On Resiliency and Flexibility
What Bridges, Trees and the Body
Can Teach Us About Resilience
My father is a genius. He started a whole new industry within his field of structural engineering. Thirty years ago, the only process available for stabilizing bridges or buildings during an earthquake involved using steel “jackets”. These were steel reinforcements that prohibited any movement of a structure during a seismic event. Back then, the field of seismic retrofitting focused on making structures stronger. My father questioned this approach. He could immediately see that making something MORE RIGID only made it more brittle, and therefore, more breakable. He took his cue from nature and created a new system that allowed structures to become more stable AND more flexible.
Like a tree in the wind, he gave buildings the ability to move - to sway - during an earthquake. He embraced this idea of flexible yet strong and, in doing so, created an entirely new way to keep us safe during earthquakes (yep! Proud daughter over here).
We can look to our bodies, our anatomy, for hints on how resilience works as well. For humans, muscles are a symbol of strength; ask a four-year-old to show you how strong he is and he will flex his biceps for you (so cute!). Moreover, we equate tight muscles with strong muscles. But just like everything in nature – and in the world of seismic retrofitting - It is not about how strong you are. It is about your capacity to have strength AND flexibility. A tight muscle is often a weak muscle. A muscle needs flexibility in order to contract optimally. In other words, a muscle doesn’t function well when it isn’t flexible. And when a muscle can’t work at its best, the joints said muscle is supposed to be protecting are more prone to stress and injury. The bones are more prone to fractures. Other muscles around the area start to overcompensate and go into spasm. It’s a downward spiral that eventually leads to pain and a visit to my clinic. The body needs “flexible strength” – just like the tree swaying in the wind.
A resilient person is a flexible yet strong person – swaying in the winds of stress and uncertainty. Rigidity increases resistance and defensiveness. It is the hallmark of a stress response which moves us away from healthy problem solving and recovery. Instead, a resilient person bounces back rather than staying strong. My friend and mentor, Nkem Ndefo calls it “stretchy steel”. Again, we as a society tend to over praise strength. The problem with “staying strong” is that, when it is over, you have often alienated others and pushed your feelings deep into some hidden corner of your body and mind. You end up alone (often surrounded by others, but alone) and needing to numb so as to maintain your “strength”.
The image of a person on a trampoline comes to mind when I think of resilience. There is movement. A building needs to expand and contract; a tree needs to sway; a muscle needs the freedom to recoil. Likewise, a person under stress often needs to MOVE to dissipate the pressurized state. Once you stretch out that tight muscle, you then have to move it -to re-educate and strengthen it again. You don’t need to run a marathon or even to get a “runner’s high” to enjoy the benefits of movement as a resilience builder. Anything that shuttles uncomfortable energy from within your body to something that feels more comfortable is the right movement for you. It can be walking, dancing, stretching, shaking… any movement that reminds your body that you have the freedom to sway. After all, without the sway, we crack.