I recently listened to the most fascinating talk by Dr. Joan Borysenko (a powerhouse with three post-doctoral Harvard fellowships in cell biology, behavioral medicine, and psychoneuroimmunology … um, she’s just kind of smart) on the subject of resilience.
What is resilience?
Well, the dictionary says it’s “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
I like to think of it as getting hit and getting back up again, but also becoming a wiser person in the process. I think most of us can relate to the concept of resilience, as we all have our own struggles, whether they be health, relationships, past traumas, toxic friendships, etc.
Dr. Borysenko’s research is incredibly enlightening, and her tips on becoming more resilient are simple, yet tremendously helpful (we like simple, right?) (for the record, I can’t stop misspelling
First off, let’s look at what happens when you experience a difficulty.
1. You experience a separation from life as you know it. Something happens, and suddenly, your life has changed from the way it used to be. Now, there is definitely a sliding scale ranging from “my life as I know it is OVER” to something much less severe. The specifics don’t really matter, though.
2. You are stuck in the space between the “no longer” and the “not yet,” which means you can’t go back to what was. It’s gone. Um, this is usually a very squirmy, uncomfortable time (yoo-hoo! waving to you from it right now!).
3. You return to life on the other side a much deeper, wiser person.
#2 can happen multiple times in a lifetime, and take a very long time to process. In fact, I would wager that many of you are in #2 right now (heh, potty humor. I can’t help myself). And the sad thing is that, unfortunately, some folks never get to #3. And that is where resilience comes into play.
Dr. Borysenko has studied resilience for years, and the studies she cites prove that resilient people share some similar traits.
So, what makes people resilient?
1. Resilient people are realists, not optimists. This one totally surprised me, but when thinking about it, realists usually have a grasp on the situation on hand and adapt to the changes before them. The problem with blind optimism is that sometimes rose-colored glasses induce a false sense of hope, and guess what, when that hope is dashed, it causes a host of problems inside the mind and body. For instance, hopelessness –> depression –> weakening of the immune system. Blech.
2. Resilient people have faith. Faith in a solution, and definitely not allowing themselves to give into fear.
3. Resilient people are radically creative. They find ways to express themselves and work towards being happy, fulfilled people.
4. Resilient people have support of friends. This one is huge. Isolation is bad, bad, bad. Finding people who truly support you and your growth is paramount.
5. Resilient people have a sense of humor (hey, potty humor totally counts).
Do you possess most of those traits?
Okay, let’s (very briefly) dive into the science of resilience and our brains. I swear I’ll keep it short and non-cricket inducing.
Place two fingers on the middle center of your forehead. Run your fingers from the middle to right above your temples. That area right there is your prefrontal cortex, peeps.
The basic activity of the prefrontal cortex is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. Yep, and it’s really good at noticing and judging emotions and anxiety.
For example, when you are repeatedly thinking something anxiety-inducing and you realize this about yourself (“hey! I’ve been going in mental what-if circles about tomorrow’s meeting for at least 45 minutes!), that’s your prefrontal cortex (personally, my prefrontal cortex would enjoy a break).
Now, place your fingers just above the left temple. That part of your prefrontal cortex controls happiness and, you guessed it, resilience.
And guess what? There are very simple exercises that have been scientifically proven to improve the left prefrontal cortex’s ability to increase personal resilience. Dr. Borysenko calls it making a “left shift.”
Are you ready? Let’s hit it.
1. Meditation. 20 minutes/3 times a week. This practice makes physical, concrete changes in the prefrontal cortex, and after just 3 weeks, you will witness a huge shift in resilience. Dr. Borysnko also mentioned that it doesn’t need to be a specific formal meditation, either. Just time to quiet your mind - whether it be through mala beads, yoga, or something like Qi Gong. If the blanketed concept of meditation still scares/annoys/bores you, try doing something that enables you to lose track of time - some people garden, some people do crosswords, some people draw with their kids … whatever floats your boat.
2. Exercise. 30 minutes/5 days a week. This is crucial, and as a side note, I must say that in all of my research on physical and mental healing over the past year, exercise has been the one constant mentioned by every single expert. Exercise is key in improving all aspects of life. Have I done it this year? Barely. Do I want to bonk myself on the top of my head repeatedly over this fact? Yes. Am I starting an exercise regime of brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week? Absolutely. No excuses.
3. Affirmations. The caveat is that they have to mean something to you. You can’t mentally repeat, “I trust the life process” over and over if that particular statement doesn’t ring true for you. Find a slogan or affirmation that fires you up, and say it to yourself all the time, not just when the fear starts to creep in. In the shower, while cooking dinner, while putting on makeup … whenever and wherever (if you have a Kindle, this is an awesome, no-frills program on mastering affirmations for only $3).
4. Breathing exercises. All it takes is a simple slow inhale and exhale for 2-3 minutes to calm down the fear circuitry in your brain and release soothing, calming GABA. That’s it. 2-3 minutes.
Four things, you guys. So simple, yet so effective. It’s about to get all