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Our Resiliency Rivers

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Dear Everyone:

A couple weeks ago I wrote the first in a three-part series about resilience and then, predictably, got sidetracked. Thanks to those of you who hung in there, and even bigger thanks to those of you who yelled at me, “EAT YOUR FROG!”

In part one of our reservoir metaphor, we talked about the Weaponization of Resilience and the critically important work of recognizing when the spillways that dump OUT of our “Resiliency Reservoir” have been open too much and for too long. In particular, it warns against over-listening to that Downstream Cheering Squad who continually asks for MORE: More work. More output. More capacity…

Even our most adaptive competencies become maladaptive when taken to the extreme. Resilience is a critical skill, one that has been both overplayed and weaponized. Too often, especially in 2020, we’ve left all our “spillways” fully open, a tendency that can leave us depleted, demoralized and damaged.

Resilience is about how we RECHARGE, not how we endure.


Three weeks ago, I turned my ankle HARD and fell off the bottom step in my garage. At 4 a.m.. In the dark. It was one of the most ungraceful moments of my life and believe me “graceful” is not an adjective that has ever been used in any description of me, ever.

As I lay on the cold, concrete floor wondering if I was going to be able to weight bear on that ankle, or if I was going to have the added indignity of having to call out and wake up The Husband, two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously: 1) I really, really didn’t have time for this, and 2) it was really, really going to screw with what has been one of my most important resiliency strategies.


In my reservoir metaphor, input matters, and that inflow isn’t accidental. Building resiliency capacity is effortful. That is both good and bad new, right? Bad because let’s face it – none of us need one more damn thing to add to our “to do” list. Good, because it means we actually CAN increase our capacity – it isn’t a fixed entity.

Let’s get back to the visual: Every one of us have at least FIVE major Rivers that flow into our Resiliency Reservoir. These are universal, and we’ll name them Physical, Mental, Socio-Emotional, Spiritual and Financial. What can be deeply individual, differing from person to person, are the Tributaries that contribute to these rivers. Learning to recognize, name, honor and tend to these tributaries is that “effortful” piece. It also can be useful and fun, especially when we begin noticing the tiny things (like kittening, chocolating and memebombing) that also increase capacity. It isn’t just the “Big” onerous ones.

That said, let's first talk about the Physical, because it is where there is the greatest universality amongst us; we are, after all, very similar physiological beings. All of us must tend to at least five Physical tributaries that include our: 1) Breath 2) Sleep 3) Nourishment 4) Movement 5) Hydration – and we all should do those things within a pretty narrow range to achieve optimal health. But even within the relatively narrow parameters of human physiology, we can see there are ways for us to optimize the robustness of each.

For example, simply learning to tend to and regulate my breathing in times of high stress and emotion help to deactivate my system: my heartrate slows, my blood pressure drops, and my entire hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis downregulates (fancy way of saying I can shift out of fight/flight and save myself the stress hormone surge). But I won’t TEND to it if I don’t KNOW about it, THINK about it and RECOGNIZE “Breath” as a tributary to my Physical Resiliency River.

Sleep is another great example. We all know that sleep matters – but we often fail to recognize just how MUCH good, restorative sleep contributes to resilience. We (especially we “high achievers”) love to *think* we are super-special-extra-humans who can perform optimally with 5-6 hours/night. Hogwash.

We now know, better than we ever have before, that the adult human body optimally needs 7-9 hours of sleep in every 24-hour period. Sleep is when healing occurs, when emotions and learning are integrated and when much of our physiologic restoration occurs. This is one of the most neglected of the Physical Resiliency Tributaries, and one of the most straightforward to remedy: Turn off your phone and go the hell to bed….

One more example – one that is more widely divergent tributary: Movement.

I literally just had the following conversation with my husband:

Him: You used the gym! I’m so happy!

Me: No. I didn’t. What the hell would make you think that?

Him: Your shoes were moved in there…

Me: You’re tracking the location of my shoes? Stalker. Also, it was Jonah - he likes my shoes.

Him: Sigh. I keep hoping you’ll start loving the gym.

