Linda Graham, MFT and author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty and Even Disaster, explores ways to tap into your own resilience to be able to cope with the most challenging of circumstances, even a global pandemic.
Resilience is always needed. The current pandemic of COVID-19 is a new disease, and a deadly one. So far unpreventable, untreatable. It’s easy to be scared and wise to be concerned.
Resilience – capacities to deal with any stress and bounce back from any adversity – is as necessary to our well-being as the new virus is disruptive to it.
Resilience really means our learned capacities to cope with anything, anything at all.
We can cope with disappointment now, as we all are, when restaurants and bars are closed, trips are cancelled, sporting events and cultural events are postponed, and workshops at Kripalu and other venues are re-scheduled.
We can cope with difficulty now, as we all are, when schools, day care centers, and libraries close and colleges shift to online learning. And when so many closures threaten the livelihood of almost everyone we know.
We can cope even with disaster, as many of us are now, as we and loved ones are in danger of falling disastrously ill, as people we know and care about have died.
And we cope with so much unknown, so much uncertainty because no permanent solutions are as yet in sight.
Things to remember about resilience:
1. Skills and strategies of resilience are learnable and trainable.
Every human brain learns from experience. We learn resilience from the experiences of dealing with hard stuff, and learning that we can. The neuroplasticity innate in every human brain ensures that we can learn and change and grow even from, especially from, experiences of adversity. That’s our birthright as human beings.
“Based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, change is not only possible, but is actually the rule rather than the exception. And because we have a choice about what experiences we want to use to shape our brain, we have a responsibility to choose the experiences that will shape the brain toward the wise and the wholesome.”
– Richard J. Davidson, PhD, founder-director Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison
2. The core of resilience is response flexibility. People who are resilient tend to be flexible, flexible in the way they think about challenges and flexible in the way they react emotionally to stress. And that is true for any stressor, for any level of disruption.
“How you respond to the issue…is the issue.”
– Frankie Perez, psychologist
3. Choosing how we respond is essential to resilience. We strengthen our resilience by repeatedly practicing the tools and techniques that will install new behaviors, new patterns of response in our neural circuitry, so that we can choose to cope in ways that are skillful and effective. Over time, these new patterns help us develop a resilience mindset. We expect to be able to meet any difficulty, any disaster because we have learned that we can.
“Mishaps are like knives, that either cut us or serve us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.”
– James Russell Lowell
Using the Wisdom of the Body to Recover Our Resilience
These tools and techniques would have been taught in the May 2020 workshop at Kripalu on “The Resilience Mindset: Deepening the Practices Needed for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster.” They will be immediately helpful to you now and, practiced over time, can become a resilient way of being.
Our first responses to any stressor, our most basic responses to all of life’s challenges and adversities, begin in our bodies. Mindful awareness helps us be aware of signals of stress or distress in our bodies, and we can practice tools that will return the body’s nervous system back to its natural baseline equilibrium, what’s called the range of resilience.
We learn tools of breath first, because we breathe all the time. The breath is always available, as long as we are alive. Breathing happens automatically; we don’t have to remember to do it; the body remembers to breathe for us.
Breathing IS what regulates the autonomic nervous system; slight activation of the sympathetic or mobilizing branch when we breathe in (a lot when we overreact to something and hyperventilate); slight activation of the parasympathetic or calming branch when we breathe out (a lot when you are scared to death and you literally faint). We can learn to very intentionally use this rhythm of breathing in, as is done in pranayama breathwork in yoga, breathing out (even longer exhales) to cultivate more calm in the body and access a deeper well-being.
1. You know how to do this already. Breathe naturally, gently, for five to ten breaths. As you begin to breathe more calmly, slowly, gently, deeply, this takes about one minute. Mindfully pay attention to the sensations of breathing in (cool air through the nostrils or throat, the gentle expansion of the belly and chest) and breathing out (warmer air flowing out, the relaxation of the belly and chest). Especially as you begin this practice, pause and repeat this practice many times a day. When you are doing “nothing” but breathing and paying attention to your breathing, you are doing “something” helpful in calming your nervous system and training your nervous system to come to calm. You are learning to CHOOSE to do something that can reliably regulate your nervous system. You are making a conscious choice – I GET to regulate my nervous system.
We can expand the practice of using the breath to regulate the nervous system back into a state of being calm and relaxed, yet engaged and alert. We now know that the startle response is hardwired into our nervous system by evolution so that when our nervous system perceives danger we automatically blink to protect our eyes, we crouch to protect our innards, we put both hands up to protect or fight. And that startle response is so hardwired in that we can’t re-train the brain to not have that happen. It’s going to happen. Like a sneeze; it’s going to happen. What trainers of fireman and police have discovered is that first responders can be trained to use that startle response as a cue – as a cue to practice resilience and the practice they suggest is box breathing.
2. Box breathing. You inhale to a count of four, you hold the breath for a count of four, you exhale to a count of four, you hold out the breath for a count of four. The breathing regulates your nervous system, as we just practiced. The counting requires your higher brain to stay on line. The focused attention on the counting, the use of symbols, the use of words, all require your higher brain to stay online, and keeping your higher brain online when you’re startled is key to being able to discern and choose what action to take.
So when you notice your nervous system is so revved up – you’re frightened or panicked or angry or enraged, you’re not thinking straight, learn to practice box breathing to come back to your range of resilience., your inner equilibrium so that you can think again. Likewise, if your nervous system is too shut down, numbed out, collapsed, immobilized, not taking any action at all, that’s also not resilient. Box breathing activates your brain again. You can begin to re-engage with what’s happening and decide what to do about what’s happening.
