How Mindfulness Builds Resilience
“Fall down seven times, get up eight.” — Japanese Proverb
A virus pandemic. Climate change disasters. Racial and ethnic conflicts. Economic inequality. Democracy in decline. The world appears to be in disarray, and a connected fallout is our emotional and mental health. The need for coping skills and particularly resilience has never been greater. When faced with adversity in life, how does a person cope or adapt? Why do some people seem to bounce back from tragic events or loss much more quickly than others? Why do some people seem to get “stuck” in a point in their life, without the ability to move forward?
When faced with these challenges, resilience is how well a person can adapt to the events in their life. A person with good resilience has the ability to bounce back more quickly and with less stress than someone whose resilience is less developed. Everybody has resilience. It’s just a question of how much and how well you put it to good use in your life. Resilience doesn’t mean the person doesn’t feel the intensity of the event or problem. Instead, it just means that they’ve found a good way of dealing with it more quickly than others.
SEE ALSO: How Comparison Kills Joy
What resilience isn’t
Being resilient doesn’t mean that a person won’t experience difficulty or distress. People who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives commonly experience emotional pain and stress. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. While certain factors might make some individuals more resilient than others, resilience isn’t necessarily a personality trait that only some people possess. On the contrary, resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. The ability to learn resilience is one reason research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.
Like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality. Focusing on four core components—connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning—can empower you to withstand and learn from difficult and traumatic experiences. To increase your capacity for resilience to weather—and grow from—the difficulties, use these strategies.
Here are some traditional ways to build your resilience.
- Prioritize relationships: Connecting with empathetic and understanding people can remind you that you’re not alone in the midst of difficulties. Focus on finding trustworthy and compassionate individuals who validate your feelings, which will support the skill of resilience.
- Take care of your body: Self-care may be a popular buzzword, but it’s also a legitimate practice for mental health and building resilience. That’s because stress is just as much physical as it is emotional. Promoting positive lifestyle factors like proper nutrition, ample sleep, hydration, and regular exercise can strengthen your body to adapt to stress and reduce the toll of emotions like anxiety or depression.
- Avoid negative outlets. It may be tempting to mask your pain with alcohol, drugs, or other substances, but that’s like putting a bandage on a deep wound. Focus instead on giving your body resources to manage stress, rather than seeking to eliminate the feeling of stress altogether.
- Help others. Whether you volunteer with a local homeless shelter or simply support a friend in their own time of need, you can garner a sense of purpose, foster self-worth, connect with other people, and tangibly help others, all of which can empower you to grow in resilience.
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often find that they have grown in some respect as a result of a struggle. For example, after a tragedy or hardship, people have reported better relationships and a greater sense of strength, even while feeling vulnerable. That can increase their sense of self-worth and heighten their appreciation for life.
- Accept change. Accept that change is a part of life. Certain goals or ideals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations in your life. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
Mindfulness builds resilience: research
New research shows that mindfulness builds resilience. That’s the conclusion of researchers Badri Bajaj and Neerja Pande. Writing in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, they confirm that psychological resilience is more pronounced in mindful people. The researchers also provide evidence that this highly useful quality produces many of the practice’s much-touted benefits.
The researchers concluded that resiliency is mostly cultivated from within, by how we perceive and then react to stressors: “Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally). Pausing and observing the mind may (help us) resist getting stuck in our story and as a result, empower us to move forward.”
What is mindfulness and what are its benefits?
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our awareness to what we are experiencing in the present, both internally and externally, without judgment. It’s a wake-up call to become conscious of the ways we perceive and respond to life’s situations. Mindfulness isn’t some magical, esoteric, or new-age fad. Let’s dive deep into the scientific research behind this powerful—and continually studied—practice.
In 2020, the practice has truly gone mainstream, cropping up everywhere from boardrooms to bedrooms to our kitchen tables. Perhaps most indicative of its status in the contemporary wellness space is the sheer number of available meditation apps. More than 2,500 meditation mobile apps have launched since 2015.
An ever-growing body of clinical studies and lab research demonstrates the efficacy of mindfulness in helping to treat, manage, or reduce symptoms of a multitude of health conditions, both mental and physical. Even more exciting, scientists and experts continue to uncover new ways to wield the power of mindfulness for improving our health and quality of life. From boosting cognitive function to easing physical symptoms of stress, and building resilience, the empirical evidence speaks for itself.
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 actions, persevering in the face of doubt and discouragement—are innate in your being because they are evolutionarily innate in your brain.
Research reveals that mindfulness can help us develop greater resilience – but how?
Richard Davidson, one of the world’s leading mindfulness researchers explained: “One of the ways that we think about resilience is being able to recover quickly following adversity. Being able to let go of our negative emotions once they arise, to experience them but not ruminate on them. One of the ways in which meditation seems to be helpful, is to enable us to be less sticky in our negative emotions and there are certain changes in the brain that we have found to be associated with decreased stickiness.
By stickiness, we’re referring to the tendency to ruminate on or to stew in our negative emotions. When adversity happens it’s appropriate and adaptive to experience whatever negative emotions may arise, but then to let them go when they’re no longer useful. Meditation can help to facilitate that.”
It’s helpful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about stopping difficult emotions in the face of life’s challenges, but rather helping us relate more wisely to them. Just as we can physically train before a physical challenge like a marathon, we need to mentally train in order to build up our resilience muscles that can support us through difficult times.
