Home Cultivating Inner Resilience in the Face of Crisis

Cultivating Inner Resilience in the Face of Crisis

user profile picture suziegruber Feb 23, 2011
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Abraham Maslow detailed a hierarchy of human needs as drivers of human motivation, postulating that we first attend to our physiological needs for air, food, and water, followed by our need for safety. Only when those needs are met do we then attend to higher level needs, such as creativity and achievement. Recognizing that energy descent will require significant changes in standard of living for most of us, we immediately want to secure the basics and find ways to make supplies of those basics resilient. 



Like many people, when I first learned about Peak Oil about six years ago, I began with physical preparation for a lower energy future. It makes total sense that many of us do this when recognizing danger ahead. The What Should I Do? guide here really supports us in learning about physical preparation. Chris says, “We are more resilient when we have multiple sources and systems to supply a needed item, rather than being dependent on a single source.” However, as Chris and many others have pointed out, all of our physical preparations are “necessary but insufficient,” because we simply don’t know what exactly will happen and we are totally dependent on natural resources for everything we consume every day.

So what else can we do? I believe we need to focus a significant part of our crisis preparation on developing inner resilience in addition to cultivating external, physical resilience. To begin, I offer a little sidebar on how the human nervous system functions. When we have a stressful experience, our nervous system responds in one of four ways: engagement with the stressful stimulus, fight, flight or freeze. Our nervous system instinctively responds by entering one of these states and once the stressful stimulus has passed, our system knows how to return to a resting state. Consider a gazelle in the wild. If a predator stalks the gazelle, the gazelle will begin to run away, a flight state. At some point if the predator chases the gazelle, the gazelle may know instinctively that it will be killed. Then that gazelle will stop running and suddenly drop to the ground in a freeze state. If by some stroke of luck, the predator leaves without killing the gazelle, the gazelle’s nervous system then emerges out of the freeze state. From the outside the gazelle looks like it is having some kind of seizure, but the gazelle is simply recovering from the intense nervous system activation of mobilizing a response to having its life threatened. The same is true when recovering from a flight or fight state. I can certainly recall times when I felt jittery after an intense experience in which I felt threatened. That was my nervous system releasing activation while returning to a resting state.

So why does all this matter to us? Peter Levine figured out that our nervous systems carry this same innate capacity to successfully respond to intense stressors without lasting effects (


Peter Levine, (2010), “In An Unspoken Voice: How The Body Releases Trauma & Restores Goodness”). This knowledge illuminates an important crisis preparation opportunity. When we have inner resilience, we are more likely to engage with a stressful stimulus in a responsive, centered way, and if we do enter a fight, flight or freeze state, these defense mechanisms relax at the appropriate time and we naturally return to a sense of balance, once we have responded to the stimulus. When responding this way, we stay in the present and make good decisions for ourselves. Without this inner resilience we remain in the fight, flight or freeze state even once the stressful stimulus lessens, and as a result we accumulate stress in our nervous systems. We may feel frequently anxious, angry, or depressed for example. How many of us have felt long periods of anxiety or depression about what to do or what the future will bring in the face of societal dislocation? This transition represents an intense, prolonged stressor as our fundamental way of life changes. By getting familiar with our nervous system patterns and noticing the inner characteristics of these activation states, we learn to restore inner balance more quickly, balance which leads to effective action in response to these changes.

I offer a few ways we can cultivate inner resilience:

  • Give yourself a little bit of time on a regular basis to feel your feelings about what is happening in the world. Do this with a supportive loved one. Part of developing inner resilience involves specifically acknowledging that we sense danger and then feeling our very valid emotions in response to what is happening in our world in a way that we can move through them rather skipping over them or ignoring them. If we can cultivate this ability now, we will bounce back faster when times really get tough. When we feel our feelings about something difficult like world affairs, we release activation energy rather than accumulating stress. If you find yourself consistently stuck in a fight, flight or freeze state, consider getting some help cultivating this inner resilience.
  • Practice frequently orienting to your surroundings. To orient, take a moment and literally just let your eyes go where they want to. They will eventually linger on something interesting to you in your environment. Try it right now. Next, observe what you like about what you see. Maybe you are looking out the window at a beautiful tree. Describe to yourself in detail what you like about the tree, maybe its shape. Additionally, feel into any inner sensations you notice as you look at the tree; maybe you feel warmth in your chest or a loosening in your shoulders. Alternatively, an image may arise of some other time when you were underneath that tree. An innate behavior, we use orienting to assess the safety of our environment. This behavior gets thwarted by our culture’s insistence that we maintain a high level of focus throughout our day especially when we focus on computer screens, often keeping our heads held in a fixed position looking in only one direction for long periods of time. Learning to orient gives us a tool we can use anytime and anywhere to find our center when we notice ourselves going into or coming out of a fight, flight or freeze state.
  • Spend some time on a regular basis getting to know your own rhythm. Our lives are very full, often dictated by external demands. Many of us have completely lost touch with our own basic rhythms around when we want to sleep, eat and play. Getting to know our rhythm helps cultivate inner resilience because this familiarity increases our knowledge of our own nervous system states.
  • Take electronics breaks – no television, iPod, computer, wireless network or cell phone. Our nervous systems need down time. A study done recently at UCSF postulates that constant electronic stimulation interferes with our ability to learn. The changes that are coming will require us to be very adaptive and hence we need all of our learning capacity intact.
  • Spend frequent time in nature. Nature offers the ultimate down time. Really let yourself explore your natural surroundings even if it’s a small patch of grass in a suburban yard or an urban park. Pause long enough to really feel the wind on your face and the warmth of the sun on your skin.
  • If you have the resources and the inclination, I strongly recommend you get some experiential survival skills training. Being taught a skill like fire making in a classroom setting in no way tests your emotional preparedness. Being taught this skill in the wilderness where it is the only way that you can cook will also teach you about your own emotional resilience in face of actual survival. I personally recommend Boulder Outdoor Survival School.

At the end of the day the only resource we can truly count on is the skills we have cultivated and our ability to use them effectively in the moment. We cannot rely on the availability of any of our physical resources and while many of us have developed very strong communities that support us, we don’t know who will be with us as a crisis unfolds. The likelihood of unpredictable events and significant changes warrants the ability to adapt quickly. Laurence Gonzales illustrates repeatedly in his outstanding book Deep Survival that the common denominator among people who survive against impossible odds is their ability to identify mentally and emotionally as a survivor rather than a victim. We must embody this survivor identity rather than hope that things will be okay. I believe cultivating inner resilience will help all of us identify as survivors as we navigate our civilization’s transition to a lower energy future.

I close with a poem from Derek Walcott. May we all find the pathway to feast on our life in this shifting, quaking, who knows what will happen next, time.

Love After Love
Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


For more information on the physiology of the nervous system as it responds to stress, I recommend Stephen W. Porges’ excellent article “Neuroception: A Subsystem for Detecting Threats & Safety” (2004)

About the Author

Suzie Gruber, M.A., SEP., holds advanced degrees in chemistry & psychology and spent 15 years working in the biotechnology industry before waking up to the reality of peak oil, climate change and economic instability. In response she completely rebuilt her career, becoming an energetic herbalist, a Somatic Experiencing® practitioner and a 5Rhythms® moving meditation teacher. Working one-on-one with people in person and over the phone, she uses a holistic approach to help her clients restore physical, emotional and spiritual balance, with particular emphasis on working with those on the front lines of societal collapse.


This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our What Should I Do? series feedback forum.

If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:

This series is a companion to this site's free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.