The Human Capacity for Resilience
The only reason I became a doctor was because I couldn’t find a good one.
I had my first debilitating migraine when I was 17. Over the last 20 years, I’ve averaged a separate migraine every three to four days—100 per year—with chronic pain and fatigue between. I lived in a medical purgatory for nearly a decade as I searched for answers. Traditional medicine was extremely gifted at damage control and triage but had no answers for a patient, such as myself, who wasn’t a candidate for drugs, surgery, or traditional rehab. I explored alternative healthcare models that were innovative and effective in wellness and non-traditional rehab but offered little to no understanding of how to care for complex cases. I was stuck.
I wonder how many of us can relate to feeling confused and disoriented in 2020?
At 26 years old, after 21 specialists and nine years of searching for answers, I was diagnosed as having a Chiari malformation. It was then that I decided to go back to school. My undergraduate degree was in digital animation and film, but this time I pursued a doctoral degree in Chiropractic and board certification in Functional Neurology. I decided I wanted to care for those on the margins who were abandoned, lost, or misunderstood within the healthcare arena—those such as myself.
In the process, I learned that our minds, bodies, and souls are far more inclined toward recovery than we have ever imagined. The experience and understanding of contemporary neuroscience gave me renewed hope for healing for myself and others.
In the last decade I have seen children begin speaking for the first time, elderly people get out of wheelchairs, and those with brain injuries and medically abandoned complex cases fully recover. I have seen hope rekindled in patients and family members after decades of hopelessness. And yet, I have often failed to find my own solution. Although my continued pursuit of answers has led me to a significant reduction in migraines some years, I would lose that ground the following year.
The nature of this paradox between healer and wounded, believer and skeptic, patient and doctor, has taught me that sometimes the answer is No, sometimes the answer is Not yet, and sometimes there is no clear answer at all. But sometimes the answer is a resounding Yes! It can and will be different for each of us.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the answers can change by the hour. It has taught us what it looks like to find hope and to lose it. It has taught us that some of us may be significantly impacted while others feel almost no change at all. Our experiences are so very relative. Sometimes we are in a space of long-suffering and in that perseverance our character is developed. That is certainly true of this year for many of us. Ideally, we eventually are able to produce hope.
I know that every person I have encountered and aided in my clinic has benefited directly from my own suffering. That does not make suffering any easier, but it has taught me how to cultivate my hope.
This year, as well as the last 20 years, has reinforced my belief that our triumph is possible through our transformation, and that oftentimes our transformation comes at the expense of our comfort.
Ultimately, I know that a life of purpose is a life worth living. Truly.
The reality for many of us, including myself this year, is that we need something to hold on to. We need an anchor in the storm. We need a way to just get our bearings and to reorient in a way that helps us move forward, even if only for a moment. Then we repeat. And we repeat. And we repeat until we find ourselves on solid ground again.
Let me share a way that you can do just that.
A Practical Framework for Hopeful. Grateful. Learning.
One of the practices I want to leave you with as we all seek to navigate what comes next, is a process I use with my patients and that I've also used countless times in my own journey.
It's called Hopeful. Grateful. Learning.
There are so many things that positively and negatively impact our lives—things conscious and subconscious, things we can control, and things we can't. We know that our thoughts change our neurochemistry, that our neurochemistry changes the way our bodies work, and that the way our bodies work impacts our mind and our heart.
It's important for me to note that there is a significant difference in our brains between our experiences of pessimism, optimism, and pragmatism. Pessimism is someone on a boat during a storm saying, “No matter what I do, I'm going to die, so what is the point?” Optimism is saying, “There is no storm. I'm absolutely fine,” or “The storm won’t impact me. I will just ride this all out.” And pragmatism says, “You know what? I should probably make whatever adjustments I need to make and try to navigate my way through all of this.”
We know that when fear goes up, cognition goes down. So what can we do to help support our cognition?
“Hopeful. Grateful. Learning.” is a practical framework for making an attempt to navigate through the calm seas as well as the raging storms. Let me practically describe to you what “Hopeful. Grateful. Learning” sounds like from two perspectives.
An Optimistic Perspective of Hopeful. Grateful. Learning.
I'm hopeful that you have and will continue to learn something from these conversations we have had throughout 2020, because the healthier you are, the more it's going to impact your friends, your family, and your community. And that makes me feel deeply privileged to have been able to speak into your life this year.
I'm grateful you took time out of your busy life to read any of this content, because I know, realistically, even that small bit of time is a sacrifice. And that makes me feel mightily encouraged about ways we can continue moving toward healthier spaces.
And what I'm learning is this stuff doesn't happen overnight, and that's OK. But it makes me feel so challenged and so excited that we're making the effort together.
A Pragmatic Perspective of Hopeful. Grateful. Learning.
One way to use “Hopeful. Grateful. Learning” is to be transparent and vulnerable about the difficulties you're experiencing—even if you don't have a solution. I think most of us can relate to this space in 2020. So, let me show you what that looks like.
I am hopeful I can find a way to apply the things I've shared with you in my own life, because I know when I do these things, I may not get rid of all the migraines I experience, but God, I hope I can make a difference in some of them. And that makes me feel like maybe I can do a little bit better tomorrow, next week, or even next year.
I am grateful for the ability and the space to share my heart, to know that I don't have to fix everything today and that these resources really do work. I am grateful to know that this perspective is not going to guarantee that I don't have bad days, because sometimes it's important for the optimists—such as myself—o be pragmatic and realistic about the things that are hard. And that makes me feel like maybe there's a space where I don't have to carry everything on my own. Maybe there's a space where I can be transparent and vulnerable and I can ask for help. Maybe you can relate.
And what I'm learning is that maybe I don't fix everything. Maybe I'm learning that while 100 percent recovery may not be possible, 50 percent is, because I think the worst thing I can do is create an unhealthy expectation and be disappointed when I don't achieve my goal. And that makes me feel that maybe what I thought was uncertainty and confusion rushing toward me, is actually hope and gratitude.
It's also important to remember that pragmatism and optimism are not mutually exclusive. You can be hopeful and realistic. While doing “Hopeful. Grateful. Learning.”—especially in the way it will impact your neurochemistry and physiology—it is important to remember that you not allow yourself to move into critical pessimism. Pessimism will change the way your body functions by increasing your survival-based fight, flight, and freeze responses. This will definitively change your mental, emotional, and physical health. As you practice, it will take practice. Steer clear of pessimism and give yourself every opportunity to be pragmatic and optimistic.
Here is a shorthand exercise as a simple framework. I recommend doing this once a day, and if possible, with someone with whom you can share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.