I was seven years old when I first got my heart broken. I was swiftly rebuffed by my second-grade crush, Brett who, upon getting gently pecked on the cheek by me one afternoon following recess, grimaced and began aggressively wiping off the invisible remnants of the kiss with the palms of both his hands, swiping vigorously up and down his cheek while shouting in utter disgust, “ew!” in front of an entire hallway of students all lined up to return to their classrooms who suddenly burst out laughing, while some pointed at me and snickered.
I was mortified.
Singer Sheryl Crow immortalized in her hit single the idea that “the first cut is the deepest.” I wholeheartedly disagree. There were many more dalliances in my life after my first childhood taste of unrequited love where the cuts were much deeper, the wounds much wider, and the scars much uglier. From that point on, I did discover, however, that my ability to respond, adapt, and overcome similar plights seemed to have witnessed a global augmentation in robustness. It was not that I became more impervious to painful setbacks, but that I could feel a sense of elevated capability to withstand and recover from them.
This phenomenon was not unique to romance and rejection, either. In fact, I felt it breaking and entering into all areas of my life—from the financial insolvency my family experienced when I was a child that seemed to assuage the emotional pangs of having grossly inadequate funds later in life to the academic sorrows I had in my adolescence that seemed to abate the mental blow of school-related disappointments thereafter in my college years and beyond.
These experiences eventually led to an epiphany of what I have come to conceive of as “emotional antibodies,” and more broadly, the “immunology of resilience.”
“Emotional antibodies” and the “immunology of resilience” are phrases I created to describe and capture my conceptualization of an adaptive immunological defense system that gets generated, fortified, and later mounted again in our minds following adversity, trauma, or difficult emotion coinciding with or subsequent to an ordeal that induces suffering in us. And while the underpinnings of this perceived phenomenon may, upon further empirical investigation, prove to be rooted in the inner physiological workings of our neurological circuitry, it is as much a spiritual response as it is a biological one.
In many ways, suffering is the sandpaper that shapes us, without which we could not develop emotional antibodies. We would not develop the mental infrastructure, the spiritual scaffolding, and the psychological musculature to ward off the nefarious assaults on our minds that could potentially lead to insidious capture by the debilitating mental forces we experience in our everyday lives.
When I divulged my concept of emotional antibodies to a friend, I was hit with two piquant questions: “Does everyone develop emotional antibodies from a displeasing occurrence? What about people who simply become paralyzed and self-destruct under the weight of their own distress?”
It has been my experience that there is a bifurcating pathway with which we can navigate our interplay with an adverse event. We can either cower, crumble, and be crippled by it, or we can face it, fight it, and no matter what the outcome is, forge positive meaning from it.
In my lifetime, I have encountered those who have seemingly endured far greater states of human privation than I could ever imagine (though I try to eschew establishing comparative equivalencies [or non-equivalencies] among human suffering as much as possible because such an impossibly herculean task never ends well). And what I have come to realize is that the nexus of all of these extraordinary stories of tragic afflictions being overcome was the individual’s remarkable propensity for gratitude and their mental aptitude to reorient, reframe, and reappraise all that was bad … into all that is good.
Unlike biological antibodies that fight microbial marauders just by our very nature of existing until the illness passes, the acquisition of emotional antibodies is a far less passive process. We have to be proactive in our efforts to construct and build meaning around the negative impact of the trials around us, and integrate all that we ascertain into the person that we are … and the person that we become—our identity.
Moreover, just like how we can actively participate in the boosting of our immune system by sleeping more and taking care of our health, we too can bolster our emotional immunity by recognizing every unfavorable incident as an opportunity to reassess, rethink, and reinvent the perceptions of our own reality. This is where cognitive reorientation and situational reappraisal come in.
No matter who you are, so long as there has been a single day in your life where things did not go as perfectly as you had hoped for, and there were insights gained, you have these antibodies flowing through the vast stratosphere of your mind. They are there, pleasantly skulking, at every corner, waiting for the next unfortunate affair to occur so that it can prime our brains to unleash a phalanx of immunological warriors to grapple with the misfortune in a more productive, therapeutic way. Consequently, we develop something of an emotional immunity—a kind of inner resilience.
Now, more than ever, the concepts of emotional antibodies and the immunology of resilience are apropos. Every day we experience everywhere what I call the “trifecta of emotional assault”: vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and learned helplessness. Though undesirable, in many ways, if we banish the villains, there would be no heroes.
To be clear though, it’s not about becoming so inured to hardship that we become emotionally unphased or invulnerable to its deleterious effects. It is about mobilizing a sense of resigned gratitude for having been presented with a challenge with which we will ultimately grow and learn from, and galvanizing a feeling of profound internal knowing that all that has happened, all that is, and all that will be will contribute positively in some way, if we just open our minds to the idea, towards making each of us greater than we ever imagined we could be.
Alternatively, we can view the immunology of resilience through the framework of a muscle: if we do not actively exercise it, it will atrophy, and our ability to invoke it will diminish over time.
A vaccine alone will not be enough to recover from the impact of COVID-19: Emotional antibodies against it are needed as well.
Jay Wong is a medical student. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from Yale University. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Jay Wong, and on Twitter @JayWongMedicine.
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