Take a snapshot of your life. When you look back at the most difficult events you’ve endured, what impact have they had on you? Can you see patterns of how you’ve reacted during stressful times? And when you think ahead, what concerns you most knowing what you know about the way you’ve been handling stress?
In the world of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it is said that it is not what happens to us that leads us to feel and act the way we do. It is our interpretation of those events that matters most.
If that’s true, then our way of thinking about external events is our ticket in to making dramatic and desired changes. But isn’t our behavior often a result of our emotions? If we want to withstand stress, to ensure we manage our emotions well, and to create healthy habits that lead us to success, we need to understand the psychology of the mind and its connection to our feelings and actions.
Imagine you’re in a concert hall with thousands of other music lovers. You’re happy to be there and to be spending time pursuing an enjoyable activity. Suddenly, the ground starts to shake. The music abruptly stops and you realize that you’re in the middle of an earthquake.
What’s interesting in this scenario is that your reaction to the earthquake will likely be quite different from the reaction of others around you. Some of the concert goers, after getting over the initial shock, may become anxious and scream in terror. Others may in fact lie on the ground to get closer to the vibrations and experience the quake more fully. Still others may feel sad, thinking that their life is ending and that they won’t have a chance to say their final goodbyes. And while all those people are having their private experience, you may be exhilarated because you’re never been in an earthquake and find it fascinating!
What just happened? How is it possible that everyone in the same space is experiencing the exact same event but coming out feeling and behaving completely different?
As it turns out, people have different reactions based on the lens through which they see the world. That lens is shaped by their early life events. During our early years, we attempt to bring meaning into our experiences. If mom and dad get divorced, we think it’s because we caused it. When an adult yells at us, we tell ourselves that we’re bad or that we’re not good enough the way we are. If only we were smarter, funnier, skinnier, or in some other way better than we are, our parent would love us, would never scream at us, and we would live happily ever after, just like in the storybooks.
When we’re young, we think we are the center of the universe. If anything happens, it’s because of us. We don’t yet have a concept of others. When mom raises her voice, we don’t stop to think that maybe she had a stressful day at work. When our peers don’t want to share their newest toy with us, we think it’s because we’re not cool enough.
Fast forward to adulthood. We’re now old enough and experienced enough to understand that what happens to us is also a result of other factors outside of ourselves. If we get in a fight with a friend, we may fault the friend, we may fault ourselves, or we may consider how each of us contributed in a certain way.
I often hear my clients share about arguments they have had with their romantic partner. What seems evident is that each of the partners has their individualistic trigger points and when the two lovers come together, they trigger each other.
What’s so ironic is that we are often drawn to the people who remind us most of others in our lives. We may seek out a man who reminds us of our dad. This is typically not conscious, but over time we can start to see familiar patterns that shine a light on this phenomenon. If we aren’t aware of our triggers or we know what triggers us but don’t have an effective way of dealing with it, not only are we in for a rollercoaster ride, our relationships may be in jeopardy.
So what can we do to deal with stressors, especially when they trigger us? How can we ensure we cope in the best possible way, a way that is aligned with our goals so that we don’t get sidetracked or even get thrown completely off course?
"Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless." - Thomas A. Edison
What makes jumping on trampolines so much fun is the fact that when we apply pressure, the springs help us bounce up. Resilience has been compared to such a spring. It’s the ability to bounce back from stress.
We are all resilient to a point. Think about all the disappointments, failures, and defeats you’ve encountered in your life. If you weren’t resilient, you wouldn’t keep going. So when you come across a disappointment or a harsh reality, how do you get past it? What is the process you go through that allows you to bounce back? As it turns out, the keys are in your biology and your mind.
The Biology of Resilience
Long ago, Charles Darwin highlighted a theory to explain why some people thrive while others wither away. He called it “Survival of the Fittest.” In this evolutionary theory, Mr. Darwin described the process of natural selection. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, leaving the not-so-tough in a cloud of smoke. He attributed the differences between these two different types of people to their genes.
