Mind Matters — Resilience Revisited

The West has suffered vast forest fires and now the East Coast is being pummeled with hurricanes bringing massive flooding. Meanwhile, not so far from Boston, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and neighboring towns, a domino effect of gas explosions rippled through. The result of this catastrophe has been one death, numerous injuries, houses burnt down and thousands yet unable to return to their homes.

From one second to the next, we really don’t know what can happen. Gravity may hold our feet to the ground on this spinning ball we call earth, but life is fragile and unpredictable otherwise.

Enter Linda Graham’s book, Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster.

So often, we think of resilience as being “grit” or the “will to survive.” While that may be true, it is Graham’s contention that the core of resilience is flexibility: the ability to be responsive to a situation rather than reactive. Reactivity is our knee jerk reaction to events while responsiveness carries with it a discernment to entertain new options. It is our ability to change perspective. With practice, we can develop such discernment.

In fact, neuroscience now shows that the brain has an “innate neuroplasticity.” Our brains can create new neural networks throughout our lives. Of course, we can’t wait for a traumatic event to try to be resilient. Just as we need to brush our teeth at least twice a day and have a regular exercise routine to stay healthy, we also need to practice skills to build the neural networks for resilience. In other words, “re-wire old habits of response to be more flexible, more adaptable.” The saying goes, “The neurons that fire together, re-wire together.”

Graham explains clearly 130 exercises that develop the neural circuitry for resilience. Reflect a moment and ask yourself if you’ve ever come up with your own methods of getting your feet back on the ground where you calmed yourself down. Have you ever done self-talk—where a wise inner voice reminds you to take it easy, calm down? Have you ever told yourself, “This too shall pass.”? (That was my Mother’s go-to phrase whenever she faced adversity.) Have you ever thought about all you already survived and how “Well, I got through that, I’ll get through this too.”?

No, all trauma is not created equal. There are events that are incomprehensible; there are adverse childhood events that are cumulatively tragic. Nevertheless, Graham believes that cultivating resilience can change our responses to the worst of circumstances.

Her quick go-to exercises for herself include simply centering herself and witnessing her state in the moment—stepping back and noticing: What is going on within? What feelings are arising? Where are they located in the body? To make exercises automatic, we need to repeat them, practice them.

Another exercise that Graham uses often is the “self-compassion break.” With this exercise, think of people who love and support you. This simple act can break through old patterns and reactivity. Another closely related exercise that helps loosen old habits is “hand on the heart.” In essence, this entails placing your hand over your heart, breathing gently and remembering “just one moment when you felt safe, loved, and cherished by another human being.” These exercises are not “one and done.” In order to change the neural networks, they need to be practiced often!

Graham reminds us that we need to overcome our “negativity bias.” What is that, you say? What helped humans survive through years of evolution is our proclivity to attend to negative and dangerous experiences rather than positive and safe ones. I am reminded of the story of the person who walks into a richly gilded and beautiful room and only notices a tiny, tiny crack in the ceiling.

While the brain’s hardwiring may be drawn to the negative—in the past to physical danger, now to social-emotional danger—as protection, we do need to learn to temper this. Negativity bias can be detrimental to our well-being if we do not build pro-social emotions such as compassion, gratitude, and trust. Otherwise, notes Graham, negative emotions such as envy, resentment, regret, and hostility have constricting effects on our nervous system and our behaviors.

No matter our political bent, our age, or our social circumstances, we all experience stress in our lives. One quick and easy antidote you could start tonight is finding just one thing you could be grateful for. If you live alone, write about it. If you live with others, share your gratitude of the day at the dinner table. It could be as simple as having seen a cardinal on a branch or having smiled at the grocery store cashier, or being grateful for having running water.

We may not know what each day brings, but Graham’s book gives us 130 ways to respond with flexibility rather than reacting reflexively. To be resilient!