How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience
A virus pandemic. Climate change disasters. Racial and ethnic conflicts. Income inequality. Increasing violence and incivility. Democracy in decline. The world around us can be in disarray. The result can often be is a decline in our emotional and mental health. The need for coping skills and particularly resilience has never been greater.
When we are faced with adversity in life, how do we cope or adapt? Why do some people seem to bounce back from tragic events or loss much more quickly than others?
Most of us think of resilience as the ability to bend but not break, bounce back, and perhaps even grow in the face of adverse life experiences. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress
Resilience is what gives people the psychological strength to cope with stress and hardship. It is the mental reservoir of strength that people are able to call on in times of need to carry them through without falling apart. Psychologists believethat resilient individuals are better able to handle adversity and rebuild their lives after a struggle.
Resilience does not eliminate stress or erase life’s difficulties. People who possess this quality don’t see life through rose-colored lenses; they understand that setbacks happen and that sometimes, life is hard and painful. They still experience the negative emotions that come after a tragedy, but their mental outlook allows them to work through these feelings and recover.
- Personal Factors: Personality traits (openness, extraversion, and agree- ableness), internal locus of control, mastery, self-efficacy, self-esteem, cognitive appraisal (positive interpretation of events and cohesive integration of adversity into self-narrative), and optimism all evidently contribute to resilience.
- Biological Factors: Findings from a recent explosion of research in biological and genetic factors in resilience indicate that harsh early environments can affect developing brain structure, function and neurobiological systems. Powerful evidence exists that supportive, sensitive early caregivers in infancy and childhood can increase resilience and reduce the effects of so-called toxic environments and that there may be sensitive periods when interventions work best.
- Environmental–Systemic Factors: On a microenvironmental level, social support, including relationships with family and peers, is correlated with resilience. Secure attachment to mother, family stability, secure relationship with a non-abusive parent, good parenting skills, and absence of maternal depression or substance abuse are associated with fewer behavioural problems and better psychological well-being in maltreated children. Social support can come from positive peers, supportive teachers, and other adults as well as immediate family. On a macrosystemic level, community factors, such as good schools, community services, sports and artistic opportunities, cultural factors, spirituality and religion, and lack of exposure to violence, contribute to resilience.
What Resilience Isn’t
Resilient people still experience difficulties, trauma and stress and the emotional pain that goes along with it.
Several different factors might make some individuals more resilient than others, so resilience isn’t necessarily a personality trait or inherited predisposition that only some people possess. On the contrary, resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that almost all people can learn and develop.
Increasing your resilience takes time, effort and intentionality. Focusing on four core components — social connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning in your life — can empower you to withstand and learn from difficult and traumatic experiences.
The American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience”:
- “Maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others.
- Avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems.
- Accept circumstances that cannot be changed.
- Develop realistic goals and move towards them.
- Take decisive actions in adverse situations.
- Look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss.
- Develop self-confidence.
- Keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context.
- Maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished.
- Take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.”
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 is a wakeup call to become conscious of the ways we perceive and respond to life’s situation
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.
Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce stress; improve cognition; boost immunity; develop a better working memory; develop better pain management; increase empathy and compassion; lower blood pressure; decrease emotional reactivity; and better interpersonal relationships.
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.
“Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes a part of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined. Out goes naiveté, in comes wisdom; out goes anger, in comes discernment; out goes despair, in comes kindness. No one would call it easy, but the rhythm of emotional pain that we learn to tolerate is natural, constructive and expansive.” — Martha Beck
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.
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.”
Here are Some Mindfulness Practices to Build Resilience:
Taking in the Good. — (Adapted from Rick Hanson’s, 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.
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.
Attention and Focus. 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.
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.
Everyday Routines That Are Perfect for Practicing Mindfulness
Time to turn off auto-pilot and be more present. How? Give these five daily moments the mindfulness treatment.
More often than not, we end up running through our days on autopilot, juggling multiple tasks without even a second thought, letting our minds be anywhere but present. When we do this, we’re likely neglecting all of our senses — touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste, and spirit — which are crucial to absorbing each moment, explains Raghu Kiran Appasani, MD, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and the founder and CEO of The Minds Foundation.
