Does this sound familiar?: “Once I get through this pile of work, or the kids go to university, or when I retire – then I’ll feel less stressed!” Most of us have said something similar, and most of us know this isn’t how it works. Changing or modifying external factors doesn’t always result in less stress; in fact, more often than not, the next wave comes in and sets us off kilter once again. The truth of the matter is we aren’t going to experience a different result until we change our mindsets.
This is where mindfulness and resilience can combine to work together. Resilience doesn’t remove stress, we need stress – just not in the quantity most people experience. Resilience is what allows us to bounce back faster, absorb more disruption and not only survive change, but perhaps even thrive through it. However, to do so, we need to change our response – and this is where mindfulness helps us.
At the risk of proposing a version of McMindfulness (David Gelles, Mindful Work, 2015), we can reap the benefits simply by adopting mindfulness in its purest form. Mindful Expert, Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, describes it as such, “Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment non-judgementally” (What is Mindfulness, www.psychalive.org). How does this help? It is surprisingly simple: By raising awareness, we can intentionally create the new behaviours and mindsets needed to strengthen our resilience.
To change our response to stress, change or disruption we need to change our brains – this is how being mindful helps. Mindfulness works by creating new neural pathways to the more resilient parts of our brains. We do this with deliberate focus and repetition.
Here are three ways mindfulness can help us to strengthen our resilience by changing our brains:
Adopting mindful practices such as meditating for 20 minutes a day, for an eight-week period, has been proven to reduce the size of the amygdala. This very important, but slightly skittish part of our fight and flight response system keeps us safe; however, it also can keep us in a heightened state of agitation that is unhealthy and unproductive. A less active amygdala means that we don’t get triggered as easily and have better control of our emotional responses to adverse situations (David Gelles, Mindful Work, 2015).
Paying attention to our thoughts helps us to stop ruminating on things that are out of our control – like obsessing on past or future events. Rumination often results in negative feelings such as regret, frustration or fear, along with a depletion of our energy as we wrestle with false perceptions or imaginary outcomes. Paying attention to our thoughts gives us the option to adopt a more positive and optimistic worldview, which is a proven strategy for strengthening resilience (reference: http://maigus.com/2018/03/21/develop-your-positivity-for-better-resilience/).
What we focus our attention on becomes our reality. We create our brain’s neural pathways through habitual thought patterns. This means focusing on negative possibilities will strengthen that circuitry. We can use our attention (for example: mindful eating or walking) to deliberately strengthen pathways that engage the more logical, reasoning executive function of our brains – allowing us to make better decisions and become more rational and compassionate. Over time, the less used negative pathways will diminish (Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain, 2009).
These three mindful practices will help strengthen your resilience. The stresses won’t go away, but we can take the sting out of them with a new mindset that supports our well-being and overall success.