Sometime over the past eighteen months, as friends, colleagues, and clients coped with what the world served up in the form of pandemic fears, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, as well as garden-variety relationship problems, burnout, and disillusionment, I noticed that we weren’t asking, Is your glass half-full or half-empty? anymore. Instead, everyone’s glass seemed filled to the brim. In place of full or empty, we talked about the One More Thing, that last drop we feared would lead to catastrophic overflow.
To those of us coping with overwhelm, the notion of resilience can seem impossibly out of reach, like that half-full, half-empty line we passed long ago. But what if we reframed resilience as a moment by moment, day by day practice designed to keep the glass from overflowing? What if the practice of building resilience resulted in what Rick Hanson calls “an unshakeable core of calm, strength, and happiness”?
Framed in those terms, resilience doesn’t sound like a luxury but a necessity. This post argues that whatever the challenges of your life, large or small, global or personal, you can rewire your brain for resilience. In the post, we will talk about what resilience is and what it isn’t. We will consider the research and discuss the four domains in which resilience can be developed. We’ll design a roadmap, review the supplies needed for the journey, and talk about the obstacles that may block your path.
What Resilience Is
If you are asking Why should I read this post? you are already practising one of the principles of resilience: Resource Management. More on that below. First, however, let’s define the term.
Rick Hanson, the author of Buddha’s Brain, writes in his most recent book Resilient, “Resilience is like the keel of a sailboat. As the winds of life blow, resilience keeps you balanced and moving forward. And when the really big squalls come—no life is without them—resilience lets you right your boat as soon as possible.”
When applied to objects, living or otherwise, resilience means elasticity—the ability to spring back. Beech trees are resilient, bending beneath a heavy load of wind or snow without breaking. Resilience in people signifies more or less the same thing—the ability to withstand stress or distress without breaking beneath it, physically or emotionally.
But is resilience the exception, or the rule? According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. In a meta-analysis by researcher George A. Bonanno and colleagues at the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab of Columbia University in New York, 65% of people experiencing potentially traumatizing events such as injury, natural disaster, combat experience and bereavement showed few or no symptoms of psychopathology related to the event; in other words, they responded with resilience. “That resilience trajectory,” says Bonanno, “is not only most common, it’s the majority.” (https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/bonanno)
The need for resilience would seem obvious in the face of traumatic events like those Bonanno studied. Less obvious but no less relevant, however, is the need for resilience in managing everyday life stressors, pressures, and setbacks. At its core, resilience implies trust in our own ability to meet whatever life brings with compassion and wisdom. But where does that capacity come from?
“We now know, from the latest advances in neuroscience, that capacities for resilience are innate in the brain, hard-wired in by evolution,” writes Linda Graham. In her book Bouncing Back: Rewiring the Brain for Resilience and Wellbeing, Graham highlights two processes of brain functioning: conditioning, the process whereby life experience shapes our patterns of response to people and events; and neuroplasticity, the way in which new experiences and learning can be used to rewire the brain and enhance wellbeing. How to harness that neuroplasticity, the brain’s innate ability to change, is what building resilience is all about.
Why Resilience Matters
If you want to change your mind, you first need to understand how the brain is built. At the bottom of the brain, is the brain stem—the part that handles all the things you don’t think about but can’t live without, like breathing, sweating, digestion, blood circulation, etc. Next up is the midbrain or limbic system, a kind of switching station for sensory data (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound) and also, crucially, the repository for memory and emotion. This part of the brain flags experiences and people as good/bad, safe/dangerous for the sake of survival. Finally, just behind your forehead sits the so-called higher brain. This is the executive suite if you will, where learning, complex thinking, and decision-making happen.