Resilience is something we can grow through practice
Practicing mindfulness can cultivate helpful resilience promoting factors. Learning and practicing with a mindfulness community helps build connections. Most formal practices involve the curious exploration of body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and urges, with attitudes including compassion, trust, and patience. We learn to turn toward difficulty with openness and kindness. In addition, the research indicates mindfulness is correlated with greater cognitive flexibility and self-regulation skills.
Researchers have discovered that some people are biologically more vulnerable to stress. How our brains and bodies respond to adversity can vary significantly. Fortunately, we can train ourselves to cope more effectively. In fact, some Aboriginal educators believe that resilience is an inborn quality that just needs to be awakened. Mindfulness practices can awaken resilience by helping us learn to regulate our central nervous systems so that higher reasoning is available for better decision making. The practices also help us become more aware of when we are in need of self-care so that we can minister to ourselves appropriately and respond more effectively to life’s challenges
Fortunately, resilience is not only learnable, it’s contagious. Research shows us resilient communities contain more resilient individuals and resilient parents tend to raise resilient children. This is the real reason why your own mindfulness practice is so important. You are not the only beneficiary of your efforts – as you engage mindfully with the world around you, your personal practice becomes a benefactor contributing to the greater good.
Our emotions and resilience
What you can do instead is learn to manage surges of negative emotions and intentionally cultivate positive ones, such as kindness, gratitude, generosity, delight, and awe. Positive emotions shift the brain out of the contraction and reactivity of the negativity bias, into the receptivity and openness that increase your response flexibility. The direct measurable outcome of these practices is resilience.
Focusing on positive emotions is not meant to bypass or suppress dark, difficult, afflictive ones. Your experiences of angst, pain, and despair are very real. But you can learn to acknowledge, hold, and process those emotions. You broaden your habitual modes of thinking or acting and build enduring, resilient resources for coping. These include increasing social bonds and social support and deepening insights that help place events in a broader context. You find a way through, and come out the other side.
All emotions—the ones you dislike and dread as well as the ones you welcome and enjoy—can guide your behaviors in resilient self-protecting or self- enhancing ways. You don’t have to be afraid of your emotions, be stuck in them, or be swept away by them. You do have to take responsibility for how you experience and express them.
Here are some practices
Practice: Taking in the Good. —Adapted from Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness. Pause for a moment and notice any experience of kindness, gratitude, or awe that you have experienced today or remember from the past. Maybe your neighbor drove you to and from work for three days while your car was in the shop, or you saw a blue heron rise up from a pond at dusk. Attune to the felt sense of the goodness of this moment—a warmth in your body, a lightness in your heart, a little recognition of “Wow, this is terrific!” Focus your awareness on this felt sense of goodness for 10–30 seconds. Savor it slowly, allowing your brain the time it needs to really register the experience and store it in long-term memory. Set the intention to evoke this memory five more times today. This repeats the neural firing in your brain, recording the memory so you can recollect it later, making it a resource for your own sense of emotional well-being, and thus strengthening the inner secure base of resilience. As you experience and re-experience the moment, register that not only are you doing this, you are learning how to do this. You are becoming competent at creating new neural circuitry for resilience.
Practice: Tune in to Act Wisely. The practices of attending and attuning will begin creating the space to help you respond to emotions in a new and more resilient way. Regular practice will make it easier to shift from negativity to positivity. Apply the principle of little and often. Practice again and again until these skills become the new habits of perceiving and responding to your emotional landscape. Then you can choose your response.
Practice: Attending. This practice can deepen your capacity to become present to and consciously aware of your experience without needing to leave or push it away to maintain your emotional equilibrium. Sit quietly in a place where you won’t be interrupted for at least five minutes. Come into a sense of presence, knowing you are here, in your body, in your mind, in this moment, in this place. Whatever body sensation, feeling, or thought comes up, simply notice it, acknowledge that it has shown up on your radar, allow it to be there, and accept that it is there. At this point you’re not wondering about it or trying to figure it out, just attending to it enough to register the experience in your awareness. At this stage in the exercise, you have come to a choice point. You can let go of attending to the experience of the moment and refocus your attention on the quiet, spacious awareness, or you can attune to the felt sense of the experience to decipher its message.
Practice: Attuning. This practice entails discerning the particular flavor of an emotion. It helps you learn to label complex, subtly nuanced emotions, such as those of feeling lonely or suspicious, which builds your emotional literacy. See if you can identify any feeling or sensation in the experience you were attending to in your body. Begin to label it—shaky, tight, churning, bubbling, contracting, expanding. Try not to create a story about it. Just feel it and name it. Sometimes it’s a challenge to put your finger on the exact nuance or flavor of the message. So just try to find a good enough label for now: “This is contentment,” “This is aggravation,” or “This is despair.” Whatever feeling you are attuning to, and however you choose to label it, this feeling is what it is. All you have to know at this point is that you can know what it is and label it in a way that is useful to you. You can trust in your ability to know and label a feeling even if you change your mind later about what it is. Once you can name an emotion, you are on the way to making sense of it and taking wise action toward dealing with it.
Making mindfulness a way of life
Charles Francis, author of numerous pieces on mindfulness, says, “We can’t achieve true happiness until we understand our suffering and learn how to overcome it. As long as our happiness depends on things that are impermanent, we will always be disappointed. Furthermore, as long as our practice remains only a part of our lives, our spiritual growth and freedom from suffering will be limited. If we want to achieve long-lasting peace and serenity, then our spiritual practice must become a way of life, and our happiness must depend on something that is constant. One thing in our lives that is constant is the present moment, and this is at the core of mindful living.”
As we face the challenges and stresses caused by traumatic events in our lives, science tells us embracing and practicing mindfulness can build resilience and help you weather the storms.
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