Why are some people seemingly more naturally resilient? Why do some deal more easily with environmental, physical, and emotional stressors?
I was talking with a child psychologist friend of mine the other day about Dr. Thomas Boyce's theory on resilience, adaptation and sensitivity in children. Boyce, an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, likens children's differing abilities to survive and cope with adversities in their lives to plants' varying abilities to thrive in poor soil.
He posits that many children are "dandelion" children. Like dandelions they demonstrate repeated and remarkable resilience, thriving in challenging environments and weathering adversity well.
Conversely, he asserts that a smaller percentage of children are "orchid" children. Orchids flourish spectacularly under specific supportive environments but are more vulnerable to the stressors of their worlds. Sensitive souls, they are more affected by their environment – whether healthy or unhealthy – than their dandelion siblings are. Accordingly, in the face of adversity they suffer markedly more mental and physical health consequences.
Of course, many children fall somewhere in the middle. Children inhabit a wide spectrum of sensitivity and resilience levels. And I would suggest that adults do, too.
How fluid are our baseline sensitivity and resilience levels? How can we effectively bolster both? After all, each is an asset.
Sensitivity allows us to be present with the subtle; it enables us to connect with, be moved by, and respond to small changes and realities in our world. And resilience enables us to conjure the inner strength to weather challenge and disappointment (without numbing or smothering our sensitivity). Clearly buttressing both could only benefit.
Those sensitive souls (orchids!) among us can feel easily overwhelmed in the modern world, as sounds, lights, electromagnetic waves, smells, and environmental toxins reign with an intensity and pervasiveness that our ancestors never encountered. The incessant din of freeways, roar of airplanes, negativity in the news, encounters with fabrics full of fungicides, contaminants in our drinking water, pesticides in our foods, and virulent viruses overload the systems of those more sensitive first. Others move through the same world, yet remain seemingly minimally affected.
As an acupuncturist and holistic healthcare practitioner, I have the privilege of working regularly with the sensitive among us; those who long to feel heard and understood when they feel affected by their environment; those who yearn for greater resilience.
Changes in lifestyle can powerfully build resilience over time. As author Annie Dillard eloquently reminds us: "how we spend our days is, of course. how we spend our lives.” Spending extended time in environments that nourish our nervous systems and offer refuge from overstimulation, help us better cope with heightened stimuli when we do encounter it. Nature walks in the wilds, quiet time alone, nourishing food, and deep rest all help. So too do practices that simultaneously cultivate strength and sensitivity such as yoga and qi gong. And turning toward that which brightens your spirit, captures your soul, and aligns with your sense of purpose, immeasurably ups vitality and resilience. I see it every day in my practice.
But plants help too, and I often recommend herbs as part of a holistic plan to cultivate stress resilience in my work with patients. Sometimes they serve a springboard to help patients get to a spot where they can sustainably make more of the lifestyle shifts above.
Plants adapt to withstand environmental challenges from drought to pests, parasites, viruses, bacteria, poor soil, and temperature extremes. They teem with phytochemicals to aid them in their endeavor to survive and thrive, and humans can benefit from consuming these plant medicines as well.
There are dozens of plants widely appreciated by herbalists to help specifically with building resilience under stress (whether physical, environmental, hormonal, or emotional). Each of these herbs boasts unique strengths and properties, so it can be helpful work with a practitioner well-schooled and practiced in their distinctive assets, who can help you with how much to take and in what combination.
Here are three of my favorites. (Though of course, as always, I would recommend working with a practitioner before diving in).
Ashwaganda is a plant native to India and the Middle East. Its root has been heralded for thousands of years as a builder of physical and sexual vitality, nervous system ease, and resilience to stress. In addition to helping herald healthy energy throughout the day it also facilitates restful sleep. It can help foster a greater sense of calm after taking it for a couple days, and after taking it in small doses for several months it helps cultivate a heightened ability to withstand stressors. It is neutral to slightly warm in temperature, and is mildly drying, so for those who already tend to feel extra warm and dry, it is best taken in combination with other balancing herbs.
Shatavari is lauded in Ayurvedic medicine, and now much more widely, as the queen of herbs for the female reproductive system (though it can certainly rejuvenate men as well). Shatavari is gently moistening and cooling. It can help the reproductive system function optimally, even under stress, fostering healthy and easeful menstruation, ample lactation in new moms, and an easeful transition during menopause. It is grounding and nourishing and helps build resilience to stress.
Whereas the roots of ashwaganda and shatavari are traditionally used medicinally, it is the leaves of tulsi that are especially prized. In India, Tulsi is valued culturally and spiritually to such an extent that it is oft planted by the front door, welcoming visitors with its sweet, earthy aroma. Traditionally tulsi is taken to aid in a different kind of resilience – resilience to cold and flu. It is taken, typically as tea, at the onset of flu symptoms (such as chills). The herb warms the body and induces sweating. It supports the respiratory system and fosters healthy circulation. After drinking the tea it can be helpful to head to bed or take a long nap. I find I generally feel better when I wake.
Whether you most identify most with the dandelion or orchid within, it is possible foster both sensitivity and resilience through daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly habits, and with the aid of potent herbal allies. Imagine a world where everyone builds both sensitivity and resilience.