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Mindful : October 2019
YOUR FLEXIBLE BRAIN All of the capacities that develop and strengthen your resilience—inner calm in the midst of the storms, seeing options clearly, shifting perspectives and responding flexibly, choos- ing actions, persevering in the face of doubt and discouragement—are innate in your being because they are evolutionarily innate in your brain. Neuroplasticity means that all the capacities of resilience you need are learnable and recoverable. Even if you didn’t fully develop your capacities for resilience in early life, you can develop them now. The neural networks underlying your coping strategies and behaviors can be shaped and modified by your own choices, by self-directed neuroplasticity. This requires the engage- ment of the prefrontal cor- tex, the center of executive function in the brain. It’s the structure we rely on most for our planning, deci- sion-making, analyses, and judgments. The prefrontal cortex also performs many other functions essential to our resilience: It regulates function of the body and the nervous system, man- ages a broad range of emo- tions, and quells the fear response of the amygdala. (That quelling is essential for resilience!) We now know that experience is the catalyst of the brain’s neuroplasticity and learning for our entire PHOTOGRAPHCOURTESYOFJILLIANPRANSKY lives. At any time, we can choose the experiences that direct the brain’s learning toward better functioning. Resilience can be dimin- ished (for example, by the impact of acute trauma) or strengthened (through the perception of safety; by being understood and accepted by another person; through conscious reflec- tion, such as mindfulness; and with the cultivation of positive emotions) at any time by experience. HOW EMOTIONS IMPACT RESILIENCE Just simply being alive evokes emotions. We experience one emotion after another every single moment of the day: delight in watching a sunrise, frus- tration at getting stalled in traffic, resentment when a coworker takes credit for an idea we came up with, terror for the future when a spouse or child gets a life-threatening diagnosis. Whether we like hav- ing these emotions or not, whether we trust them or know what to do with them or not, our feel- ings constantly filter our perceptions and guide (or sometimes misg uide) our responses to all of our expe- riences. In that way, our emotions play an integral role in our resilience. When the self-reg ulating capacity of your brain is functioning well, you can inhabit or quickly recover a felt sense of centeredness, ease, and well-being after an upsetting event. You regain your equilibrium. From there you can perceive clearly what’s triggering your emotions and discern what a wise response to those triggers would be. For example, we know it’s not resilient to be hijacked by floods of emotions: You can’t think straight, and your responses may be useless or harmful. And it’s not resil- ient to try to repress your emotions. For one thing, it takes an enormous amount of physical and psycho- logical energy to do that, energy you would be better off using to respond to the situation or to other people wisely. Secondly, when you try to repress any specific emotion (anger, grief, and shame are common targets), you can wind up damping down all of your emotions, even the helpful ones. You can go flat in your being and lose the motiva- tion to do anything at all. TAKING BACK THE REINS What you can do instead is learn to manage surges of negative emotions and intentionally cultivate positive ones, such as kind- ness, gratitude, generosity, delight, and awe. Positive emotions shift the brain out of the contraction and reactivity of the negativity bias, into the receptivity and openness that increase your response flexibility. The direct measurable outcome of these practices is resilience. Focusing on positive emotions is not meant to bypass or suppress dark, difficult, afflictive ones. Your experiences of angst, pain, and despair are very real. But you can learn to acknowledge, hold, and process those emotions. You broaden your habitual modes of thinking or acting and build enduring, resil- ient resources for coping. These include increasing social bonds and social sup- port and deepening insights that help place events in a broader context. You find a way through, and come out the other side. All emotions—the ones you dislike and dread as well as the ones you welcome and enjoy—can guide your behaviors in resilient self- protecting or self- enhancing ways. You don’t have to be afraid of your emotions, be stuck in them, or be swept away by them. You do have to take responsibility for how you experience and express them. ● Excerpted from the book Resilience: Powerf ul Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster. Copyright ©2018 by Linda Graham. Printed with permission f rom New World Library— www.newworldlibrary.com. PHOTOGRAPHBYMILLESSTUDIO/STOCSKY October 2019 mindful 53 resilience