Me: 23 years, honey. Give it up…

My husband tends his Movement Tributary with two hours in the gym, six mornings a week. He loves it. I loathe it. I hate the gym. I hate working out. I am no longer ashamed of saying this: I. Hate. It.

I also know it is crucial.

What I DO love is playing outside. I love walking for miles into the countryside, hiking for hours up the side of a mountain, and wandering in the woods. I love working on the farm and playing with the kids. It isn’t ever going to win me a prize in any race, but that isn’t my goal. My body will do what I ask of it, and I can do the things I enjoy.

Movement/Play/Physical Activity/Exercise/Working Out – this tributary goes by many names. Regardless, the key is to know it exists, and to tend it in a manner that keeps it robust and flowing.

One more example, just to beat the metaphor to death.

Our Spiritual River probably has the greatest variation in terms of tributaries. For some of us, tending this river means adherence to specific religious tradition, and tributaries may include attendance at church, temple, mosque or other places of worship. For others of us, tending to our spiritual river may include the tributaries of prayer, meditation, daily intention or small ritual like lighting candles. It may include the reading of certain types of texts (religious or other) or writing that moves the soul. That is the key: Tend the things that feed the soul.


My ankle, by the way, has been an enormous impediment to tending my Movement tributary for the last three weeks. It is, in fact, elevated and iced (again) even as I type this today. This has been harder on me than I’d normally care to admit, but for purposes of this particular discussion it brings up a critical point:

We cannot always tend to every tributary.

Sometimes we’re going to fall off the bottom step and our ankle is going to swell in ways you genuinely didn’t know were physiologically possible and you’re going to have to give your Movement tributary a real rest, knowing it’ll dry up a bit. Sometimes you have a new baby in the house, and you know that good sleep is a distant memory for the foreseeable future.

Life happens. The key when it does, is to give a bit MORE attention to other tributaries AND to another look at those spillways and make determination about what really has to be left open on full.

For me, this meant a little extra attention to tributaries in other areas. More candles lit, more music, more reading (for me, those are Spiritual and Mental tributaries). It also meant turning down a couple of spillways to provide a little extra time.

If all your resiliency spillways are still turned up to maximum, may I gently suggest that now may be a good time to pause and evaluate: What can safely be turned down? What can be turned off? What can be sealed off, permanently?


Naming things and making decisions are both important Mental resiliency builders. When I look at Thanksgiving this year, I had to do both.

Thanksgivings at my home are not just tradition, they are legend.

And we couldn't this year.

It isn’t fear on my part. My risk tolerance is higher than most, and (I’m told) I have no sense of self-preservation.

I do, however, have an overdeveloped drive to protect others. Additionally, I’m setting an example for my children that says, “In our family, we sacrifice to keep people safe.”

That is actually a pretty nice 2020 holiday mantra:

In this home, we sacrifice to keep others safe.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t really, really strong emotions attached to the decision:

- I’m grieving that I won’t see friends and family. - I’m grieving that we can’t honor tradition. - I am afraid that we won’t resume the tradition - I simply MISS my people

Then I ordered Thanksgiving dinner from a local business. I decided that if this year was going to be different, I’d make it ALL the way different, rather than trying to pretend anything was “normal.” I’m not cooking one damn thing, and we’ll enjoy this year in a totally different way. Maybe stuffing our faces entirely in our pajamas and with some type of movie marathon…


We are in the middle part, that liminal space where we’ve let go of what was, but don’t yet know what will be. What happens here – and what happens NEXT – is on all of us. I’m choosing this time to lean in, to listen more, to care more, and to protect more.

Go easy on yourselves this week, please. Hydrate, sleep, connect, feed your mind and soul – tend to your rivers and those tributaries you’ve forgotten. If you feel so inclined, drop a note in the comments about what you’re noticing as you think about this.

If you haven’t already, please go get your flu shot.

Keep being brave, generous and kind.

And don’t forget to #Hydrate. Seriously, y’all walking around out there like the Sahara, I know it…

More soon,

Dr. K



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