Faced with pressure, challenge and change, people’s stress response can easily kick in, making them rigid, inflexible and irritable. Sustained over time, the result is anxiety, depression and burnout. This is a growing issue for us in the modern world: in the UK, for example, more than 50% of sick-days are now due to such illnesses.
Resilience is the ability to respond well to difficulty. It helps maintains flexibility, constructive attitude and positive mood, even under pressure.
Mindfulness training helps build resilience, in a variety of ways:
Response to Stress
Mindfulness trains the brain to respond differently to stress. It physically shrinks the amygdala, making the person less prone to the fight-flight response. That means they can remain cool, calm and collected under greater pressure. They have lower blood pressure and higher immune function, which makes them fitter and less prone to illness.
Creative Problem Solving
In an emergency, there isn’t time to think, so the brain operates on reflex, using habitual tried and tested pathways. It diverts energy away from the prefrontal cortex, the seat of the reflective thinking mind. In other words, stress gives you a lobotomy!
In mindful mode, however, the prefrontal cortex can be fully active. Attention can broaden, bringing openness to fresh connections and possibilities. In one experiment, subjects were given challenging problems requiring breakthrough thinking. Those primed for mindful mode thinking were twice as successful.
A key skill developed through Mindfulness training is “meta-cognition” – gaining perspective on thoughts.
Jon Kabat-Zinn recounts the story of Peter, who had had a heart attack and was learning mindfulness in order to avoid having another. Peter found himself on his driveway at 10pm, floodlights on, washing his car. Why? Because it was on his to-do list, so he had to do it! The thought “I have to wash the car” was driving him towards the very heart attack he wanted to avoid.
Fortunately, Peter’s mindfulness training kicked in. He was able to turn mindful attention to the thought, and realise that it wasn’t true. He didn’t have to wash the car. He was able to free himself from the tyranny of the thought – and over the coming days, weeks, months and years, he freed himself from the tyranny of many such thoughts.
This boosted his resilience. He was no longer always at maximum capacity, driven by all the things he “had” to do. Instead, he could respond flexibly to ever changing priorities and demands, without killing himself in the process.
Complaining is bad for you, impacting mood, relationships, mental- and physical health.
Another component of Mindfulness training is “Appreciative Awareness” – learning that even when things are tough, there’s always something to appreciate.
At the moment, the air conditioning in my car isn’t working – there’s a problem. But the vast majority of people in the world don’t even have a car! Once again it’s a matter of perspective – and taking an appreciative perspective helps you stay positive, confident, healthy and resilient.
Relationships are a key factor in resilience. Talking to someone who cares about you helps you stay strong. When you forget your successes and strengths, they can remind you. According to research by Gallup, having a “best friend at work” is one of the 12 factors that create Employee Engagement.
Mindfulness helps build and maintain positive relationships in various ways. It creates a “buffer” so you’re less likely to speak out of anger, less likely to say things you’ll later regret. On the other hand, when there’s a difficult conversation that needs to be had, it gives you the confidence to have it – at a good time and in a good way.
The creative problem solving ability that comes with mindfulness also helps relationships: you’re better at finding win-win solutions that work for everyone.
Appreciative awareness means you’re more likely to notice the good in others – and they’ll like that!
So, in summary, Mindfulness makes you more resilient. It helps you respond well to difficulty, keeping you flexible, constructive and positive, even under pressure. It helps reduce stress, solve problems creatively, maintain perspective, be appreciative and have great relationships with other people.
Is that worth a few minutes of your day?