Resilience. It’s been defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness,” and also as “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.”
Two subtly different approaches to the same end, that of recovering and moving forward (mentally and physically) when life throws nasty stuff at us.
The Toughness Approach
You may have heard of media sensation Wim Hof, known to many as “The Iceman,” who’s been taking the world of “body hacks” by storm. (Get it? Arr arr). Scott Carney’s “What Doesn’t Kill Us” details Carney’s evolution from initially intending to thoroughly debunk Hof’s credibility, to being unexpectedly converted. Hof uses decidedly unconventional approaches: extreme cold exposure, and hyperventilation.
The Elasticity Approach
This is about acknowledging that things aren’t going well while not getting bogged down in self-pity.
For guidance, I often reach for my trusty “Pocket Pema Chodron.” She writes: “On a very basic level, all beings think that they should be happy. When life becomes difficult, or painful, we feel that something has gone wrong. According to the Buddhist teachings, difficulty is inevitable in human life. […] But the teachings also say that this is not really what causes us misery in our lives. What causes misery is always trying to get away from the facts of life, always trying to avoid pain…”
Edith Eger, who spent just over a year as a prisoner in Auschwitz and who later moved on to become a psychologist, adds in her book “The Gift”: “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional. […] We’re going to be affected by environmental and genetic factors over which we have little or no control. We don’t get to choose what happens to use, but we do get to choose how we respond to our experience.”
Blending the Two Approaches: Tough Love?
Research shows that self-compassionate athletes rehabilitating from injury tend to be more mentally tough, perceive themselves to have more coping resources, and experience less self-criticism.
Perhaps self-compassion might allow injured athletes to access a healthier version of mental toughness. Rather than obstinately pushing through injuries, these athletes may be making better choices based on acceptance of their immediate situations.
Okay, So, Exposure to Cold
Carney’s understatement regarding cold exposure: “The immediate sensations are rarely pleasant.” No kidding!
Okay, here’s the disclaimer: speak to your doctor first. And I can’t leave out, many benefits have not been substantiated by research… although let’s be honest, quality research is expensive, and is more likely to be carried out when there’s a higher chance of financial gain. So we are looking at “n+1” experiments with cold exposure.
Having said that, it makes sense to me that constantly chasing comfort, as humans tend to do, hasn’t really worked in our favour on most levels. Hof’s underlying theory that, in our largely comfortable world, the only thing left for us to fight is ourselves internally, which sends the immune system haywire for some people, intuitively makes sense to me.
One proven additional benefit of cold exposure, as we still ride out the Covid wave, is that brown fat is activated. This provides a totally free and sort-of-easy (?) way to maintain the healthy waist to height ratio that is recommended.
And the Breathing Bit
The one thing that’s sure is that all sources agree that we need to focus more on the exhale.
James Nestor’s book “Breath” is fascinating. He details a yet greater variety of approaches and their benefits, even chronicling how breathing has been used to reverse scoliosis. (Again, please talk to your doctor, yadda yadda yadda.)
Dipping a toe or all-in?
That all depends, both on your personality and your goals.
First, make it do-able for you. Some people need to slide into things gently, and others can dive head first. You know what will work best for you.
Also, remember that many of Hof’s success stories were at a “last resort” stage of difficult-to-resolve autoimmune disorders, states where their bodies were rebelling against themselves. Perhaps this is not your need now.
Personally, I’m heavily (re-)focusing on the exhales right now.
After a couple of cold showers, I think I’m going to wait until it’s a bit warmer outside, and then just take myself back to the mindset of a few months spent in Thailand when I didn’t want to pay extra for warm water. Hopefully I can continue that into the colder season once I’m acclimatized to it.
In the meantime, I’m leaving off a layer of clothing on chilly days and deciding to not shiver but to welcome the chill a bit more.
Stay in Touch
If you want help finding a way to incorporate more and better movement into your life, hey, that’s my job! And if you want to let me know how it’s going with this resilience stuff, I am curious to know how it’s going for you. Either way, here’s how to contact me.