Resilience: Applying Brain Change to Cope with Life’s Challenges More Skillfully

April 5, 2019
Resilience with Linda Graham, Sounds True

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Resilience is our capacities innate in the brain to cope skillfully with both everyday disappointments and extraordinary disasters. Resilience is foundational to our well-being, to a sense of safety and ease in our world.

And because these capacities are innate in the brain, hardwired in by evolution and developed and strengthened by experience, resilience is fundamentally learnable and trainable. We can develop the neural pathways in our brains that allow us to cope with anything, anything at all, and to learn that we can.

Resilience is more than any one particular trait like grit or perseverance.

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.
        – American Psychological Association

This process relies on the neuroplasticity of the brain—also innate, fortunately also lifelong—to grow new neurons, connect those neurons in new pathways, to create new circuitry that can reliable support new patterns of response to life’s stressors, whether:

        Barely a wobble – we misplace our car keys and wallet two minutes before we have to dash out the door to go to work, but find them on the kitchen counter and we can re-center ourselves again fairly quickly.

        Glitches and heartaches – the more serious sorrows and struggles that break our hearts and sometimes our spirits—we or someone we love loses a job, or loses a relationship, or loses a home, or loses health, or loses hope.

        Too much – experiencing overwhelm when too many crises pile on top of each other—we get a diagnosis of lung cancer the same day a pipe bursts and the kitchen gets flooded, the same week we’re having to place an aging parent in a nursing home. We can feel like we’re drowning and about to go under, resilience completely derailed, at least temporarily.

No matter what level of disruption to our well-being, we can learn how the brain develops new pathways of resilience, and even rewires old pathways when our habitual patterns of coping no longer work so well. And because we can learn, because we can choose the experiences that will strengthen those circuits of resilience in the brain, we have a responsibility to ourselves and the people we care about to learn to do so.

Mishaps are like knives, that either cut us or serve us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.
        – James Russell Lowell

We strengthen our resilience by strengthening capacities of five different “intelligences” in the brain:

1. Somatic intelligence: using body-based tools of breath, touch, movement, and visualization to restore the baseline physiological equilibrium of the nervous system, the brain’s range of resilience that primes the neuroplasticity of the brain for learning and growth.

  • Examples:
    • permission to sigh
    • hand on the heart
    • equanimity for two
    • moving the body from collapse to empowerment
    • imagining a conversation with a compassionate friend
    • forest bathing

2. Emotional intelligence: learning to manage powerful surges of disruptive emotions and cultivating the positive emotions that antidote the built-in negativity bias of the brain, shifting the functioning of the brain out of contraction and reactivity into more receptivity and openness. The direct, measurable cause-and-effect outcome is resilience.

  • Examples:
    • self-compassion break
    • recovering from a shame attack
    • sharing kindness
    • gratitude for the web of life
    • savoring the moment
    • doing one scary thing a day
    • creating a wished-for outcome
    • resting in well-being

3.  Relational intelligence within ourselves: cultivating the self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-appreciation that recover the inner secure base of resilience that is the best protection we have against stress and trauma.

  • Examples:
    • carrying love and appreciation in your wallet
    • deep listening to core strengths
    • cultivating the wiser self
    • dialogue between the wiser self and the inner child
    • lovingkindness for even unlovable parts
    • meeting with the inner critic

4.  Relational intelligence with others: being able to trust other people as both refuges and resources when we’re going through hard times. Recovering the skills that make that possible.

  • Examples:
    • moments of meeting
    • monitoring the rhythm of resonant relating
    • reaching out for and offering help
    • creating a circle of support
    • comfort with closeness and distance
    • communication without shame or blame
    • negotiating change
    • setting limits and boundaries
    • repairing a rupture
    • navigating us vs. them
    • dismantling the drama triangle
    • forgiveness

5. Reflective intelligence: mindfully observing—and shifting—our habitual thought patterns so that we can truly see clearly and choose wisely, discerning what a wise option might be in any given situation.

  • Examples:
    • steadying awareness
    • tracking shifts in experience
    • identifying thought processes that derail resilience
    • what story am I believing now?
    • change every “should” to a “could”
    • finding the gift in the mistake
    • shifting entire mindsets

When we learn to practice these skills little and often, we strengthen our resilience in exactly the way the brain learns best, small experiences repeated many times. We can develop new ways to respond to pressures and tragedies quickly, adaptively, effectively.

I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.
        – Louisa May Alcott

Linda Graham, MFT is an experienced psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area and author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster (2018) and Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being (2013). She integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices, and relational psychology in her international trainings on resilience and well-being. She publishes a monthly e-newsletter and weekly Resources for Recovering Resilience, archived at

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Also By Author

Resilience: Applying Brain Change to Cope with Life’...

When we learn to practice these five skills, we strengthen our resilience in exactly the way the brain learns best—small experiences repeated many times. We can develop new ways to respond to pressures and tragedies quickly, adaptively, effectively.

Linda Graham: Cultivating Response Flexibility: Neuros...

