Everyone knows what it’s like to be knocked off center, to lose their inner sense of balance and groundedness, at least temporarily, when faced with life’s unwanted curve balls.
Whether it’s a troubling health diagnosis, the death of a loved one, a serious car accident, a layoff, or a natural disaster, life can intensely challenge our resilience. The good news is, you can cultivate more well-being in your life by strengthening resilience so that you can respond skillfully to any upset or catastrophe that would derail that well-being.
How Do You Respond?
Life is full of challenges. We can’t avoid that. No matter how hard we try, how earnestly we seek, or how good we become, life throws us curveballs and pulls the rug out from under each and every one of us from time to time.
No one is immune from that reality of the human condition. Bumps and bruises, even occasional catastrophes and crises, are so inevitable in human experience that we don’t have to take bad things happening to good people so personally.
We can’t change the fact that stuff happens. What we can change is how we respond.
When something challenging or even devastating happens, we have the power—the flexibility—to choose how we respond. It takes practice, and it takes awareness, but that power always lies within us.
Develop Response Flexibility
When faced with external problems and pressures—car accidents, catastrophic illness, divorce, the loss of a child—or when we are called on to help others face sudden and disastrous shifts in their lives, we can hardly be blamed for seeking to fix the problem by changing the circumstances and conditions “out there.”
Even when we are tormented by internal messages about how badly we are coping—“I could have thought of that before. Dumb, dumb, dumb!”—we often still focus on fixing the external problem “out there” in order to make ourselves feel better “inside.”
Of course, it’s important to develop the life skills, resources and wisdom to create changes in those external circumstances when we can, and to learn to cope well, again and again and again, when we can’t.
That’s part of what resilience is all about. It’s all good work, all necessary, all helpful. But every bit as important as focusing on what’s “out there” is how we perceive and respond to what’s “inside”— to any external stressors, to any internal messages about those stressors, to any internal messages about how well or poorly we’re coping, and even to any implicit memories of danger from the past that are triggered by the current event and may feel very real right now.
Our capacities for perception and response are among the most important factors determining or predicting our ability to be resilient and regain our balance going forward.
Shift Happens, Too
Whatever stuff might be happening, the key to coping with the situation is how we shift our perception (our attitude) and our response (behavior). It may seem that there’s no end to external stressors, or to negative internal messages about how we’re coping with them.
That’s why creating a shift in perception (attitude) and in our responses to those stressors and those messages (behaviors) may be the most effective choice we can make to strengthen our resilience.
You can experience this power of shifting your attitude and behavior by refocusing your attention from what just happened to how you are coping with what just happened:
Darn! I dropped the plate! It’s shattered in a dozen pieces. Double darn—that was the special plate my aunt gave me when I graduated. Sigh. I’ll call my aunt to tell her. We’ll commiserate. Maybe we can shop for another special plate next week. It will be a good excuse for a visit.
Three thousand bucks for a new transmission! That’s a lot of money. And … at least it’s something fixable. The car will still run for another five years, and … we’ll take one less week of vacation this year, and … in the very long run this is just a big bump on a pickle.
The doc wants to run more tests. Not such good news. This is really, really hard. Well, better to know, better to get the information I need to deal with this head on.
The big lesson of this practice is that if we can shift our attitude and behavior in these circumstances, we can shift them in any circumstances. Knowing this is the big shift.
This shift is how we move from “poor me” to an empowered, active “I.” It’s a shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, a way of keeping the mind open to learning.
We can change any internal messages we may be hearing about how we are coping (or not) or have coped (or not) in the past. Strengthening resilience includes coming to see ourselves as people who can be resilient, are competent at coping, and are competent at learning how to cope.
All of the capacities that develop and strengthen your resilience—inner calm in the midst of the storms, seeing options clearly, shifting perspectives and responding flexibly, choosing to choose wise actions, persevering in the face of doubt and discouragement—all of these capacities are innate in your own being because they are evolutionarily innate in your own brain.
All your life, your brain has the flexibility to create new patterns of response to life events because of its neuroplasticity. A mature adult brain is physically stable, but its functioning is fluid and malleable, not inert or fixed. Your brain can grow new neurons, connect those neurons in new circuits, embed new learning in new neural networks of memory and habit, and rewire those networks whenever it needs to.
The adult brain’s ability to continue to develop and change its functioning—lifelong—is without question the most exciting discovery of modern neuroscience.
Neuroplasticity in the adult human brain was accepted as scientific truth only about 30 years ago, with the development of imaging technology that allowed neuroscientists to see these changes actually happening in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s center of executive functioning, as well as elsewhere in the brain.
Neuroplasticity is the engine of all learning, at every point in the human life span.
Neuroplasticity means that all of the capacities of resilience you need are learnable and recoverable. Even if you didn’t fully develop your capacities for resilience in early life—maybe because of a lack of healthy role models, less-than-secure early attachment, or the experience of too many adversities or traumas before your brain had developed the necessary circuitry to cope—you can develop them now.