Research and history have demonstrated that there is some truth to this theory. People with family histories of mental illness are more likely to experience mental illness themselves. People with family histories of medical illnesses such as type I diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, are more likely to experience such illnesses in their lifetime.
But with the advancement of science and medicine, we have been able to give never-before seen advantages to the biologically predisposed. Even if your father and his father suffered from lifelong depression, when you struggle with depression, there are more medications and treatments today than ever that can help you overcome this battle. And as it turns out, the more we know about the brain and the mind, the more we have come to realize that there is also a lot you can do to help yourself.
The Psychology of Resilience
Psychologist Carole Dweck made popular the notion of a growth versus a fixed mindset. According to her, when faced with an obstacle, people with a growth mindset are able to counterbalance negative events by focusing on their positive aspects. If the company you work for suddenly announces major layoffs and you, as a result, lose your job, you would likely stay optimistic and focus on finding a new job. If, however, you had a fixed mindset, you might attribute the loss to a personal aspect of yourself, and consequently feel depressed and unmotivated to pursue another position.
There are multiple layers to our mind. Like an onion, the core lies in the center and is hardest to change, but it determines the direction of the layers that come after it. That innermost layer is called your schema, or core beliefs.
Earlier, we referred to a lens through which we see the world. That lens is made of core beliefs we hold to be true, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. These are beliefs that are internal, stable, and global.
Like the child who blames herself for her parent’s actions, we as adults sometimes attribute events to three factors that make us less resilient. The first is an internal factor. If we have a fixed mindset, we are likely to attribute the layoff to something deficient in ourselves. This often stems from a core belief that we are inadequate. When we believe this, we tend to look for evidence that demonstrates we are right. Therefore, when something happens, like losing our job, we are more likely to blame ourselves.
The second factor that reduces our resilience is the stability factor. When you believe that your flaw is permanent, you are less likely to feel optimistic about your ability to bounce back. Not only do you see yourself as inadequate, but you feel hopeless about being able to change that inadequacy.
Finally, the third factor that makes us less resilient in the face of stress is a global one. If instead of looking at your shortcoming as a weakness, you think of your whole self as a problem, you are taking a local problem and making a global issue out of it. Every failure reinforces your belief that you are a failure. This belief is not only accompanied by feelings of shame, but it makes you less likely to keep trying. Is it any wonder why people become stuck?
Coping is the way we respond when faced with a situation. There are three maladaptive ways of coping. Let’s take a look at how to classify our behaviors based on these coping styles and then focus on adaptive and more balanced ways of coping.
Imagine that you believe you are not lovable. If your preferred coping style is of one of overcompensation, you might find yourself becoming a pleaser. Because deep down you believe that people will only love you if you make them happy, you dance circles around others’ needs while ignoring your own. From an energetic perspective, when we overreact, we are over-utilizing our energy. This may mean that we feel too much and therefore become overwhelmed. Our behavior is focused on making up for perceived or actual flaws.
The second type of maladaptive coping is avoidance. Rather than doing too much or feeling too much, you run away from the problem. If you find yourself saying “I just don’t want to think about it,” you’re avoiding. The issue with this model is that the problem doesn’t go away. We may distract our minds for the moment and opt for immediate gratification, but sooner or later, the problem resurfaces. It is often when we are faced with a problem that we don’t believe we can control and one that is too painful to focus on, that we try to cover it up. This can lead us to develop bad habits including addictions.
The third type of coping we want to be aware of is surrender. This coping happens when we believe our flaws are global. In this case, we believe there is nothing we can do, so we give up trying. We accept that we are doomed for failure. From an energetic perspective, this represents an internal collapse or deficiency. Returning to our prior example, if you believe you’re not lovable, rather than try to win people over, you might isolate yourself and fall into a depression.
Perhaps you find yourself in one of the above three examples of coping: overcompensating, avoiding, or surrendering. How can we use our coping to work for us rather than against us? The answer lies in the mind.
Tipping the Scale of Resiliency
To some degree, our genes and learned behaviors affect the way we respond to stress, but that does not mean there is nothing we can do to help ourselves. We can focus on learning skills that help us face challenges and override the automatic response we otherwise have so that we can be more in control.
