Mindfulness and Resilience

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Harnoor Dhaliwal

Resilience is the ability to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity. It can be attributed to individuals and to entire communities – a dynamic process that exists on a continuum and depends upon both internal and external factors. External impacts on resilience may include things like social, contextual and cultural contributions that either help or hinder adaptation under threat. Research indicates that internal factors may include:

  • Interpersonal connection and supportive relationships as well as empathy – we first learn this from our parents or caregivers. This is by far the most robust factor predicting resilience.
  • Awareness of and curiosity about one’s inner experience and how it affects choices and behavior.
  • Willingness to face discomfort and difficulty.
  • Shame attenuation – the ability to maintain self-compassion and self-respect in times of vulnerability.
  • Optimism in hard times and openness to opportunities.
  • Cultivation of adaptive and self-regulation skills through exposure to manageable stressors.

Practicing mindfulness can cultivate all of these helpful resilience promoting factors. Learning and practicing with a mindfulness community helps build connections. Most formal practices involve the curious exploration of body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and urges, with attitudes including compassion, trust, and patience. We learn to turn toward difficulty with openness and kindness. In addition, the research indicates mindfulness is correlated with greater cognitive flexibility and self-regulation skills.

Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes a part of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined. Out goes naiveté, in comes wisdom; out goes anger, in comes discernment; out goes despair, in comes kindness. No one would call it easy, but the rhythm of emotional pain that we learn to tolerate is natural, constructive and expansive. – Martha Beck

Researchers have discovered that some people are biologically more vulnerable to stress. How our brains and bodies respond to adversity can vary significantly. Fortunately, we can train ourselves to cope more effectively. In fact, some Aboriginal educators believe that resilience is an inborn quality that just needs to be awakened. Mindfulness practices can awaken resilience by helping us learn to regulate our central nervous systems so that higher reasoning is available for better decision making. The practices also help us become more aware of when we are in need of self-care so that we can minister to ourselves appropriately and respond more effectively to life’s challenges

The capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age… Age-appropriate, health-promoting activities can significantly improve the odds that an individual will recover from stress-inducing experiences. For example, regular physical exercise, stress-reduction practices, and programs that actively build executive function and self-regulation skills can improve the abilities of children and adults to cope with, adapt to, and even prevent adversity in their lives. Adults who strengthen these skills in themselves can better model healthy behaviors for their children, thereby improving the resilience of the next generation. – Harvard University Center on the Developing Child

Taking a cue from Martin Seligman’s 3Ps that hinder resilience (Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence), we can use the “3Is of Mindfulness” to counteract problematic beliefs that make us more vulnerable to stress:

  1. Impersonality – Instead of blaming ourselves or taking responsibility for uncontrollable events, through the practice of mindfulness, we discover that experience is much less personal than we think it is.
  2. Interdependence – Rather than seeing things in black and white or absolute terms, mindfulness helps us understand that experience is much more complicated than we can fully comprehend. We see that things that seem fixed and rigid on the surface are actually quite workable if we are open to possibilities.
  3. Impermanence – Instead of thinking that bad situations and feelings will last forever, mindfulness teaches us that everything changes eventually.

Fortunately, resilience is not only learnable, it’s contagious. Research shows us resilient communities contain more resilient individuals and resilient parents tend to raise resilient children. This is the real reason why your own mindfulness practice is so important. You are not the only beneficiary of your efforts – as you engage mindfully with the world around you, your personal practice becomes a benefactor contributing to the greater good.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

– Maya Angelou, On The Pulse Of Morning

Resources

Bajaj, B & Pande, N. (2016). Mediating role of resilience in the impact of mindfulness on life satisfaction and affect as indices of subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences; 93, 63-67.

Campos, D, et. al. (2016). Meditation and happiness: Mindfulness and self-compassion may mediate the meditation–happiness relationship. Personality and Individual Differences; 93, 80-85.

Fleming, J., & Ledogar, R. J. (2008). Resilience, an Evolving Concept: A Review of Literature Relevant to Aboriginal Research. Pimatisiwin6(2), 7–23.

Southwick, S. et al. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology; 5.

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