Resiliency: Lessons, Laws and Metaphors from the Natural World

*Helen came home from West Africa after a 5-month consultancy with something beyond exhaustion in her bones. While travel and work there left her with meaningful and enriching memories, occasionally what would surface from her psyche were the detailed images of how war and poverty imprinted themselves on this region. Intrusive and distressing recollections of people with horrific war injuries would “pop up” in her mind’s- eye.  At times, the images of war-torn injuries such as those who suffered amputations of arms and legs, as well as memories of homeless and orphaned children in great need or suffering animals on the streets would haunt her during both her daytime thoughts and nighttime dreams.

She loved her work, yet she realized there is a personal emotional cost to caring.



Vicarious Traumatization. Compassion Fatigue. Burn Out.  The emotional and psychological residue of working in a helping profession is not a topic that is freely discussed among some workers. Apprehensions of being perceived as ‘too weak, to be in the field,’ having poor emotional boundaries, or even “imposing one’s own meaning onto a situation,” may subdue workers into an isolating silence.

Yet, the effects of working in conditions where one is exposed to the many expressions of the human condition, from deep anguish to great joy, very commonly have intimate and sometimes enduring consequences on so many who work in the development field.

Ironically, it is this very quality of inner responsiveness to another’s condition that pulls some of us into the work in the first place. The ability to be permeable enough to feel and respond to another’s plight can be considered the very essence of “compassion.”

In fact, the Pali and Sanskrit word for compassion, “Karuna,” refers to “ the quivering of one’s heart in response to another being’s pain.”

The work of supporting others through various challenges can offer one a life bursting with meaning. Yet, what can we do when this inner quivering, this response to the call of another, unsettles our own foundation too severely?

It is best not to give from an empty cup. Give from your overflow-

Dr. David Viscott

“Resilience” is a term that has gained popularity among those both within and outside the field of mental health. Originating from the field of physics, this term is used to describe the capacity of matter to regain its original shape, even after it has been subjected to extreme stress. A rubber band is resilient because it can recover its shape even after being very forcefully extended.

This version of resilience has been widely adapted by resiliency trainers with even the United States Army using the concept to train soldiers in fostering the, “battle proof mind” or the mind that it is impervious to duress of war. Some resilience experts also refer to the process of “inoculating” oneself against the attack of stress, by adequate preparation.

While useful in some contexts, the notion of having an immutable, fortress- like presence in the face of the human experience does not always fit with what is called for and even experienced in aid work. We know people are affected and sometimes are forever transformed by their work.

There is another version of resilience that comes from the world of ecology that may, in fact, be more appropriate to the type of “tender yet tough,” porous but powerful stance aid workers so often identify with.

In the study of living systems, the quality of resilience is accorded to those systems that are diverse, versatile and adaptable. The capacity of forests to endure great environmental havoc, such as fire has something to do with the variety of species that exists within that biosphere.


As Frijof Capra the author of the Tao of Physics states:


A diverse ecosystem will also be resilient, because it contains many species with overlapping ecological functions that can partially replace one another. When a particular species is destroyed by a severe disturbance so that a link in the network is broken, a diverse community will be able to survive and reorganize itself… In other words, the more complex the network is, the more complex its pattern of interconnections, the more resilient it will be.”


It is with this embodied complexity, the resilient forest that not only endures a raging fire but it responds with new growth.


Thus, in the world of living systems, “resilience” is not a quality of enduring challenge with a steely stoicism. Rather, it is the quality of being able to respond to it, through a myriad of channels with enlivened creativity and vigor.


We, as living organisms, can use nature as our metaphor for resilience as we navigate the ever-present challenges of humanitarian work. We can promote our own ability to survive and reorganize while being present and alive with another by using a variety of approaches to promote our own versatility, adapadability, and these approaches can be categorized as:

Endure, Respond and Reflect


During an especially difficult assignment, tolerating challenge without succumbing to despair or a desperate urgency to leave can be facilitated by a number of commonly used and easily learned strategies of self care. While in the moment of stress, one of the most accessible methods of being present and withstanding duress is using your breath. Simple elongated inhalations with even longer exhalations, “square breathing, and many yogic breathing techniques can all be potent strategies. Besides breathing, there are guided imagery techniques, mantra, ( using sacred sounds) and silent prayer techniques that can be quite effective to help one countenance challenge with equaminity without numbing out. All of these practices have been shown to activate the para-sympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that governs relaxation.




