Resilience — Working Through Life’s Adversities
Remarkable things happen in the Spring…
New Year’s Day is the day of resolutions, but the weight of winter is still upon us in the cold weather and for some that tends to stifle the best of intentions. But Spring. We are connected to this re-birth that is now well-underway in the Ozarks. I can look out my bedroom window and see the plants that are perennial have returned. This cycle of nature brings forth the red and pink columbines, beardtongue, butterfly milkweed, wild bergamot, and the coneflowers—purple and yellow. When my wife and I planted the gardens around our home we chose Missouri wildflowers for their resilience. I am not an attentive gardener. Spring in the Ozarks can be cold, then hot, dry, then wet, balmy, then fierce with wind. My garden needs to withstand all the fluctuations of our geography with little intervention by me.
Resilience is the key to overcome challenges
Several years ago I read a personal essay by 2006-7 Ironman triathlon champion Samantha McGlone who reflected on the quality of resilience needed to make it through her grueling sport: “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” she said. The phrase, which has its roots as a Japanese proverb, has stuck with me. A few years later I would successfully finish my first of three Ironman triathlons where determination more than skill got me through the 140.6 miles-in-a-day that defines the event. For the nonprofessional athlete it is about the accomplishment of something that is, on the surface, a feat of the impossible made possible. The event appeals to our sense of adventure and challenges us to explore our limits. Too often, these limits are ones that we have created for ourselves. They are creations of our minds, and a product of our family, social circles, and culture.
Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, wrote: “Sometimes people I knew from many years ago say they do not recognize me and that they never imagined I would be doing what I do or sharing in the way I do. I don’t feel like the same person I used to be. Each year I feel so wildly different. I wonder if that will always be the case, if I will constantly be forever becoming.” In many respects our resilience is defined by these two factors: The ability to get up after a fall, and the flexibility to re-imagine ourselves and to accept that life is not just a journey, but a challenge to explore our outer limits and discover the things we are capable of being and capable of doing. Several qualities underlie this resilience.
Halfway through the bike course at Ironman Cozumel in 2012 I picked up my “special needs bag.” This large plastic bag held for me by race volunteers was to contain the food I planned to consume during second 56 miles of the grueling bike ride. Typical race food consists of carbohydrate dense, easy-to-digest chewables. Although I was in Mexico the air temperature hovered in the high 70’s and it did not occur to me that the bags would be sitting on black asphalt for several hours. What I received in my special needs bag was a melted, sticky blob of inedible food that had fused to the small snack bags used to portion out my calories. My instinctual response was panic and disappointment. Fortunately, I knew how many calories I needed per hour to get through the rest of the bike portion and be ready for my 26.2 mile run. There were aid stations every 10 miles that were stocked with bottles of energy drinks and small packets of honey-consistency fuel shots commonly called “goos.” This was not the nutrition I had used in my race preparation, but it would have to do. Then, something wonderful happened. A fellow racer who realized my fuel crisis was serious business reached into her own stash and handed me half a bagel with almond butter. The gesture of sportsmanship may have saved my day at Ironman Cozumel. Today, I can look back at the situation and see it with humor. I had my best finish time of all three of my Ironman races.
Psychologists who study resilience have identified a number of factors that underlie this important trait. My experience that day on the roads of Cozumel Island is a good example of how they are applied. I had to maintain my sense of optimism. Beyond the training my ability to make it through those 140.6 miles started with the belief that, as difficult as the day might be, I was capable of doing it. Throughout my training and on race day I visualized the moment that I would cross the finish line to hear those famous words. When I encountered adversities like pain and fatigue, especially in the last 6 miles of the marathon, I used cognitive reappraisal to remind myself that feeling this way was temporary and a normal consequence of the hard work needed to achieve my goal. The frustration over my fuel shortage, rather than an excuse to end my race early, provided an opportunity for active coping. My plan B strategy, combined with a little help from a fellow competitor, gave me a manageable fueling plan for the remainder of the bike portion of the race.
Resilience helps facilitate change
I have taken this life lesson and applied it in my professional life. Three years ago I discovered functional medicine. To master this new discipline, I went back to school, and six months ago I opened a clinic in Ozark, Missouri. Functional medicine represents a new age in healthcare that is, in many respects, a return to a grass roots approach abandoned last century in favor of science, statistics, and pharmacology. Functional holistic psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan describes this 20th century approach as one that wages war on illness with its “anti-” weaponry: anti-hypertensives, antibiotics, and antidepressants. It has abandoned the recognition of our uniqueness as individuals and our connection to the natural world; instead it places its focus on the disease. The new medicine returns to the fundamental lifestyle factors of sleep, nutrition, movement, stress, and connection as the major determinants of our health-illness trajectory and strives to understand the whole person. Toward these ends a functional medicine doctor knows that for a given illness there are many causes or imbalances. The challenge is to help the patient identify those areas of imbalance and harness their own of resilience to help them get back on track or, like Emily Rosen, to continuously evolve or re-invent.
My garden is coming to life this month thanks to those resilient perennials. Today, we are heading over to Urban Roots Farm for their annual plant sale to add diversity and hopefully a few edibles to the space behind our home. I have not been swimming, biking, or running a lot lately. After my last Ironman I reinvented myself from triathlete to CrossFit participant, but the last six months as a new business owner has absorbed all my energy and focus to realize my vision of success. I need to get back to exercising. I am resolved to do it. Meanwhile, I can still close my eyes and hear those words as I cross the finish line at the 2012 Ironman Cozumel, “Ken Sharlin, you are an Ironman.”