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Mental resilience helps: Here’s how to build it


Bob Martin / For the Times-News  |  Times-News

The brain naturally gravitates toward negative thoughts. Here are ways to steel yourself in rocky patches, from deep breathing to caring for others

With Covid-19 cases rising in the U.S. and the economic outlook uncertain — just when many had hoped things would improve — it can be tough at times not to slide into despair. Rick Hanson, a clinical psychologist and author of the 2018 book, “Resilient,” writes about how we can build our resilience in challenging times. Dr. Hanson, a senior fellow at one of my favorite places in the whole world, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, draws on neuroscience, psychology, and mindfulness training in his work.

Here are some of his thoughts:

How do you define resilience, and why is it so important?

Resilience is what helps us keep on a relatively even keel when the waves come. And if we get knocked over, it helps us recover. Resilience consists of psychological strengths like grit, compassion, gratitude, emotional intelligence and agility. We’re in for a very rocky year with a lot of catastrophes along the way. Resilient people can cope better and maintain a fundamental sense of well-being. It’s not that you don’t get knocked down, it’s that you don’t get knocked down as far and as long.

Why can resilience be tough to achieve?

The brain has a negativity bias, which makes it like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones. When we get a performance review, and the boss gives us 10 points of feedback and nine are excellent, and one is room for improvement, what do we obsess about? These days, many of us are feeling a lot of fear, alarm, discord, and dread. We may be feeling lonely or isolated.

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Enjoying simple things can build resilience, Hanson suggested. Things like stopping by the side of the road to watch cows lumbering about and chewing; listening to the crickets and bullfrogs at night; fresh strawberries and ‘maters when they come in.

What can we do to build our resilience?

Deal with the bad, turn to the good, take in the good. Take in the good and help it sink in. No matter how crazy it is around you or how bad it is, there are always things you can do inside your mind.

First, find your footing. In other words, in any shaky situation, you want to slow down, listen to the experts, find out what’s going on. Then, make a plan and work your plan. When you are dealing with massive uncertainty on a large scale, at least be sure about your plan for today.

Second, calm and center yourself. There’s a lot of research on who does well in emergencies. It is the people who are calm and focused who live-carving out that 10 minutes a day to sit there with a cup of tea and stare into space. Some people will meditate or pray, do yoga, go for a run or walk the dog. When you’re calming and centering yourself, and you slow down and take in the good, you develop traits of calm and centeredness. Being able to calm your body is fundamental.

How can other people help build our internal resilience?

Self-preoccupation creates a lot of anxiety and stress. Taking care of other people reduces stress hormones in your own body. It protects your heart and strengthens your immune system.

Because we are physically distant, we need to be empathetically close. Listen more deeply, pay more attention. Realize that other people are scared, too. They might be on the opposite side of the political spectrum, but they may be worried about their mother in a nursing home, also.

What daily practices do you have?

Take some big breaths and do long exhalations, which naturally slow the heart rate. Breathe in to a four-count and out to an eight-count through pursed lips as if whistling. Don’t worry if at first, you can’t get to eight. Keep practicing-it won’t take long until you can. Can you feel the fresh air coming in, the warm air going out, feel your diaphragm moving? Imagine the cool air as a stream from a fire hose dampening your internal fire and the warm air going out the exhaust.

Neurologically, if you tune into your body and body sensations, this pulls you out of verbal activity, which is a driver of rumination and worry.

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You start to engage a part of the brain called the insula, and you reduce activity in the default-mode network, which is the home of the “committee in your head.” Even just three breaths will make a difference. And if you do the three breaths while you feel caring toward someone else or cared about, you get bonus benefits.

Little, positive things do add up over time, and they gradually shift us into more resilient and happier ways of being. A minute here, a breath there, really does make a difference.

Bob Martin JD, MSW, is an assistant professor of business law and teaches The Mindful Environment of Business at The Martha and Spencer Love School of Business at Elon University. Comments and questions are welcome at www.mindfulalamance.com or 336-512-9859.