Dr. Karen Villa Part 8 | Resilience and Fortitude

Cardinal Virtue, Family, Fortitude, Individual, Mind & Heart, Parish, Podcasts, School, Teach Virtue

Dr. Karen Villa, a developmental neuropsychologist, joins Sr. John Dominic, O.P. for a discussion on the importance of resilience for a child’s emotional and mental health. Together they explore the synergy between neurobiology and virtue education.

Dr. Karen Villa Resilience essentially is a child having kind of a sense of resourcefulness that they can enter into the challenges of everyday life of learning, you know, bigger challenges that come along where they feel like they can you know handle that challenge and then they can bounce back from any kind of adversity but the sense of hopefulness

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Welcome back (to)our guest. Dr. Karen Villa (as we) continue our discussion on the Yes Brain by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson in the previous episodes. We discussed how to cultivate balance and make the connection between the cardinal virtue of temperance. We also discussed strategies for different age levels. I encourage you to watch these videos as the content is rich and enlightening.

Karen this may be the first time that people have seen you so maybe you could give them a little bit of background about yourself and who you are besides being a wonderful mother.

Dr. Karen Villa Thank you for having me back. I’m glad to be here. I’m a trained clinical neuropsychologist and did my training in the decade of the brain which was the 1990s. There was research coming out of the decade of the brain because we were funneling all these resources into research and a field emerged called interpersonal neurobiology. I was in the middle of my training as that field was really taking off and I had children after graduate school. I really used these interpersonal neurobiology tools to give me a background map for raising my kids. I’ve been married for thirty years and have two young-adult children who are in the midst of launching.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. You did an amazing job raising your children; I was blessed to have them in the school when I was principal.

Dr. Karen Villa We were blessed to be there; that’s when you were starting your virtue program and I think the Lord wanted you to know about interpersonal neurobiology and how it integrates with what you’re doing.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Exactly. I think that and I think that’s from even from our discussions and people that are joining us to hear that this is really as a conversation that they Karen and I have had probably over the past five or six years and really seeing the amazing work that God has done, that this is God’s work that man’s discovered what God has done and that the mind and the heart really are meant to work together as one and that the more we have a healthy mind, we have a healthy heart, and which drives us really to live out the virtue.

So as I mentioned in the introduction, we unpacked, previously, a balance that coincides with the cardinal virtue of temperance, and maybe for people that are joining us for the first time, are there any terms or things that we talked about in that which may help frame the discussion?

A couple things that I thought about was, you know upstairs brain downstairs brain. What’s the red zone Blue Zone green zone? You know, if you can just kind of say a few words about each of those which will help people as we as we discuss resilience in this episode.

Dr. Karen Villa The reason I am so drawn to Dan Siegel’s work and other interpersonal neurobiologists like him is because it has this developmental perspective embedded in it. And what that means is that a child’s brain is growing in relationship throughout their development and there are ways to grow it for mental health so that when they reach young adulthood like where my children are now, they can successfully navigate into their own life and their own identity and then being about the Lord’s work in the Kingdom. So there is a pathway a developmental pathway to facilitate that growth so that they arrive at this time in their life and the best way possible.

Neurons that fire together wire together. So how attention is directed is really building those neuronal connections and this Upstairs/Downstairs brain distinction is that the brain is divided into that kind of cortical reasoning, which is the upstairs brain, and then the downstairs brain is about survival regulating emotion, you know being aware of the world. So we want these different parts of the brain to work well together, which is the very idea of interpersonal neurobiology: you’re facilitating all the different parts of the brain working well together and in an integrated way and that is interpersonal neurobiology, how we define mental health.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. And then I think when we use the phrase “river of integration,” you know that we don’t want to be in chaos or too rigid. When I think about virtue, you know, which is a habit of doing good, we always say that virtue lies in the middle. So you see it’s a beautiful way where it comes together. So o continue our discussion here the next kind of area that he talks about a development is resilience, which I look at as the cardinal virtue of fortitude, right? So maybe you could give us an understanding of what resilience is …

Dr. Karen Villa Resilience essentially is a child having kind of a sense of resourcefulness that they can enter into the challenges of everyday life, of learning, you know, bigger challenges that come along, where they feel like they can handle that challenge and then they can bounce back from any kind of adversity with the sense of hopefulness and you know readiness to move on. I just think this is such an important conversation because we see in the world today, there’s such an incredible level of fragility and we are having, since about 2012, epidemic levels of depression and anxiety where there’s a hundred percent increase in depression and anxiety for girls and there’s a hundred percent-plus increase in depression and suicidality for boys.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. A hundred, a hundred percent?

