Resilience… and Unraveling the Mystery

Woman on phone looking stressedSomething that I have found fascinating in working from a Somatic Experiencing framework is the way in which a charge that has been held by the physiology from an unresolved critical incident can impact behavior and thought in unexpected ways. I have mentioned this in my previous entries. It is something that I have experienced personally as well as witnessed in my practice. Seemingly unrelated aspects of one’s life can shift as the physiology is able to dissipate the held, or remembered, charge from previous critical incidents.

A perfect example is a statement made to me by someone who came to work on residual symptoms from a terrible car accident. The sessions had all been focused on processing the many different pieces that can make up the “singular” event of a car accident. At one point during a session, several months into the work, this individual said “as we have been working on my car accident the rest of my life is changing, too”. The reference was to family relationships shifting in a positive way along with a greater ability to handle life in general.

This example speaks to the concept of resilience. We are resilient by nature; hard- wired for developing the capacity to negotiate intensity of experience. We each have an inborn blueprint for building our ability to experience intense joy and pleasure as well as intense pain, distress, fear and rage. There can be variations in ability depending on our genetics or differently-abled brains but generally speaking we have the same autonomic nervous system and the same basic wiring for managing life as it comes. If all goes well during our developmental years, beginning with our in utero experience, birth, and the many years following, we develop and strengthen a natural state of resilience.

When things come along that our lower brain perceives as threat and our instinctive ability to negotiate this is blocked we can become less resilient. If too many things come along, or one really big thing occurs, and the nervous system is inhibited from releasing as it needs to, our degree of resilience can become narrowed. When this happens we might exhibit less ability, or less “room” for tolerating the inevitable frustrations, emotional and physical hurts, powerless moments, noise and high energy of others around us (e.g. children), stimulation in malls and with crowds, or emotionally charged circumstances, etc., that life brings. There is no scientific equation that can predict precisely how overwhelm and trauma will manifest. The patterns might be as similar or they might be as different as the variations that exist across people in general. What is likely to be consistent is that the storing of overwhelm and trauma will show up in behavior, thought, and the total picture of an individual’s degree of resilience.

We learn, often without recognizing all that is being learned, from these experiences that narrow our resilience. For example, we can develop an instinctively driven pattern of hypervigilance and tightening on our left side that originated with a vehicle having run into our car on the left side. The pattern can exist and influence us below our consciousness. As mentioned in previous entries, ideally we would have the opportunity to sit…..register our state of shock……allow it to resolve naturally into the fear and/or rage that might open………have the time and space to shake and twitch and cry……and in so doing complete rather than store the fight or flight response triggered by this incident. The tightening that occurred on the left side of the body can relax with the release of the shock and the sympathetic nervous system firings and adrenal-cortical hormones. This promotes resilience, both physiologically and psychologically.

I just described what rarely if ever occurs. More typically one might have escaped without injury but perhaps not without more subtle kinds of impact. This subtle impact might show up as a tendency to graze door frames on the left side when walking through them. It could also show up as feeling less secure or grounded when engaging in a serious conversation with someone who is sitting to one’s left side. There are enumerable kinds of indications that reflect the state of unresolved overwhelm or trauma. The fascinating part is how our behaviors, attitudes, thought patterns, relationships, sense of self, lack of clear boundaries, fears, or limitations can trail back to a beginning that is operating below our conscious radar…. and one that we may never have guessed.

There is a wonderful mystery to the human experience. We think we know…… and sometimes what we do in fact know follows the path of the expected. And then there are those other times….. when the journey unfolds like a well-crafted novel and the mystery and surprise enriches us in ways we had not known to imagine.

Peter Levine, PhD, Raja Selvam, PhD, SEP, Diane Poole Heller, PhD, SEP, Nancy Napier, MA, SEP, Yiri Dollekamp, CMA, SEP

Related articles:

Changing Brain Chemistry, Changing Paradigms

© Copyright 2010 by Sherry L. Osadchey, MA, LMFT, SEP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • GINA

    September 23rd, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    So does our resilience narrow down automatically when it comes to matters of the heart, so much that we find even little things hurtful? Or is it because of the mountain of expectations we have from our partner?

  • Sherry Osadchey

    September 23rd, 2010 at 4:34 PM

    Gina: Thanks for reading the entry. You ask a big question and one that doesn’t have just one answer. Relationships are the ideal place to run into unresolved overwhelm and trauma from earlier times and events. We are our most vulnerable in our most intimate relationships. This means we will feel hurts in a much more sensitive way. If we haven’t developed enough capacity for the feeling of hurt then we end up shut down. It happens for so many of us. Gives us the cues for where we have overwhelm and trauma that’s needing some attention. Good luck in working things out.

  • Cal

    September 24th, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    Isn’t it funny that sometimes when we are working on one issue how other things tend to crop up too, things that at first you would think have no relation to one another at all, but with the help of your counselor you start really digging around- and Boom! there’s the connection that is driving it all. Thank God for resiliency and for having given so many of us so much of it.

  • WbN

    September 24th, 2010 at 5:09 AM

    I was involved in a freaky car accident in the night years ago and the accident cost me my friend.although I was not seriously hurt I am still scared of driving in the night.I make sure I am not behind the wheel in the night and whenever travelling long,I stop over somewhere until its morning because it just reminds me each and every scene of that sad night.

    I do not know what to do or even whether there is anything I need to do because maybe this is just fine because this no night-driving is not affecting my routine seriously.

  • brittany henderson

    September 24th, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    its nice how sometimes when we encounter multiple problems and we are just stunned as to how we are going to get out of such a situation and just an action attempted at solving one problem solves all of the problems we are facing.

  • Sherry Osadchey

    September 27th, 2010 at 5:16 AM

    Cal and Brittany, thanks for reading my entry and adding your thoughts!

  • Sherry Osadchey

    September 27th, 2010 at 5:24 AM

    WbN, it sounds like you have found a workable way to cope with something that was such a devastating experience. There is a way to resolve the physiological memory of that time that of course you will never forget. As I mention, sometimes these things show up in other ways or can stay with us in flashbacks that are anxiety producing. Should it become something that you wish to resolve further you can just know that it’s possible for whenever that time might come or for whenever it feels right to do so. Thanks for reading my entry and including your comment.

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