September 09, 2021

Applying Biology to Build Resilience

This post presents an overview of the Community Resiliency Model (CRM), a resource for building skills in advance of a challenge or crisis, developed by the Trauma Resource Institute. While some people make a suicide attempt without much warning, an estimated 12 million adults in the US each year contemplate suicide or experience chronic suicidal ideation. And we all experience stress, loss, and various levels of trauma at some point in our lives.

Tools such as safety plans have been developed to help reduce suicidal behaviors in those known to be at risk. Research shows that attention to lifestyle concerns such as adequate sleep, a balanced diet, exercise, and avoidance of substances may have positive mental health effects, in part by helping to regulate the nervous system. The CRM is an approach that approaches stress modulation as a way to build resilience. While application of the CRM has not been studied in suicide, there is evidence of effect in anxiety, depression and PTSD and testimonial of its effects on her resilience from Jen Housholder.

by Ashleigh Zaker, MSW

Many of us face life challenges that affect our ability to respond to stressful situations in a healthy manner. Research on resilience, our ability to withstand and recover from hardship, highlights the importance of developing positive emotions and expanding coping resources for those who are suffering. The Community Resiliency Model (CRM) is a set of biologically-based wellness tools that helps us stay connected to self and work to stabilize our nervous system. Practicing these skills increases a person’s ability to effectively respond to adversity. Elaine Miller-Karas, a key developer of CRM states, “The Community Resiliency Model encourages individuals to learn how to discern the differences between sensations of distress and well-being.   This can provide hope as one learns to focus on sensations of wellbeing and that contributes to a greater sense of resiliency in mind, body and spirit.”

Eric Kussin, founder of We’re All a Little “Crazy” and the #SameHere movement, describes this process using the metaphor of fire safety. Almost all of us have experienced a fire drill and rehearsed emergency evacuation procedures. It is unlikely that we will experience such an emergency, but this preparatory measure mitigates danger and increases the likelihood that, in such an event, things will run smoothly. This works because we NEVER know for certain where the risks are or when they might happen. In the same way, rehearsing go-to calming methods can help to make these practices habitual and increases an individual’s access to helpful tools in challenging and upsetting situations.

This is important when considering the function of the nervous system, which is to support and facilitate homeostasis, or balance, within our bodies. One responsibility of the nervous system is sensory and emotion regulation wherein external information is received and a response to that information is generated. Sometimes perceived ‘threats’ can be destabilizing.  Our nervous system is designed for survival.  Trauma and stress can impact our biology and thus can impact our mental health, increasing distorted thoughts and irrational beliefs about ourselves and our environment contributing to suicidal ideation and behavior.  

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the nervous system on mental health due to the process of brain development. A key element of the nervous system, the prefrontal cortex responsible for cognitive control (including impulse inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and emotion regulation) does not mature until age 25. As a result, adolescent brains rely more heavily on the amygdala, a unit of the central nervous system that drives our fight or flight response and can elicit defense behavior. The social, developmental, and nervous system vulnerabilities of this stage of life makes bringing awareness of risks, teaching calming and coping methods, and being available to talk through safety plans with youth even more important.

Life experiences, traumas, and other environmental factors affect everyone’s mental health in varying degrees, and in some may represent suicide risk factors. Suicidal thoughts can and do happen to many of us, for some on a chronic basis, and for others without warning in response to a ‘perfect storm’ or  distressing situation. It is important to recognize these thoughts of self-harm are a result of powerful emotions. No matter how upset you may feel, having skills to re-regulate and a plan to follow can be comforting and promote safety.

As a set of biologically-based wellness tools, the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) compliments the JFBK mission of bringing awareness of bio-environmental factors in suicide prevention. The primary focus of the CRM model is to provide necessary skills needed to re-set the natural balance of the nervous system. This is a biological process that is triggered when our bodies release energy created by toxic stress, sometimes associated with traumatic events, community level injustices, pandemics, and sometimes it can simply be the impact of everyday stress that is often dismissed or underestimated. Biological responses to trauma are triggered by anything that leads to physical or emotional pain, suffering, or distress.

This natural rhythm of our nervous system, and the interruptions that occur, is referred to by the CRM as our “Resilience Zone”.  Feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or tension, indicate being in the “High Zone,” and depressive feelings such as exhaustion, disconnection, and hopelessness, the “Low Zone.” These feelings are our bodies way of communicating that our nervous system is out of rhythm. We no longer feel like our best self. Applying the skills outlined in the CRM (tracking, grounding, HELP NOW!, resourcing, shift and stay, and gesturing) can help to interpret and reduce the impact of stress.

Learning to recognize and utilize this process does not happen overnight and takes practice. It involves building resiliency by working through tools that address adverse circumstances and emotional and physical pain. The good news is that a person’s resiliency is not fixed. Resiliency is skill that can be cultivated over time, using lifestyle choices to help modulate the nervous system and CRM tools to replace distorted thoughts and behaviors with healthier, more productive responses.

The CRM model may be a helpful source for individual learning and for supporting those around you. The Trauma Resource Institute  offers trainings and curriculum for teachers, families, and business. Additionally, the iChill app is available as a free resource that outlines the skills discussed in the article.

Ashleigh Zaker, MSW, is passionate about holistic approaches to quality-of-life improvement and understands the importance of balanced and practical applications in restorative care. She is currently a doctoral student at Colorado State University and focuses her research on the physiological and psychological benefits of the human-animal bond.  


Reviewed 9/21 by Elaine Miller-Karas, MSW, LCSW, Co-Founder and Director of Innovation of the Trauma Resource Institute and author of the book, Building Resiliency to Trauma, the Trauma and Community Resiliency Models (2015).