Dr. Karen Villa  … increase. So this conversation about resilience is really critical if we are going to help children to have this sense of agency like, “I can do this” and “I’m hopeful that I can do this” and “I feel good that I can do this”

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. I totally agree, and I when I think about resilience, and I just recently saw an article in the New York Times, and I kind of wrote a response to this. I was just getting ready to start on the fortitude and I said, “You know, you don’t want to look at resilience in the sense that you have to kind of like white-knuckle it through life.” But the one key thing you just talked about here is the sense of hopefulness and even when we talk about optimism, but you can also most importantly white-knuckle life in a certain sense with faith. I mean that’s ultimately what fortitude does for us: enables us to bear these difficulties that are there before us because we’re going to be faced with challenges and added hardships no matter what. (We need to) somehow bring that sense of hopefulness to people;

Dr. Karen Villa A couple of things: there is a resilience researcher Brené Brown who amazingly found that having a spiritual life and a spiritual practice is one of the best predictors for resilience; and you know goes back to Scripture where Paul said, “Rejoice in your sufferings” because they bring endurance, and endurance brings character, and character brings hope.  So there’s always a map for these things too in Scripture.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Exactly, and when you said this time for prayer, meditation, or quiet – and there is a surge of that, I mean there’s apps out there on calm and meditation – it’s just trying to find ways to kind of still our interior life. I mean, that’s a long tradition and we’ve talked about this in the past about the importance of you know, lectio divina. But you would almost think when you talk about fortitude which would be courage and resilience, it’s kind of counterintuitive to think that kind of the bedrock of that would be that the importance of this time of self-reflection and meditation and such.

Dr. Karen Villa Absolutely said that you know, the idea is that we’re trying to keep the upstairs brain engaged in the middle of adversity. And so we want children, and you can you observe this at school all the time, which children enter adversity with a sense of calm, and a sense of safety, and a sense that they can cope, and have problem solving. Where does that begin?  That begins in having this internal world where they feel secure and reflective where they build these skills to carry out into adversity.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. So we’ve mentioned the four S’s – what would you tell parents to think about with those four and it is I’m sure there’s parents that are listening and their like, “Okay. Great. Not now. How do I do this as a parent?”

Dr. Karen Villa Right. The 4 S’s come from Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson’s book where they are really providing these tools to help children enter adversity with a “yes brain” and not a “no brain” where they’re shut down; they’re not in the river of integration or the green zone; they’re either in blue rigidity or there in red chaos. So those are the zones. 

All interpersonal neurobiology carries the idea that your child’s brain is wiring itself in the midst of their relationship with you. So the background for resilience is to foster and nurture this secure relationship with your children. So the 4 S’s are that: 

  1. they feel safe with you,
  2. they feel seen and known by you or other people in their life,
  3. they feel secure; they have this sense of “I trust my relationships”, and
  4. they feel soothed.

So if they are entering either one of those zones, rigidity or chaos, that you have a way of helping to calm that down with them, soothe them, and help them to achieve a state of balance.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. And so, those of you who are listening, I encourage you really to go back and watch those other episodes where we really unpack this in the strategies because you’re going to see as we’re having this conversation, this really builds on one another and everything is interconnected and just like when we talk about living in the virtuous life, you need to know the temperance and the fortitude all of the virtues are interconnected all of this is interconnected.

Dr. Karen Villa Dr. Siegel would say that the short-term goal of resilience is balance. They are coping with a problem from a state of balance and then the long-term goal is this resilience, the ability to persevere and stick with things.