“Adapt, Migrate, or Die.” These are the words my children's biology teacher used to introduce the topic of evolution in high school. Though they may have been intimidated at the time, this historic biology topic taught each a valuable lesson: status quo is not a healthy variable in the equation that leads to survival.
How many times have we seen images of animals with evolved survival techniques? Think of the
chameleon that can blend into its surroundings, a hummingbird who migrates over 1,000 miles each fall; the caterpillar who hides with the colors of the plant leaves they eat, and then form a chrysalis to evolve into a butterfly. How about the toad disguised in your lawn or the reptiles who lost their gills and formed legs as they surfaced water to breath and migrated to land.
Humans also evolve, as documented through the ages by skull changes in the cranium area and the slope of the face, indicating brain growth. In a video that the Smithsonian Institution (2019) filmed to delve into these concepts, Dr. Rick Potts explains evolution through paleoanthropology, the study of fossils and artifacts: “So what we have then here is not only change in physical form in brain size and the size of the face, but also change in behavior--and that’s evolution.”
While evolution does not aim to change any single individual, individuals can adapt and change the way they respond to their environment, which could lead to eventual change in genetic material, the DNA (Smithsonian, 2019). “The way particular genes are expressed – that is, how they influence the body or behavior of an organism – can also change.”
We all evolve developmentally throughout the lifespan. That is, when we accept the challenge.
Like animals, science tells us when we perceive a threat, we use the fight or flight response to help us survive. Some may feel paralyzed with a freeze response, perhaps due to prior trauma when they were unable to escape. Some adapt and fight, and some flee to survive. But thanks to the evolved pre-frontal cortex, once we are able to learn how to manage the energy of the stress or anxiety response and understand what we are feeling; we come to realize we do have a choice in how we proceed to survive. But it takes a lot of hard work and courage to get there. This is where the field of counseling and psychology can help.
“The better we understand cognitive adaptations to harsh, unpredictable environments, including specialization and sensitization effects, the more effectively we can tailor education, policy, and interventions to fit the needs and potentials of stress-adapted children and youth” (Ellis, Bianchi, Griskevicius et al., 2017). “This adaptation-based approach to resilience exemplifies using psychology to improve people’s lives because it illuminates the unique strengths and abilities that develop in response to high-stress environments—and how to use those attributes to enhance learning and developmental outcomes in stress-adapted individuals.”
An appropriate or healthy response to stress becomes a prerequisite to resilience and survival.
The counseling lens I utilize is through a biopsychosocial model because of the natural mind and body connection. Often physical symptom states and emotions are bidirectionally charged.
Similar to Harrington’s description of stressors as tension (2011), the stress response, and anger or the anxiety response, is an energy as well as an emotion. Depending on how the energy is managed, the outcome could help someone adapt and survive, or cause a perpetual cycle of illness and stress or disease state.
Individually, we have our own responsibilities to recognize and enhance resilience in a proactive way, and counseling can absolutely help with this. But for humanity, we collectively also have a responsibility to the greater good, which sometimes results in existential questions.
“If you are trying to enhance resilience from a developmental point of view the best thing you can do is to promote healthy development, to make sure that the brain is developing in healthy ways, that the family caregiving system is working well, and so forth, so that you end up with populations of people who have developed their capacity for adaptation,” (Southwick et al., 2014). “Our species has great potential for adaptive capacity if we provide a healthy context for development.”
What we do know is the world has been experiencing a collective trauma in the wake of COVID-19. Regardless of the lens we see this through, we cannot escape the pandemic, or the injustices and protests of recent days. So, I ask – if we could escape this distressing and disheartening time, would we want to?
As counselors and researchers, we know that stressful events in our lives offer incredible opportunities for learning and growth. With this in mind, the current state of the world prompts an opportunity to reflect and evaluate our individual core values and question ourselves: “Am I living congruently to the values I so firmly believe?” If not, then it is our own responsibility to begin to change and evolve. The question then becomes, how?
“Humans are endowed with great potential to weather adversity and to change or adapt when necessary, but they need basic social and material resources to do so" (Southwick et al. 2014). "One of the most important ways to foster resilience is to promote healthy family and community environments that allow the individual's natural protective systems to develop and operate effectively."
As we ponder existential questions of who we are individually, and we see an opportunity for growth, we can then adapt our ways, with or without support from others. We have the potential to learn and grow from every experience.
Science teaches us that environment and behavior can shape evolution for generations to come. If we use empathy for ourselves and others, and work hard to ensure we eliminate any form of injustice, we can collectively become a more resilient population of human beings where fairness, dignity, health, and humanity is honored, and violence and hatred end.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor
She offers free consultations to Ohio Adults and is happy to work with anyone experiencing difficulty in navigating life during this complex time. firstname.lastname@example.org (513) 234-9184 (ph) or www.jacobsoncounseling.org
Ellis, B.J., Bianchi, J., Griskevicius, et al. (2017, July 6). Beyond risk and protective factors: An adaptation-
based approach to resilience. Sage Journals. https://doi.org/10.1177/174569
Harrington, R. (2011). Stress, health and well-being: Thriving in the 21st century. Belmont:CA. Wadsworth
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (2019). Introduction to human evolution.
Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience
definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European journal of
psychotraumatology, 5, doi:10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4185134/