The very act of engaging in some type of response is integral to healing from duress. As living systems we are naturally oriented toward action. The noted trauma researcher, Bessel Van der Kolk writes:


“Living creatures more or less respond to incoming sensory information on a neuronal and hormonal level, which eventually generates action. When this orientation toward action is thwarted, all kinds of disruptions occur on a biological level”


Essentially, when we either experience or witness traumatic or stressful events, the primitive, survival oriented parts of our brains are activated—fight, flight, or freeze responses materialize in our bodies, even on the most subtle levels. As Van der Kolk, suggests, interruption of this orientation to act can produce complications in our bodies. For example, some researchers suggest some chronic anxiety issues have their origins in a person’s unprocessed traumatic experiences, where the original traumatic event elicited a fight/ flight/ freeze response that was some how prematurely interrupted, thus becoming “locked’ or embedded in her nervous system.


“Responding” in the resilient organism, respects this innate predisposition toward action. When encountering overwhelming “incoming sensory information,” while in a disaster zone or in a new buzzing and bustling metropolis, this process calls for some type of action or some manner of using the body to discharge the corporeal imprint that inevitably comes with such experiences. Exercise is most commonly associated with this concept.




In the natural world, we observe there are times that living systems lay dormant. Winter descends. Hibernation happens. These periods of stillness are ultimately reviving and strengthening.

Reflection, in the context of cultivating resiliency, can be viewed similarly. As we create stillness for ourselves, both on physical and mental levels, we allow ourselves the opportunity for physical recovery. Researchers are now aware that the body’s natural self repair mechanisms are activated once we are in relaxed states.

Reflection also can refer to periods of quiet that accommodate

“meaning–making” or the process of gleaning significance about we have experienced or witnessed.

As the neurologist Oliver Sacks writes, “It is not the historical truth, but the narrative truth that informs our impression of the world.”

In meaning-making, we can consider not only the duress and challenge of one’s work—we also can whole heartedly embrace how our own intentions, and actions represent higher purposes, principles of living and values we hold precious.

These themes can be incorporated into the narrative truth of our work. Knowing that we have tried our best and acted in a manner that is congruent with our deepest and most treasured values, can serve as a source of renewal.

Resilience can be envisioned in a number of ways. Using the metaphor from the natural world, we can be inspired to create a version of resilience that both tolerates and responds to challenge in a manner that honors the most precious gifts of being alive.





Bharati Acharya MA, LPCC, Diplomate Narrative Therapy

Trauma therapist, Consultant, Trainer

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3 Responses to Resiliency: Lessons, Laws and Metaphors from the Natural World

  1. Sally McKay says:

    great read – thank you
    and encourages the move away from the premise that following disasters – things need to be restored to ‘normal’…………….
    The ecological description of resilience I believe applies well to peoples’ abilities to recover from disasters, shocks and trauma.
    Impacts of disasters and the ability to recover requires use of adaptive capacity, which entails making changes in response to changing conditions, or transformative capacity, the capacity to completely change existing systems
    Therefore, recovery from disasters does not entail restoring the status quo after a shock occurs, but rather people coming to terms with their different life circumstances and moving forward into a new changed reality.
    Recovery needs to support adaptive change through recognizing and utilising the ‘window of opportunity’ for people to adopt change.

  2. KLBoothe says:

    I think it would be great, Bharati, if you also wrote something to address how many of us in “aid” work with local/national colleagues and beneficiaries of our programs who suffer post-trauma effects. I think what might “look” one way to an outsider as (apathy, anger etc. etc.) are rooted in the post-trauma effects they suffer that we don’t understand. How do we manage teams with such persons in post-conflict, disaster countries etc.? How do we work with them? recognize what might be trauma-induced behaviors? How do we maintain a project, productivity while at the same time managing/leading with empathy and understanding and what should we do?

  3. Richard masters says:

    Thank you for such a cogent, insightful and empowering article:)

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