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J.R. Martinez | Becoming Resilient: Learning to Reframe Your Trauma

By February 5, 2023No Comments

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Becoming Resilient: Learning to Reframe Your Trauma

As an entrepreneur, you are almost guaranteed to experience setbacks. I bet you’re thinking of a few right now. Resilience – the ability to bounce back and try again, despite the odds – is a skill you will be forced to learn one way or another.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s always the option to give up, isn’t there? But I know you wouldn’t be here reading this newsletter if that was your goal. You’re here to build something bigger than yourself, something that will outlast your current trials and tribulations.

The issue is that not all of us developed resilience in our childhood. We didn’t all experience extreme or persistent hardships as kids – and while that’s a blessing, it does mean we need to learn how to cultivate resilience as adults.

If we don’t, we can become overwhelmed by the ebb and flow of life. We’ll never be able to recover from our hardships and move forward with purpose. So let’s talk about it.

What Is Resilience, Exactly?

Resilience; resiliency; perseverance; grit – we use a lot of words for the same thing. It’s the ability to revive yourself and come back full force after a setback or a challenge. It’s the strength to keep going despite hardships, and it’s an essential skill for any entrepreneur.

There’s a whole field of science devoted to resilience. In physics, it’s usually called ‘elasticity’ instead: “Elasticity is the property of solid materials to return to their original shape and size after the forces deforming them have been removed.”

Resilience scientists and psychologists focus on the act of adapting to hardship. If you are a resilient person, according to the APA, you successfully adapt to difficult or challenging life experiences.

I personally appreciate the emphasis on adaptation. It’s a reminder that every time you’re faced with hardship, it shapes and changes you. Your reaction – one of resilience, or one of withdrawal – determines how you’re shaped.

Why Some People Have Inbuilt Resilience

We’ve all met people who respond to hard times like foam. They soak the experience in, then wring themselves out and spring back to life, seemingly stronger than before.

The truth is that no one’s born with an innate capacity for resilience. At some point in their childhood, those particularly strong people had to face truly difficult times. That’s why they know how to handle them now.

According to Harvard:

“…not all children experience lasting harm as a result of adverse early experiences. Some may demonstrate ‘resilience,’ or an adaptive response to serious hardship.”

Since childhood is such a formative part of our lives, it’s no wonder that those with challenging backgrounds are more likely to develop resilience. It’s a survival mechanism they had to build from scratch – and without it, their very lives would have felt endangered.

The Role of Resilience in Trauma 

I got the idea for today’s newsletter from J.R. Martinez, whom I was lucky enough to speak with over on the Success Story Podcast.

While deployed to Iraq at just 19 years of age, J.R. hit a roadside bomb while driving and became trapped in his burning vehicle. He suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns; he had to undergo 34 different procedures, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery, in the years following his injury.

J.R. is the epitome of resilience. Even though he wanted to give up at the time, he ended up using his experience to help others going through the same or similar situations. Now? He’s a renowned motivational speaker helping people all over the world.

But J.R. doesn’t attribute all of his resilience to an innate strength of character; he traces it back to a childhood of constant moving, frequent exposure to arguments and violence, and schoolyard bullying, among many other obstacles.

So, what is it about these events that translate into resilience?

The Psychological Process of Resilient Brains

An incredible thing about being human is that we are malleable beings. Our brains are capable of changing in response to the world around us. When we are faced with frequent adversity, as J.R. Martinez was in his childhood, our brains reinforce the neural pathways that help us overcome those same obstacles in the future.

Richard Davidson, who wrote ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain,’ explains that people with resilient minds have a more active left prefrontal cortex. In some cases, it can be thirty times more active than someone with low resilience.

When your left prefrontal cortex is more active, it’s easier for you to turn off the negative emotions associated with a stressful situation. You quickly shift to neutralize your emotions and regain control.

In the context of childhood trauma, it’s easy to see why someone like J.R. would have a more resilient brain by the time he hit adulthood. His mind has been reinforcing the neural pathways that help them cope with adversity since they were very young.

Building Resilience as an Adult

What if we don’t have that repeated reinforcement? It can hardly be called a disadvantage to have been brought up in a stable household, with access to education and resources.

But without acute tests – like the sudden death of a caregiver – or chronic ones – like a nightly hunger borne from poverty – we may not have the same level of resilience that others do.

Emmy Werner, a psychologist who studied a group of nearly 700 children from birth into their thirties, wrote about how resilient children had an internal locus of control.

One’s locus of control is the degree to which one believes they have power over the outcome of events in their life. Essentially, someone with an internal locus of control would believe that their decisions, not luck or fate, will be the biggest factor in their behavior.

Reshaping the Event

A traumatic event, then, doesn’t need to result in negative effects. In fact, they aren’t necessarily traumatic at all, but merely potentially traumatic. It is entirely up to interpretation and action whether something will be negative, no matter how destructive it might seem.

I know, that sounds a little bit naive. You can’t just shrug off a near-death experience inside a burning car. But as J.R. proves, you can move past it.

By reshaping the way you look at a stressful situation, it doesn’t need to be traumatizing. Teaching yourself to limit your initial response and control your emotional reaction can have a profound effect on long-term resilience.

Accepting the Challenge

Even more, we can accept the challenge presented by difficult situations. By reframing our views of failure and adversity, we can see them as opportunities to learn and grow.

This doesn’t mean that you should seek out hardship – far from it. But if it does come your way, don’t run away from it. Accept the challenge for what it is: an opportunity to become more resilient than ever before.

If you can do this, you will be strengthening your neural pathways to better cope with future adversity. You’ll develop a sense of control over your emotions and reactions. And perhaps most importantly, you’ll understand that failure is not the end – but merely part of the journey.

Welcoming (and Providing) Support

Too often, we isolate ourselves in times of need. We don’t want to burden our friends or family with our issues, so we carry them alone. This can be a disastrous strategy.

Richard Davidson, who I mentioned earlier, also has a famous talk called The Four Constituents of Well-Being. The first of these is resilience, but Davidson notes that it takes thousands of hours of purposeful practice to change the neurological function of the brain to improve it.

His second constituent, outlook, takes much less time. As we’ve looked at above, this is something that can be learned and applied more quickly.

The third is attention, which is repeatedly bringing your focus back to the task at hand, instead of letting it wander. This training will allow you to better react when stressful situations present themselves.

But the fourth is perhaps the most critical of all: generosity.

This is the idea that, when we are altruistic, or giving of our time and resources to help others, we are helping ourselves. The results are more lasting, more powerful, and more beneficial than any other type of training.

But generosity is a two-way street. It is more than just dedicating a few hours a week to volunteering at a soup kitchen – it is also welcoming help and support from others when we need it the most.

Final Thoughts

So how do we become resilient?

The answer is simple: practice.

We can shape our interpretation of events and be more open to help and support, but the only way to truly become resilient is by enduring hardship with fortitude. Every time you push yourself through a difficult situation, you become stronger and better able to handle future challenges.

It’s not easy – no one ever said it was – but it’s worth it in the end. Resilience gives us the strength we need to keep going when times get tough, and that’s something every entrepreneur needs in their arsenal.

If you want to hear more about J.R.’s incredible story, head over to the Success Story YouTube channel. His words are incredibly motivating, and it was one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done.

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.

Reply to this email or tweet at me @ScottDClary and I’ll do my best to get back to everyone!


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