You can extend the practice of using the breath to regulate your nervous system by giving yourself permission to sigh. Breathe in fully, then exhale fully, sometimes accompanied by a sound, ahhh, releasing tension from your body. A deep sigh (or several sighs) is the body’s natural re-setter of the nervous system, even in a tense moment; especially in a tense moment.
You can practice pairing any moment of tension with a deliberate sigh. In the midst of a tense or frightening moment, a deliberate sigh can shift the physiology of the body-brain into a more relieved and relaxed state.
Touch is one of the fastest ways we have to both calm down the re-energize the nervous system and restore a sense of safety, according to Dacher Keltner, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Warm, safe touch releases oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust, of calm and connect. Oxytocin is released by the HPA axis, as is cortisol, and is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.
Even in this time of practicing self-sequestering as a way to contain the spread of coronavirus, we can add focusing our attention on warm, safe touch to help manage any anxiety or distress we are experiencing, and evoke a memory of feeling safe and cared about to keep that sense of ease and calm.
1. This Hand on the Heart exercise is one of the most powerful tools we have to restore a sense of calm and equilibrium in the body-brain. Anchored in both mindfulness and self-compassion, it is powerful enough to calm down a panic attack in less than a minute. It’s powerful enough to prevent the stress response from even happening in the first place.
a. Place your hand on your heart. Breathe gently, softly, and deeply into the area of your heart. If you wish, breathe in a sense of ease or safety or goodness into this heart center.
b. Remember one moment, just one moment when you felt safe, loved, and cherished by another human being. Don’t try to recall the entire relationship, just one moment. This could be a partner, a child, a friend, a therapist, or a teacher; it could be a spiritual figure. Remembering a loving moment with a pet can work very well, too.
c. As you remember this moment of feeling safe, loved, and cherished, let yourself experience the feelings of that moment. Let the sensations wash through your body. Let yourself stay with these feelings for twenty to thirty seconds. Notice any deepening in a visceral sense of ease and safety.
Why Hand on the Heart works: When you breathe deeply into the heart center, you’re activating the calming parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. When you breathe in a sense of ease or safety or goodness, you’re restoring a coherent heart rate variability which allows your heart to respond more flexibly to stress. When you remember a moment of feeling safe and loved and cherished with someone, you’re activating the release of oxytocin, the brain’s direct antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. You may actually feel the warm glow of the oxytocin as it washes through your body, coming to a sense of safety, trust, and calm.
d. Repeat this practice many times a day at first to strengthen the neural circuitry that remembers this pattern. If you practice five times a day for a full week, you will train your brain in this new response to any difficult moment. Then you can repeat it any time you need to, any time at all. Use it in moments of stress or distress. It’s portable equilibrium.
Any time you move your body and shift your posture you shift your physiology. Any time you shift your physiology you shift the activity of your autonomic nervous system and its state of stress or excitement; shut down or collapse, or calm. You can intentionally use movement to shift your emotions and your mood.
1. You can experience the sequence of this shift when you bring your awareness to your hands, and slowly tense your hands into fists, and then release the tension into your open palms. Do that tensing-releasing a couple of times. Notice any shifting of your inner state.
2. This juxtaposition of tension-relaxation is the basis of progressive muscle relaxation, tensing a muscle group, counting for 7 seconds, relaxing that muscle group, counting to 15. Relaxing twice as long as tensing helps the body relax, a wonderful tool to use when going to sleep at night. And the counting, as in the box breathing, makes sure the higher brain is on line but this time for the purpose of keeping attention focused on the task so the brain doesn’t go into rumination or obsessive looping over the worries of the day.
3. You can experience a shift when you place a pencil between your nose and upper lip; that makes you frown somewhat. Then place the pencil between your teeth; that makes you smile a bit. When you practice that sequence slowly enough, you can experience and notice shifting the state of your body and your emotions.
Neuroscientists can see in their scanners: Smiling for even 20 seconds shifts the functioning of the brain.
4. Power Posing
You may already be familiar with the technique of Power Posing, used to shift the state of the body-brain from one of anxiety or tension to strength and calm. Made famous by Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, the second most watched talk in the history of TED.
To begin: stand tall and erect with feet planted firmly on the ground, hip width apart. Lift up your spine, lift up your chest, lift your head, and stretch your arms high over your head, like tadasana, the mountain pose of yoga. Stay grounded in your feet and hips and torso, but feel the energy move up your spine, through your arms and the crown of your head toward the sky. It’s getting the energy moving up the spine that is the most important part of the pose.
How to use power posing:
1. Before going into any situation that might evoke feelings of anxiety or shame — a job interview, a business meeting, a doctor’s appointment, a court hearing, a tax audit, a confrontation over serious misbehavior by a family member — find a quiet, private place where you can let yourself feel the anxiety or worry in your body that you want to shift. Gently not to overwhelm, and then move into the power pose. Stand tall and erect, feet about hip width apart, chest lifted and head held high, your arms held high over your head, the mountain pose of yoga.
2. Let yourself feel strength and energy in your body. Experiment with different poses to learn what allows you to experience these feelings most reliably.
3. Then you can move back and forth between the posture of anxiety or worry and the posture of the power pose for about 5 minutes. Gradually letting go of the posture of worry and remaining in the posture of power, strength and courage.
4. Practice your power pose in the moments before you enter your challenging situation, and then walk mindfully into that situation with more inner strength and energy. With frequent practice, your power pose becomes a natural way to develop and tap into your inner strength, courage, and resilience.
These tools are the beginning steps in recovering your resilience. Many, many more tools (130+) are available in Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster. Many, many more tools are available as audio recordings at www.lindagraham-mft.net.
Practice these tools to cultivate your own resilience mindset, now in the time of coronavirus, for any time at all.
“I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott1