At the beginning of a new year, it is customary for people to set goals to work towards and make resolutions about changes they would like to implement over the coming year. According to the New York Post article, “The average American abandons their New Year’s resolution by this date”:
“A new poll of 2,000 Americans found that it takes just 32 days for the average person to finally break their resolution(s) — but 68% report giving up their resolutions even sooner than that.”
If you are in the smaller percentage of people who set goals and make resolutions and actually see them through to fruition, I commend you. Well done!
For the rest of us, there has got to be a better way and there is.
Instead of trying to make surface-level changes that can most definitely improve your life, when accomplished, why not make a substantive shift at the core of your emotional and mental health that can produce a ripple effect with the potential to transform several areas of your life?
One such skill is resilience.
Contrary to what you may have heard, resilience is not a trait that you are either born
with or without. It’s a set of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed — and learning it even changes your brain and can improve almost every facet of your life, from mental health and life satisfaction to relationships and careers.
What is Resilience?
Resilience is the process of adapting to or the ability to recover from adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress, such as family or relationship problems, serious health challenges, or workplace and financial issues.
Essentially, it’s “bouncing back” from life’s difficulties.
Being resilient doesn’t mean that you don’t experience hard times. Quite the opposite. In
fact, intense emotional pain, extreme trauma, and severe adversity are common in people who are considered resilient. The road to resilience most often involves considerable hardship. That’s how these people get resilient. Their brains learn it. A resilient brain even has physical differences.
What a Resilient Brain Looks Like
When you break it down to the physical level in your brain, resilience is a neuroplastic process. It’s about how your brain handles stress and its ability to modulate and constructively manage the body’s stress response. Resilience means your brain knows how to protect against the changes that can be induced by stress, specifically in regard to the size, activity, and connectivity of the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s fear, memory, and mood, and executive control centers, respectively.
Studies have shown that a resilient brain has more activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain’s executive higher-level functioning center, and more connections from the PFC to the limbic system, the brain’s instinctual fear and emotional center. This is significant because it allows your intelligent, thinking brain to “talk to” and influence the primitive, instinctual brain.
Resilience is one of the necessary skills Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske cite in their book, The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, needed to develop a winner’s brain and live a happy life. The authors explain that resilient brains understand and accept pain and failure and realize that they don’t predict the future. The ability to get up, come back, and try again determines the future. They depict a resilient brain as one that:
“…recovers from life’s challenges by dealing with shortcomings, misfires, and failures whether they are self-generated or brought on by circumstances beyond one’s control. Winners reframe failures so that they work to their advantage and recognize that when things don’t go according to plan, the journey isn’t necessarily over – and, in fact, failure is often a new opportunity in disguise.”
Don’t despair if you aren’t currently resilient. There may be a genetic component to resilience, but how resilient you are today is mostly due to your past. A lot of environmental interaction determines a person’s resilience — everything from poverty and parents to access to health care, education, community support, and more. Because of neuroplasticity, every brain is capable of making changes, building more connections between the brain regions, and becoming more resilient.
How to Build a Resilient Brain
Eric Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., has made the study of resilience the primary focus of his neuroscience research. According to Nestler:
“The most important and interesting principle is that resilience is not a passive process. It’s not that the mice [in studies] that are resilient simply don’t show the bad effects of stress that are seen in susceptible mice. Some of those kinds of changes are seen, but by far the most predominant phenomenon is that the resilient mice show a whole additional set of changes that help the animal cope with stress.”
In other words, a resilient brain is physically different and functions differently. And you can guide your brain to become stronger and more resilient to accomplish the lasting personal transformation and create a more fulfilling life. According to the American Psychological Association, there are proven ways to increase your resilience:
Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends, or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.
Accept that change is a part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, an increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and a heightened appreciation for life.
Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long- term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful. For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.”
Real-Life Resilience Role Models
One strategy Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske suggest in their book to aid in developing and
strengthening resilience in yourself are to find a “failure role model.” Current culture and history are full of them:
- Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.
- Thomas Edison tried more than 9,000 experiments before he created the first successful light bulb.
- Michael Jordan was cut from the high school basketball team.
- Albert Einstein had very poor grades in school and was thought to be mentally retarded.
- Steven Spielberg was placed in learning- disabled classes in high school and then
dropped out forever.
- John Grisham‘s first novel was rejected by sixteen agents and twelve publishing
- Abraham Lincoln had 12 major political failures before he was elected the 16th President of the United States of America.
Your brain is wired to learn from your past experiences to avoid anything painful or scary. This instinct helped our species survive, but today, it does not help you live a fulfilling life or achieve your hopes and dreams.
If we let our fearful brains run the show, no one would ever take a chance on a new love after having been hurt. We would never trust again after being betrayed. We wouldn’t try to achieve our goals if we had failed at something earlier. Your brain’s instincts can keep you living a small, fear-based, unfulfilling life — if you let it.
The key to personal transformation is overriding your brain’s natural inclinations.
And resilience is a powerful place to start.
Published in the Neuroscience and Peak Performance Section of the Industry Expert Magazine
Omozua Isiramen is the #1 Neuroscience Coach and Peak Performance Specialist in Luxembourg