Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Harling.
Kerry, a native of England, is a globally recognized leader in the field of integrative medicine combining the wisdom of eastern medicine with the breakthroughs of western technology. She is passionate about raising awareness for the need for a change in contemporary medicine that focuses on the ethos that health is NOT one size fits all and as such each of us is unique, and as such requires individualized treatment. Kerry practices at The University of Pittsburgh Center for Integrative Medicine and remains a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine where she has developed a personalized system to manage chronic disorders by incorporating fundamental changes in diet, behavior, and stress while focusing on genetics.
Thank you so much for joining us! We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Or in other words, it is the ability to bounce back after a stressor. However, in the context of biological resilience it is the ability to adapt successfully to stress, trauma, and adversity without getting ill. However, why is it that some people recover less efficiently following the same adverse health risk compared to others?
A crucial novel perspective, which has emerged in recent years, is that resilient people have active adaptive mechanisms. These adaptive mechanisms make them more able to adapt to an adverse event so that it does not cause disease.
One of those mechanisms in your genes. You can have a genetic risk for a condition and you might never get it, and you might have no genetic risk profile and end up having a poor health outcome because of your lifestyle, because of stress, or possible changes in parts of the gene that regulate other parts. This is known as epigenetics; in that you can change how your genes respond based upon diet and lifestyle. In this case even though a person may carry a predisposition for a health risk, if they have managed their diet and lifestyle well, the gene will not express. They counterbalanced the genetic predisposition with the right environment.
Another might be immune resilience. The University of Texas Health Center has just done a study that looks at immunologic resilience with relation to Covid 19 to see which Covid 19 patients will advance to severe disease, and which will not. They looked at infection fighting T-cells and blood cell gene expression signatures as markers of immune resilience and found that an 18-year-old could have inferior immunologic resilience, resulting in a high risk of severe COVID-19, whereas an 80-year-old with robust resilience could manifest less severe COVID-19.
There are other markers of biological resilience: For instance, the speed and quality of DNA repair would characterize the resilience at the cellular level. The ability to restore glucose levels or blood pressure back to normal after deviation caused by a stressor would characterize resilience at the level of tissue or physiological system, respectively. The ability to quickly heal a wound would be an indicator of resilience at the organ level. Finally, the ability to survive following an adverse health event would characterize resilience at the whole-body level.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
In many ways courage and resilience are used interchangeably as they both define an ability to confront something. However, I see courage as a measure of robustness, an ability to confront uncertainty or danger — whereas resilience is the ability to spring back after an adversity. Courage is what you use to face the adverse reaction whereas resilience is what allows you to recover quickly from that difficult event.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
As humans, our instincts are to fight bitterly against adversity. The most resilient among us will often find a way to fight it by embracing it.
On my desk is a copy of “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. Very few have talked about embracing adversity like him. A professor at Carnegie Mellon and a husband and father of three, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. He gave his Last Lecture on Sept. 18, 2007. His story, and particularly this final lecture, are a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit.
It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.
— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
Randy decided to accept his situation and live out the days he had remaining by making a difference. He died on July 25, 2008, and now he lives on not only through his family but also through the millions he inspired. I am certainly one of them. He taught me that once we accept our situation and let go of the outcome, it allows us to adapt and even thrive in the face of adversity.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I live by the motto “I accept no limitation”. I did not graduate with my first degree until I was 40 years of age. At the time, I was a single parent working many hours as a nursing assistant to try and provide for my son and me. I was just sinking deeper and deeper into debt and could not see myself providing the life I wanted for my son, so I decided to go back to school as a pre-med student. I was told by everyone that I was too old, that it would be too much of a transition for my son, that I would only incur more debt, that I should not move to a different state as I had no support network — and I should just accept where I am and make the best of it.
