Why is it that some people languish when facing adversities in life while others bounce back and flourish? It’s a question of resilience—the capacity to respond to pressures and tragedies quickly, adaptively, and effectively. This isn’t a trait that some people were born with while the rest of us missed out. The capacity for resilience is mostly established during the first three years of life. This capacity is rooted in learned patterns of behavior. The good news is that even if you did not learn resilience early in life, you can still acquire it.
In recent years neuroscience has gained a remarkable understanding of how the brain works and carried out studies showing the brain’s plasticity and its potential to be “rewired.” In this writing, I explore how modern science, ancient Buddhism, and modern psychology can help you gain resilience to meet life’s challenges.
How the brain affects resilience
There are two parts of brain that impact our resilience. The prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain just behind the forehead, is responsible for abstract thinking and regulation of behavior, including mediating conflicting thoughts, choosing between right and wrong, and predicting the outcomes of our actions. It also governs social control, such as suppressing sexual urges and inhibiting aggression. It affects human qualities like consciousness, general intelligence, and personality.
The limbic system comprises numerous structures, including the amygdala, which serves as a 24/7 alarm system. The amygdala activates our basic survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, numb out, or collapse.
Whereas the prefrontal cortex analyzes our experiences and helps us solve problems and make sense of our world, the limbic system governs our emotional life. The limbic system originally served to protect our ancestors from meat-eating animals looking for a good meal. Though we live in a far safer world, we have become conditioned to perceive discomfort as danger–including waiting in line, being stuck in traffic, or rushing to meet a deadline. When we reach the discomfort threshold, our survival instinct kicks in. Our fear response shifts into overdrive. We plunge into a state of misalignment—feeling tense, unstrung, and tired—which inhibits our ability to meet life circumstances with the appropriate response.
Powerful brain processes
Conditioning determines how the brain learns and creates patterns of response to the world. Conditioning begins very early in life; we mimic what we observe, absorb the values of our parents and caregivers, and learn how to react to circumstances. This powerful conditioning can serve us well in life—or we may get stuck in negative, dysfunctional patterns. We then become more vulnerable to stressors and traumas that challenge our ability to bounce back.
Negative conditioning becomes hard-wired in the brain as messages from nerve cells (neurons) repeatedly fire across the same pathways. Over time, negative conditioning can impact our relationships, health and well-being, and life in general.
There is another process of the brain that can play a powerful role in helping us bounce back. It’s called neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s capacity to remain flexible, to learn and unlearn, and to become rewired in ways that help us function and respond more positively. The new pathways are not created overnight. Rather, when we learn and practice positive responses, neurons convey new messages that etch new tracks. As new pathways strengthen and stabilize, the neurons along the old pathways eventually weaken and lose the intensity of their charge.
Brain change agents
Modern science has identified two powerful agents of brain change. One of these is mindfulness, which is rooted in the 2,500-year-old teachings of Buddhism. Mindfulness practices such as meditation help us develop a steady, nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of life’s circumstances. Learning to reflect on how we react helps us become more flexible and tolerant. As we recognize thoughts, emotions, and sensations as patterns within the context of a larger landscape of awareness, we become more open to change.
Once a week I drive a long distance on a highway that has been a major construction zone for many months. Facing major delays and sharing the road with massive trucks, it’s easy for me to allow tension to build up in my most vulnerable areas—neck, shoulders, and gut. Instead, however, I welcome the opportunity to practice mindfulness techniques.
The second powerful brain change agent is empathy, our ability to appreciate others’ circumstances and feel compassion for them. It relates to our interconnectedness. Research shows that if a person is in a highly anxious state, being in the presence of an empathetic individual who is calm and compassionate can have a positive effect on former’s nervous system. People need people, as Streisand sang. Yet, it isn’t essential that we have “one very special person.” Having a strong support system—family, friends, co-workers—that has our best interests at heart goes a long way in helping us build resilience. Some believe that one of the greatest benefits of working with a therapist or coach is the supportive connection. And let’s not forget the impact of our connection with nature, which most of us take for granted.
I highly value my own support system of close friends. When I need to process something I intuitively know who to turn to. And when the tables are turned, I am there for my friends in need. I’ve come to understand that my most important role in life is to support others and help them live in sync with their true self, which I’ve realized through my chosen vocation as a life coach. One very special person with whom I’ve shared empathy is Mae, an old family friend now living in a nursing facility. My parents are deceased, and neither Mae nor I have children, so we’ve adopted each other, and I’m now handling her affairs. She amazingly lives each day with a joyful acceptance of life as it is. She just turned 94—she is my role model!
Integrating mindfulness and empathy
Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, recommends the integration of these two practices, which she refers to as mindful empathy. Her marvelous book is chockfull of ways to build our resilience. She writes that the prefrontal cortex is the brain’s resilience center. It does many things, including suppressing the amygdala-triggered fear response. The amygdala acts as our first responder before the slower-acting prefrontal cortex has a chance to make sense of a situation to help us respond appropriately. Regular mindful empathy practices help to reverse this sequence, allowing the prefrontal cortex to take the lead. Learning to quiet and focus the mind provides a space where we can welcome our thoughts and emotions and begin to sort things out.
There is an old Zen saying that a contracted mind is like looking at the sky through a pipe. When we continue with old patterns of behavior that cause disharmony, we continue to get the same results. Expanding our minds with practices of mindfulness and empathy broadens our view—and helps to positively change the brain. Thus we can meet every life circumstance with the appropriate response and resilience of spirit that is our true nature.