Dr. Dweck’s model might have you wondering, “if I have a fixed mindset, can I change to a growth mindset?” Indeed, you can by cultivating optimism.
Remember the three factors that limit resilience? They were internal, stable, and global. If these keep you from being able to cope properly, let’s look at how to flip them around.
Bring to mind a situation that has been challenging to you. Perhaps you are working in a job that is overly demanding. Maybe you’ve been in perpetual conflict with your partner and don’t know how to overcome it. Or maybe you are overcome with grief due to a loss or tragedy you experienced.
If you find that you are blaming yourself for the difficulty in your life, stop and re-assess. What evidence do you have that this is due to your deficiency? Consider what external circumstances may have contributed to the situation.
Do you tend to catastrophize when something goes wrong? Do you tell yourself that “things will never change" or that “this always happens”? Pay attention to extreme language. Usage of words like “always” and “never” make us believe we have less control than we do and that difficulties are permanent. Instead, think of exceptions to the rule, times when this challenge either wasn’t present and circumstances were better or when you were able to overcome it. This helps you remember that even when there are obstacles, they are temporary. And when such obstacles are permanent, our thinking about those obstacles may still shift.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced a model that delineated five stages of grief. These include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What we can learn from this model is that when we are first faced with bad news such as a terminal diagnosis, we try to fight against it. “The doctors must be mistaken.” However, over time you realize that the diagnosis is real, so you shift to feeling angry and focus on the injustice of the situation with questions such as “why me?” This brings about a sense of helplessness so we try to bargain or make vows that we will reform our behavior and be model citizens if only we could be granted a longer life. Sooner or later, though, depression may set in. You know you’re depressed when you start asking yourself questions like “what’s the point?” This is hopelessness talking. Thankfully, we go from despair to acceptance and this gives us some peace. We change our thinking from focusing on fighting to focusing on mental preparation and self-soothing.
What this example illustrates is that even when there are circumstances that are external to our control, even when they are permanent, we can shift the way we cope with them. That shift highlights that we always have a choice in how we deal with external events and therefore, even something seemingly permanent becomes temporary.
"If you really do put a small value upon yourself, rest assured that the world will not raise your price." - Anonymous
Do you believe you are not enough? If so, this belief may lead to a fixed mindset that leads you to misattribute your inadequacies to everything that goes wrong. This is especially true if you believe you cannot overcome your limitation. Instead of feeling guilty when you make a mistake, you feel ashamed of yourself. In this case, work on rewiring your brain to change your limiting belief. Affirm that you are enough often and consistently until you build the habit and neural pathways in your brain to believe that it is true. This will help you put events into perspective and recognize that when something falls short of expectation, it is a specific rather than a global aspect that went awry. Remember, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Cultivating optimism is all about shifting your perspective. It is not about being an idealist. It’s about taking a long hard look at the reality of a situation and not making more of it than is there. It’s about trusting your ability to adapt. It’s about shifting your focus.
Focusing the Mind
I remember after buying my first car, a Honda, I suddenly saw Hondas everywhere. And after I had my baby, I saw people all over the streets with strollers. When you’re strolling hand in hand with your lover, you see lots of other couples around. Why is that?
The reason we see evidence that confirms our experience is because we are focused on it whereas beforehand we weren’t. We can’t possibly take in all the information around us. This would simply overwhelm us. Our brain is designed to help us survive, so it limits the input it takes in. What if there was a way to program our brain so that it could pick up on the information we deem important rather than the status quo? Well, there is.
Mindfulness is a practice that helps us develop the skill to focus the mind. Like any skill, it is something that is learned and practiced over time. One way to build this muscle is to practice mindfulness meditation. This is where you close your eyes and rather than let your mind wander, you set an intention to focus on one aspect. You can focus on a word or phrase, on your breath, or on being neutral. The latter entails noticing whenever your mind drifts in any direction and bringing it back. Each time you notice and return to center, you are being mindful. The more you practice mindfulness when circumstances are calm, the more it will serve you when chaos arrives.