Brushing Your Teeth
Typically, when going through the motions of cleaning our pearly whites, we’re doing anything but concentrating on the actual act of brushing. But this (often tedious) daily routine is an opportune moment to sneak in some mental time. Use mindful awareness to notice every small step involved in this grooming ritual, from how you reach for the toothbrush to the sensations of each movement of your hand, says Elizabeth Ohito, LCSW, a psychotherapist in California. Immerse yourself in your senses — notice what your toothpaste tastes like, how it feels on your teeth and tongue (minty, tingly, foaming?), and the sound the bristles make as you brush.
Going for a Walk
Take your cue from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, often referred to as the father of mindfulness. Hanh, who has written books on mindful walking, has been reported as saying he teaches walking slowly and deliberately with each step. This method emphasizes that it’s helpful to bring awareness to the soles of your feet and the pressure points where your feet make contact with the ground. She suggests noticing: “Do your feet make a sound against the surface they’re on? Do they have a certain temperature? What other sensations are there?” Also noteworthy: Research shows that moving (specifically walking) and mindfulness together help alleviate stress and anxiety.
Making and Drinking Your Morning Cup of Coffee or Tea
We have to get out of the habit of multitasking. One good way to practice is while enjoying your morning coffee (or tea, or whatever you like sip on). When you sit down for your morning coffee, just drink the coffee — don’t read, listen to music, or look at your digital device “Just sit. Know that you are sitting and know that you are drinking coffee and be curious about the activity. Turn mindfulness toward the sensory experiences of making coffee. she says. Notice the texture of the bean and the cup, the smell of the coffee grounds, the temperature of the coffee, your eagerness to drink it. Coffee or tea routines are a great opportunity to notice physical and emotional sensations. Without analysis or self-judgment, what do you notice? Where are your thoughts and emotions while you sit with your cup? What do you taste, feel, and smell? These conscious observations will ground you in the present and help you start each day with intention.
Eating a Meal
In a similar vein, mealtimes are another ideal part of the day to practice mindfulness. Ohito says mindfulness allows us to slow down long enough to help savor the experience of eating (think: taste, smells, and sounds). It’s also a great time to reflect on all of the people and processes that brought this meal to your table — from the farm workers to the truck drivers to the person who stocked the ingredients you used to prepare what you’re eating at the grocery store. Take a mindful minute of reflection and gratitude to appreciate their contributions to the meal you’re eating.
What’s more, eating with awareness of yourself and the food in front of you — in other words, being mindful of what and how you eat — can lead to overall healthy eating habits that last, says Linda Nikolakopoulos, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist in Massachusetts. She notes that this practice is about listening to your body. “Mindful eating helps us recognize if we’re eating due to hunger, emotions, stress, or boredom,” she says. “It also points out if we’re mindlessly snacking while doing other things such as working, cleaning, or watching TV, which can help us recognize when we’ve eaten enough instead of realizing it after we’ve already gone overboard.” Research backs up the theory, suggesting that mindfulness can indeed help thwart unhealthy eating as a coping method.
Taking a Shower
Mindfulness in the shower? Absolutely. Shower or bath time is kind of the perfect place to rinse away distractions as thoughts bubble to the surface. Give yourself enough time [to shower] so you are not rushed. Try to be fully present and immersed in the experience of washing my body. Take note of everything while washing: the sensation of water hitting her skin, the temperature, and the smell of the body wash and shampoo. Gratitude is a nice byproduct of this. Be grateful for the fresh clean water.
“A very common foundational practice [that] every mindfulness training program has is mindfulness of breathing: taking an observational stance to the ongoing occurrence of your breath,” says Amishi Jha, PhD, a neuroscientist and associate professor in the department of psychology and the director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness initiative at the University of Miami.
This type of exercise doesn’t involve breath manipulation — it’s just about placing awareness on its natural occurrence. Sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to do. Begin by breathing normally and becoming a focused observer of your breath. It’s helpful to hone in on a physical cue, like the rise and fall of your belly or the sensation of air in your nostrils (cool air coming in, warmer air going out). When your mind naturally wanders (and it will — that’s inevitable), make a note of it, then simply return to the occurrence of each inhale and exhale.
Breathing in this way, even for a minute or two, helps eliminate distraction, release negative thoughts, improve self awareness, and quiet a racing mind. The more you do it, the easier it will get — and the more you’ll start to notice the benefits in your daily life.
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.
Read my book on the benefits of mindfulness for leaders: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.