In a resilient brain, these three levels are working in sync, each part doing its part to keep things humming along. The problem comes when our system gets overloaded by trauma or stress, and the overload itself gets encoded. Having experienced catastrophic flooding, the brain may find itself easily overwhelmed and thrown into a kind of helpless, hopeless freeze. At the other extreme, the brain goes into fight mode, developing a super-rigid set of rules and regulations designed to ensure no disaster ever happens again. In both cases, the higher brain—the part designed to solve problems—is essentially offline. The midbrain, with its very limited set of threat responses, has in effect hijacked the bus. Building resilience involves unlearning these conditioned responses and learning new ones. When that doesn’t happen, you are condemned to repeat past patterns, whether they work now or not (often not).
Resilience as the Path to Cognitive, Emotional, Physical, and Social Wellbeing
In essence, we are talking about managing the stress response system. If you don’t learn to manage your own stress response system, life will do it for you. Going back to Rick Hanson’s boat metaphor, you will find yourself tossed to and fro by the challenges of the day, big or small. The goal then is to shift from a reactive to a proactive approach, one that gives the higher brain time to consider options and find a way forward. “In order to cope with change, we have to change how we cope,” writes Graham. Doing so requires building up new, resiliency practices in each of the four domains of cognitive, psychological or emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. Given the interconnectivity of brain functions, change in any one of these areas will produce a cascade of synergistic gains in the others. For example, the practice of mindfulness can contribute to a calm, grounded state of mind which allows for optimal cognitive performance. Increased somatic awareness—sensitivity to cues from the body that is key to physical wellbeing—can help us identify those moments when overwhelm is approaching, giving us time to step back and re-regulate and if necessary, reroute.
That last practice—stepping back and re-regulating—is the first and perhaps most essential practice for mental resilience. Crucially, resilience requires learning how to slow things down so that the higher brain gets a chance to weigh in. Remember, the higher brain is the seat of analysis; this is the part of your brain that can troubleshoot problems and devise solutions. Those functions take time.
In some sense, all resilience building in any of the four domains involves cognitive rewiring. Graham notes that changing thoughts, feelings, or behaviours takes focused cognitive attention. “For instance,” she writes, “when we formulate an intention to become more mindful, more self-accepting, and more flexible as support for becoming more resilient, the repeated focus on that intention begins to build new brain structure and circuitry that support us in achieving the intention.” Intentionality and perseverance are two cognitive tools essential to building resilience.
Another cognitive intervention that builds resilience is perspective-taking—the ability to take the long view and tolerate differences. Here, the practice of non-judgment is key. Like a snake devouring its own tail, we can undermine our own efforts when we turn what we learn against ourselves. Why does that person seem to rise above even the most devastating challenges, we ask, while I struggle to manage a traffic detour? Nonjudgment makes room for individual differences. My baseline and your baseline are not the same.
Yet another key to resilience is to stay rooted in the present. Remember the midbrain’s freeze or fight responses? These non-resilient responses are the products of a mind obsessed with not repeating the past or terrified of a catastrophic future. Mental resilience begins with the mindful intention to be here now, addressing the needs of the moment, in the moment.
Psychological and Emotional Resilience
How we think determines how we feel. Emotional and mental resilience work in tandem. In the domain of psychological or emotional resilience, our ability to use the mind to calm the mind is crucial.
Many therapeutic approaches to emotional management start here, with the principle of cognitive appraisal. How we perceive the stressors in our life directly impacts how we feel in response. The degree to which we believe we have the mental, social, and physical resources to meet a challenge—the trait we call self-efficacy—is directly correlated to the degree of emotional overwhelm we may experience, as well as the time and energy it takes to return to a stable baseline of equanimity.
Emotional resilience is also directly related to emotional intelligence. The ability to recognize and name feeling states is key to emotional regulation. In recovery circles, we say, “You have to name it to tame it.” Moreover, the active cultivation of positive emotional states is a proven road to resilience. The practice of gratitude is one example; loving-kindness meditations are another. Dr Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina writes, “When people open their hearts to positive emotions, they seed their own growth in ways that transform them for the better.”
