Humans are wired for resilience

Guest contributor Diana Johnson is a former middle school art teacher who developed an interest in how people stay resilient after a turbulent period in her life. She now works as a life coach helping other people navigate change in their lives with resilience using insight and tools from neurobiology, ancient wisdom traditions, and the arts.

The star of the astonishing 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher was a creature who could shapeshift in an instant to protect herself from threat—changing color to disappear against a rock wall, swaying gently to blend in with a clump of kelp, or retreating into a crack to regenerate a lost limb. Most astonishing of all, however, was the close relationship that developed between the octopus and the filmmaker when she felt safe enough for connection after months of his quiet observation.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the near-magical abilities of an octopus, made possible by a remarkable nervous system in their body and arms. Humans are vastly different from octopuses (we are more closely related to dinosaurs), but we have at least one thing in common: our nervous systems are wired for resilience, with capacity to flexibly respond to stress and recover a state of balance. Science has recently made great strides in understanding the role our nervous system plays in both protecting us from threat and restoring our health.

Like that of the octopus (if less dramatically), the human nervous system drives both our defensive behaviors and our ability to recuperate, most often without our conscious awareness. Dr. Stephen Porges coined the term neuroception to describe that process within his Polyvagal Theory, introduced in 1994. (“Polyvagal” refers to the extensive vagus nerve, which plays a critical role in connecting the brain and the body.) Often without being aware of the trigger, we can find ourselves in either an activated state of fight-or-flight or a collapsed state of freeze. Threats can be detected within the environment, interpersonal relationships, or oneself. And if our nervous system lacks resilience, we can stay stuck in a defensive state that interferes with our relationships, robs us of vitality, and makes us sick.

The gift of Polyvagal Theory is an understanding of how we can cultivate our resilience with awareness—not only of our triggers of danger but also of the cues of safety that help us live into our full human capacity. Such a state of balanced awareness is essential for maintaining both our physical health and the emotional well-being that comes from connection with others. Polyvagal Theory has been especially influential in the treatment of trauma. Trauma held in the body can interfere with the accurate neuroception of safety, triggering a habitual defensive state that is no longer helpful. One reason Polyvagal Theory is so valuable is that its principles apply not just to trauma survivors but to anyone with a nervous system who encounters stressors large and small—which is all of us.

Each person’s nervous system has a unique makeup—one person’s triggers of danger or cues of safety will differ from another’s. Taking time to get acquainted with your nervous system is a valuable exercise that will help you recognize the warning signs that you are heading towards a defensive state before you find yourself hijacked. Similarly, awareness of your system’s cues of safety will help you structure your days and marshal your resources to maximize your resilience and live your fullest, most vibrant life.

That’s another important message from My Octopus Teacher. The filmmaker blundered into the project at a time of personal and professional crisis. Remembering how much he enjoyed swimming as a child, he embarked on a daily habit of freediving in the frigid waters off the coast of his native South Africa. That would not be a cue of safety for everyone’s nervous system, but it was for his. The awe and wonder of his evolving connection with the octopus helped bring balance and health back to his personal life, and catapulted him to a new level of professional success.

The Center for Resiliency Arts is dedicated to helping clients cultivate resilience for navigating the stress of everyday life using techniques informed by Polyvagal Theory. Contact Diana Johnson at or check out her website at for more information.

Photo by Yaselyn Perez