“We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” - Archilochos
Did you know that our brain is like a magnet for negativity? You probably have no trouble noticing when something goes wrong: you get stuck in traffic, you spill your coffee, you can’t fall asleep at night even though you’re exhausted and know you have a big presentation the next morning. But what happens when things go well: when you wake up and the sun is shining, when your burger comes out just the way you like it, or when a stranger smiles at you when you pass him on the street? We tend to overlook these incidents. Even when we get feedback, we tend to focus on the one area for improvement rather than on the nine things we did right.
To help our brain focus on the positives, consider starting a gratitude journal. This requires you to jot down some of those positive experiences you would otherwise forget about. So every day, pick a time and sit down to write three things that went well. Research has shown that people who take the time to reflect and write about the good things in their lives were not only more optimistic, they felt happier and more satisfied.
Dweck would tell you that effort counts. Instead of looking for all the ways you are deficient, work to improve on your weaknesses. As the saying goes, “what you focus on grows.” Focus on what you want more of, not on what you don’t want.
Our relationships also help build up our resilience. Who in your life is your personal cheerleader, someone who when you’re struggling would be there to cheer you on, motivate you to keep going even when it seems all the odds are stacked against you? It’s important to build a support team. This can consist of friends, family members, teachers, therapists, or coaches, but you may also feel inspired from fictional characters in a movie you saw or a book you read. They may be a celebrity or someone you admire. Once you’ve located your squad, know that you can rely on their support in tough times. If your support team consists of deceased individuals or people you otherwise don’t have access to, internalize their voice and when faced with a challenge, ask yourself what they would say. Remember, being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. It’s about having the courage to know your limitations and ask for support when you need it.
Don’t have a support team? Research shows that having just one person on your side can make you ten times less likely to experience depression. If you need to increase your circle, look for like-minded individuals. Consider volunteer opportunities or a place of worship to create community. Call people who don’t live close to you. Technology is helping us break distance and financial barriers to communication. And, if you become overwhelmed around others, research is once again on your side. You can gain similar benefits from having a pet.
While relationships with others can help us be resilient, it is our primary relationship to ourselves that matters most. Do you notice that often when a friend is going through a difficult time, you can easily help guide them through it, but when it comes to you, it’s a struggle? If this is the case, ask yourself, “what would I tell my good friend if he or she was in this situation?” This can help you start to apply compassion to yourself and help you think in a more clear-minded way about your difficulty.
Knowing what affects you most and preparing for it in advance can help you stay grounded in the presence of stress. One of the ways you can do this is by reflecting on past mistakes and the lessons you’ve gleaned. Try to visualize what happened and rather than seeing yourself respond in the way that you did, see yourself applying those lessons learned. How different are the outcomes as a result? By seeing it in your mind, you are prepping yourself for the next time around.
According to Dr. Phil Zimbardo, author of the Time Paradox, individuals who are positive about past events tend to be more resilient. That is, when they bring to mind memories from the past, they think of those events in an optimistic way. As a result, Zimbardo noted a correlation between the way these individuals thought about their past and their current mental state. They tended to experience less anger, anxiety, and depression.
"I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time." - Anna Freud
When you boil it all down, the heart of the matter seems to be trust. You have to be able to trust yourself to problem-solve and to know that even though you are imperfect you can improve over time with the right intention and mindset. By focusing on what you can control, you can regulate your emotions and behaviors and make good choices to navigate the terrain.
According to Dr. Brene Brown, cultivating a resilient spirit is about letting go of “numbing and powerlessness.” This is in line with the idea of changing your coping from avoiding and surrendering to adaptive coping. And, it is about focus. Rather than feeling like a victim, focus on what you can control. Know that you are stronger than you think and with effort and hard work, you can build resilience. By embracing vulnerability, you will surround yourself with people who support you. By embracing yourself as a flawed and valuable human being, you will realize that no matter how bad things get out there, inside there’s strength and goodness.