I decided that even if everyone was right — I still had to try and make a better life. So, I applied to a competitive elite school in New England, got accepted and studied neuroscience. I would love to say it was so easy — but it was the hardest thing I have done. Even though there were times when I wondered what I had taken on, it was one of the most rewarding times of my life. And despite what people told me, I actually thrived, and my experience then opened up graduate school for me.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Yes, I was in an abusive marriage. I was married to a military man that had not had a kind life and he chose to express his insecurities through the marriage both physically and emotionally. I stayed with him for 6 years trying to make it work. Then one day, when he was yelling obscenities at me, I saw my young son on the stairs just looking at him and me — and I saw my son’s face and thought, I am not bringing up a child to think this is normal behavior. So, over the course of a month, I packed my sons and my things at night when my husband was asleep and then one day — we fled the country. I went back to the UK, but I was lonely and had very little support and little financial resources. It was one of my lowest ebbs of my life and I did not know how I was going to make things work. Plus, I was petrified that my husband would come and find us.
It was not a quick recovery. It took a year for me to be able to get past the fear that my husband would be waiting for us somewhere, and in that year, I worked on my self-esteem, my self-reflection, and my boundaries. Enough so, that I returned to the USA, divorced my husband and built a life that was grounded in honesty, harmony and balance. I also started giving back by volunteering as a domestic violence counselor.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I was born into a military family, and we moved — every three years. Some would say that not staying in the same place, by not keeping the same friends would create insecurity. I find that military children are incredibly robust. They know how to adapt, to change, to make new friends, and cultivate an understanding of different cultures and places. That experience nurtured a love of travel, an understanding of different schools of thought, an ability to make friends wherever I go and an understanding that we are part of a global community. That resilience has allowed me to adapt to new situations, new opportunities, and new ways of thinking.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are a few steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Environment — You are a product of your environment — First, instigate an environment that supports you. That means daily routines meant to maintain physical and emotional health. Establishing a healthy and consistent daily routine allows the body to be in tune with the cycles of nature, promoting optimal wellness. The activities include cleansing, massage, exercise, study, meditation and yoga.
There are clear guidelines about the timing of all these activities. The morning practices are intended to both calm and energize the body, preparing you for the day ahead. The evening ones are to help you relax before sleep. The recommended timings for these practices are in tune with the natural cycle of the sun. Although these practices are thousands of years old, they are as beneficial in the modern lifestyle as ever before.
- Self-Care — You can’t pour from an empty cup — Self-care is the most important way to boost and maintain both emotional and physical health. Many people today neglect it due to a lack of time, and this negatively impacts the lives of those who do not make sure they are putting themselves first. I am constantly amazed by the response when I ask someone to take just 20 minutes a day for themselves. It’s always met with “Oh, I don’t have time for that”, or “I won’t be able to get everything done if I take that time out for me”. Even though people intuitively understand that you cannot pour from an empty cup — it’s still a hard sell to get someone to engage in regular self-care.
So, why is self-care important? We live in a world obsessed with speed, with doing everything faster, with cramming more and more into less and less time. Every moment of the day can feel like a race against the clock. And even things that by their very nature are slow — we just speed up. I was in a small New England town that was advertising at their local gym ‘Speed Yoga”. Yes — it’s the perfect solution for time stressed yogis that want to find inner peace but only take 20 minutes for the whole process.
However, there is a more serious note to this; — in our sprint into daily life we lose sight of the damage that this “roadrunner” form of living does to us. We are so used to switching on and plugging in quickly that we fail to see the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives…but most importantly on our health, our diet, our work, and our relationships. And sometimes it takes a wake-up call doesn’t it to tell us that we are rushing through our lives. That in living the fast life…we forgot about the good life, and I think, for many people that wake up call is an illness. You know, where the body says, I can’t do this anymore and throws in the towel.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Gosh if only I could tag the Dalai Lama and have lunch with him.
One of my favorite quotes by him that I keep in my office is:
“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways — either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength … I have been able to take this second way”. Dalai Lama
He emanates an ability to understand human struggle and human compassion. Plus, he has the most infectious laugh. I just know that if we were to have lunch it would be one of the most profound and one of the giggliest lunches I have ever had.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!