Enhancing Resilience through Physical Wellbeing
When we are under stress, often the first thing to go is self-care. That’s a problem because resource building takes energy and stamina. As you develop your own resilience roadmap, be sure to include self-care that focuses on the body. Eat right, stay hydrated, get a little exercise, and make sure you get enough sleep. As tempting as they may be, limit distractor factors like alcohol and drugs, video games and streaming services. These just deplete your resources. Watch out for internet rabbit holes and limit your exposure to social media. Social comparison is a natural human instinct, but when you are struggling, it’s hard not to believe that everyone else is fine. Watch your daily news diet and decide for yourself what you need to know. Remember that you are seeking a balance between what you can control and what you cannot, and be selective about where and when you allow information into your life.
Building Resilience through Social Connection
Attachment theory tells us that babies learn emotional regulation from their caregivers. In essence, they borrow their caregiver’s brain, resonating with the rhythms of the adult brain and body as they learn to self-soothe under stress. It turns out, resilient adults do the same. We get back to our emotional and physiological baseline, or even build a new one, through our connections with other resilient, regulated adults.
According to Graham, “the brain rewires itself by focusing attention on new experiences and encoding in its neural circuitry the learning from those experiences. And it does that most quickly through interactions with other people… Research indicates that even as adults, our brain’s preferred method of learning resilience continues to be through interacting with resilient people around us, through dialogue and shared work and play.”
How can you get this powerful social resource to work for you as you build resilience? Take the time to invest in relationships. Look for people who “get you,” and take the time to teach them enough of your story so that they can track with you when you are struggling. Listen to their story so you can do the same. There’s something about sharing that is in and of itself regulating. Go further: find yourself a community dedicated to safe, secure connections. Consider the Resilience Path at New Life Portugal.
Designing a Personal Road Map for Resilience
Hopefully, by this point, you’ve read enough to begin considering resilience as a life goal. How do you get there? Let’s start with Supplies. What do you have and what do you need? Take a personal inventory. What do you need most? Travelling companions? A daily walk in nature? Training in emotional regulation? Consider the question of Resource Management. What do you have time for? Can you build new skills while doing everything else asked of you, or would you benefit from a retreat dedicated to designing a new road map for resilience? Which of the four domains feels most like a house on fire? Which might you choose to tackle first?
That question brings us to the next necessity: Practice. When I was preparing to walk 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago, I bought the supplies I needed, got the guidebook, and read up on other people’s experiences. Then I spent weeks walking around my town with a 20-pound sack of cat litter in my backpack to simulate the weight I’d have to carry each day. Similarly, reading about resilience is a great start but remember: Brain science suggests that repetition is the road to resilience. Pick one thing from this blog and get started. Any practice you pick and pursue will serve.
Identify roadblocks and resistance in advance. You can’t predict everything that will happen to you—in fact, resilience is the skill you need to handle things you can’t predict—but it helps to remember what you do know about how you do life. Some potential roadblocks and challenges are universal; some will be unique to you.
Roadblocks and resistance can take many forms. Here are two examples:
I don’t have time for this. That may be true. In which case, chunk it—divide the task into manageable pieces—and then tackle the task, piece by piece. Or take a break, go on retreat, and do a deep dive into skills-building.
It’s just the way I am (my mother/father were). Like Popeye in the old cartoon, you may say to yourself, “I yam what I yam.” But personality, predisposition, and so-called family traits are only part of the story. Dr Bruce Perry, an international expert on trauma and resilience, remains enormously optimistic about our ability to build resilience. “The good news is that the brain remains changeable,” he says. You can learn how to manage your stress response system—it’s a teachable skill.
Finally, look out for the so-called gifts of adversity. These are the unexpected benefits we reap when we set out to change ourselves and our circumstances. As you recalibrate and find a new baseline of equanimity, you may find your life enriched by personal growth, new people, profound changes in the way you relate to and are stressed by the world, perhaps even a new sense of purpose and meaning. As we build our resilience, we recover or sometimes create a new sense of mastery not over the challenges of life but over our response to those challenges. The result is a more mindful, attuned and energized state of being at the core of a more resilient life.