe chronic pain from years of playing rugby forced Deb Hitt to the sidelines. The injuries, coupled with the loss of a sport she so loved, sapped her spirit, too.
“It knocked the air and the life out of me,” said Hitt, of Minneapolis. “I let the pain define me.”
After surgeries on her neck and lower back, her doctors urged her to try something new to deal with her pain: resiliency training.
Last fall, Hitt completed an eight-week course at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, where she focused on eating healthier, getting enough sleep, exercising and meditating.
Today, she says she’s found joy again and is better able to cope with her medical issues.
“My interpretation of the pain and my ability to deal with it has greatly improved,” said Hitt, who regularly works out with a personal trainer who is also a physical therapist.
The ability to bounce back quickly and completely from setbacks is taking on new significance as a component to overall health.
A concept with roots in the psychology world, resiliency is now being embraced in broader circles for its role in promoting a sound mind-body connection. Classes are popping up at yoga studios, community centers, schools and in some hospitals.
“It’s becoming more popular over the last half-decade, as people are looking to accentuate the positive and improve resiliency as opposed to just reducing depression or anxiety or stress,” said Jeff Dusek, research director for the Penny George Institute.
People most often looking to boost their bounce-backability include cancer survivors and those suffering from chronic pain, depression and anxiety. But many others are turning to resiliency to help them deal with the pace and complexity of modern life.
“We are now in a time when we perhaps have a busier brain than we have ever had,” said Dr. Amit Sood, creator of the Mayo Clinic’s Stress Management and Resiliency Training program. “We have much more of a load on our head.”
Sood, who has studied the science of resilience for years, works with patients to improve their ability to rebound from life’s knocks. He likens the quality to the way palm trees respond to a storm.
“They really sway back and forth, they twist and turn, but they don’t break that easily,” he said.
Even the hardiest palm tree could not survive Minnesota’s far-from-tropical climate, so around here, he uses the metaphor of a willow tree with its “very flexible branches but very, very strong roots.”
Dr. Henry Emmons defines resiliency a little less poetically: “You get knocked down and you keep getting back up.” The Twin Cities psychiatrist worked to build the resiliency training course at the Penny George Institute and now runs his own program called “Pathways to Joy.”
As Sood explains it, some people are born with more resiliency than others, which means they have a lower stress response when faced with adversity and their thinking is more adaptive.
But Sood and Emmons agree that everyone can boost their resiliency level. Being aware of the kinds of food that help your brain chemistry, for example, eating more vegetables and whole foods while avoiding refined sugars, can help refill your resiliency reservoir, said Emmons. Getting enough sleep regularly is perhaps the most important way to maintain a high level of resiliency.
In fact, disturbed sleep is one of the signs that you are running low on resiliency. Other signs include a loss of focus while doing tasks, not finding time for enjoyable activities and becoming easily irritated.
“Even people who have a huge capacity for resilience can still become out of balance or it can get depleted,” Emmons said, “and even someone with a really low capacity, they can learn to keep themselves really resilient.”
Still a ‘black box’
What exactly makes a person thrive in the face of adversity is still an open question.
Many resiliency studies focus on the experiences of war veterans, survivors of natural disasters and other traumatic life events. Common “resilience factors” include having a positive attitude, flexible thinking, cultivating a strong support system of family and friends, focusing on personal strengths and staying physically active.
Recent studies testing the effectiveness of the Mayo’s SMART program showed resiliency levels improved for those who practiced the skills taught in the program, Sood said.
A small study of resiliency training at Penny George also showed promising results, Dusek said.
About 40 Allina employees diagnosed with major depressive disorder were enrolled in the 2009 study. Half the group received resiliency training and the other half had no training. The resiliency group saw a 70 percent drop in their depression scores on a standard test used to diagnose depression, the study found. Researchers have yet to pinpoint which of the interventions is the most effective in boosting resilience.
“It’s a black box still,” Dusek said. “We can’t say if mindfulness meditation, exercise or nutrition was the key component. If the combination works, that’s just fine.”
Since it started seven years ago, more than 700 people have gone through the Penny George program, which costs $900 and is generally not covered by insurance.
For Hitt, the training helped her focus her thoughts on the positive so she could get on with life.
“For a long time I focused on what I couldn’t do and what was hard for me,” she said. “Today, I define my life by the positives that exist within me — my strengths, my talents and most importantly my resiliency.”