That’s right. The human brain can always learn new patterns of coping, install those patterns in new neural circuitry, and even rewire the old circuitry when old patterns no longer serve a constructive purpose.
The neural networks underlying your coping strategies and behaviors can be shaped and modified by your own choices, by self-directed neuroplasticity. You can learn, change and grow now because your brain can learn, change and grow always.
Many people think of mindfulness as a kind of thinking or cognition. That’s not exactly it. Mindful awareness is about being with rather than thinking about: It entails knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it.
This awareness and reflection about experience (and your reactions to your experience) creates choice points in your brain. When you are aware of your choices, you can respond flexibly to whatever is happening, moment by moment.
7 Simple & Effective Practices
Let’s look at some of the steps of basic mindfulness as they apply to resilience.
1. Pause and become present. Whether they’re responding from inexperience, defensiveness, or the upheaval of a crisis, too often people don’t step back from a dilemma or disaster to reflect and discern options.
Their reaction is often, “Don’t just sit there! Do something!” And sometimes we do need to act quickly and save the reflection for later. But reflecting before reacting gives the brain time and space to do the job you are strengthening it for—functioning with response flexibility.
When you become present to what is happening, you step out of denial, out of distraction, out of dissociation. You show up, pay attention, and engage with your experience in the present moment.
2. Notice and acknowledge. Becoming aware of your experience starts with simply noticing: “This … is … happening.” Maybe you can’t articulate what “this” is right away, [and note] your reactions: “I don’t know what’s happening! I am confused! And overwhelmed, and scared.”
Acknowledging and naming the experience—the confusion, overwhelm and fear—is the first step in being able to step back from it and observe it rather than being it. This step engages your prefrontal cortex to manage your reactivity so you can discern what is happening and choose how to respond to it.
3. Allow, tolerate, accept. This is an important step: allowing what is—the situation and your reactions; tolerating that experience, including your reactions to your reactions, so that you can move beyond any hair-trigger reactivity; and accepting—not necessarily liking or agreeing or condoning the experience or your reactions, but making room for them, so that you can work skillfully and effectively with whatever is happening.
4. Observe. Rather than staying caught in or identifying with the experience of the moment, try to disentangle yourself from it and observe it, as though you’re sitting high in the stands watching it like a basketball game.
You can observe what’s happening—and your reactions to what’s happening—without believing that this is who you are or that this is permanently true.
Rather than identifying yourself as an angry person and believing that you are angry all the time, you can observe, “I’m feeling very angry right now,” or even “The anger is pretty strong right now.”
This disentangling and observation enable you to create choice points in the brain rather than simply acting (or reacting) automatically as you have acted before.
5. Reflect on increasingly complex objects of awareness. You’ve already practiced bringing to your conscious awareness experiences of body sensations, breath, touch and movement; experiences of complex nuanced emotions, even cascades of emotions; messages from inner parts that may support or derail your resilience; and the interactive dynamics between you and another person that may do the same.
You can learn to work with “mental contents”—thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, values, points of view, identities—because these complex constructs of the mind can also support or derail your resilience. You can become aware of the processes of the mind that can create, get stuck in, and shift those mental contents. You can strengthen your response flexibility so you can shift and rewire even deeply held beliefs, such as “But this is who I am!”
6. Discern options. Response flexibility requires not only perceiving possible responses but also perceiving the possible consequences of those responses. In this step, you begin to integrate the capacities of mindfulness to reflect on “what is” with the cognitive capacities of the prefrontal cortex to reflect on what could be. These capacities of executive functioning are what enable you to analyze, plan, make judgments and make decisions.
Integrating them with mindfulness allows you to “monitor and modify” your responses to your experience, not just in the moment but for the long haul.
7. Choose wisely. Resilient choices are guided by your own values and inner moral compass. Every tribe and society, every philosophical and spiritual tradition that has ever pondered resilience has also had to ponder and teach the values and virtues it believes can best guide individuals in meeting life’s challenges and foster well-being for themselves and others, so the values that guide your decisions may have been previously conditioned by lessons learned in your family and culture.
Living out of alignment with your chosen values and virtues will quickly and powerfully derail your resilience. You can’t move forward when you are disastrously off balance within.
Even here, you don’t want to get bogged down in categorical definitions of right and wrong, or good and bad. You allow, tolerate and accept in order to be flexible, to discern skillful from unskillful, wholesome from unwholesome.
Your mindfulness allows you to notice and reflect on any choice that might put you out of alignment with your core values.
About the Author:
Linda Graham, MFT, is the author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster and also Bouncing Back, the winner of a 2013 Books for a Better Life Award. She is an experienced psychotherapist who integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices and relational psychology in her international trainings on resilience and well-being.
This article was excerpted from the book Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster. Copyright ©2018 by Linda Graham. Printed with permission from New World Library.