Linda Graham is a trainer, life coach, author, and ardent researcher in the fields of personal growth and the life of the mind. She’s the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring the Brain for Maximum Resilience, and with Sounds True will be one of the teachers in the Leading Edge of Psychotherapy online course. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Linda talk about recent findings in neuroscience that psychotherapists (and their patients) will find useful in the treatment of shame and anxiety. Linda explains her view of resilience—what it means to be resilient, how to cultivate the quality, and how the brain’s prefrontal cortex is “the CEO” of resilience. Finally, Linda and Tami discuss the intersection of meditation and psychotherapy, including how to reconcile their contradictory aspects through the lens of modern neuroscience. (65 minutes)

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If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.” 

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Guided Sit Spot Practice

  1. Go to a place in nature that is close to where you live and that you can visit regularly.
  1. Take a few moments to center yourself, breathing in and out, and arriving fully in the present moment.
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  1. When you find a spot that feels good, in your own way, ask permission of that place and wait to see what comes to you.  If you feel invited, sit.  If not, keep looking.
  1. Once in your spot, sit comfortably and become as still as you can.  Imagine that you are melting into the earth, becoming a part of the land.  Sit for at least 15-30 minutes, noticing any movement, sounds, or other sensations and activities.
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Find more practices for connecting to nature in Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Read Rewilding today!

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The Power of Mapping Your Emotions

It’s in everyone’s best interest to learn to remove the emotional blinders and identify emotions accurately, both the uncomfortable and the upbeat ones. After all, unpleasant emotions are normal and natural, a fundamental part of being human. Emotions fluctuate on a daily basis, often several times in a given day. If you didn’t experience negative feelings now and then, the positive ones wouldn’t be as noteworthy or joyful; your emotional life would likely be unnaturally narrow. You would also be deprived of the opportunity to glean important insights into yourself. Feelings, both the good and the bad, are silent messages, alerting you to pay attention to something in your personal or professional life, in your behavior, or in the world around you.

Instead of separating emotions into categories such as good or bad, positive or negative, happy or sad, it’s better to view all your emotions as useful information, as “evolutionarily evolved responses that are uniquely appropriate to specific situations,” says Karla McLaren, MEd, author of The Language of Emotions. “When you stop valencing, you’ll learn to empathically respond to what’s actually going on—and you’ll learn how to observe emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.”

Being able to recognize and express what you’re feeling helps you better understand yourself (leading to greater self-knowledge); validate your emotions and tend to your own emotional needs; and take steps to address those feelings directly by communicating and responding to them effectively. Having emotional self-awareness can motivate you to make healthy changes in your life, take action to improve the world around you, and become more psychologically resilient—that is, better able to cope with crises and rebound from setbacks.

Learning to Unpack Your Emotions

For some people, engaging in free association can clear the cobwebs from their minds, almost like opening the cellar door to a musty basement and letting in light and fresh air. To do this, you might take a break and consider how you’re feeling about what you’re doing, reading, seeing, or thinking every few hours throughout the day. If a general word comes to mind—such as stressed, anxious, or angry—dig deeper and ask yourself what other emotions you might be feeling (maybe fear or annoyance) along with it. If you do this out loud in unedited, private moments, you might find yourself blurting out what you’re really thinking or feeling, revealing the emotions that are taking a lot of energy to keep inside. This is really about unpacking your suitcase of feelings, or untangling the knot of emotions that is taking up space inside you.

When you think about this in the abstract, it can be hard to pinpoint how you’re feeling. You may just see a swirling mass of a feeling quality such as “dread” or “foreboding” rather than recognizing the specific emotions you feel. To get to the root of your feelings, spend five minutes looking at the word cloud below—no more than five so that you don’t have time to filter your responses—and choose the emotions that resonate with your mood-state lately.

If reviewing these words evokes other feelings for you or if words or phrases that apply to you were not on this word cloud, jot these down in the blank word cloud that follows. Give yourself another five minutes to think about your recent state of mind and jot down phrases, images, or words that occur to you. This is your opportunity to personalize it without any limits or restrictions. If you feel stymied or draw a blank initially, think about your recent responses to current events or situations in your personal life or on the world stage. Try to be as honest as you can by focusing on how you’re really feeling when no one is watching—free-associate without judging, censoring, or revising what you write down.

Once you’ve finished your list, look at the order of the words you wrote down: Did they progress from all negative to increasingly hopeful? Do they portray an internal tension or friction in going back and forth between various feelings? If all the words are positive, consider the possibility that you may be in some degree of denial, focusing only on the window dressing rather than the emotions that lie beneath the surface. Also, consider this: Is there a pattern of shallow, visceral reactions that came out initially, followed by more complex thoughts and feelings? If so, think about whether you’re giving yourself enough time in your life to reflect. If you came out with highly intellectualized words or phrases first, it might suggest that you put on a bit of a facade when engaging with the world, and you might benefit from striving for a deeper engagement or familiarity with your emotions.

This is an excerpt from Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times by Lise Van Susteren, MD, and Stacey Colino.

Buy your copy of Emotional Inflammation at your favorite bookseller!
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