The Seven Muscles of Resilience
I’m very pleased to publish this adaptation from Meg Salter’s new book Mind Your Life, which you can get on Amazon. ~ MWT
by Meg Salter
Why do different people respond to stress so differently? Part of the answer lies in our individual resilience. This ability to bounce back can make the difference between normal stress that encourages growth, and distress that renders us stuck or overwhelmed. When you want to make it through your busy day, resilience matters. When you want to take persistent action in your life toward positive change in the face of what can seem like overwhelming odds, resilience really matters.
Resilience is the ability to recover, adapt and grow in response to threat or challenge.
Resilience is a complex concept. Some factors that contribute to resilience, such as strong relationships and robust physical health are, to some extent, the luck of the draw. But resilience is also a capacity that you can actively foster. Resilient people experience negative emotions and stress, of course, but they have learned to navigate around and through crises. How do they do that? What capabilities have they developed?
I propose there are seven competencies that build resilience. These competencies are based on well accepted resilience assessment instruments (e.g. The Brief Resilience Scale, The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale), and the research evidence from the fields of adult development and personal change. I have found that clients who develop these abilities are more able to respond to the stresses and navigate the tipping-points in their lives. Because these capacities build the strength of resilience, I think of them as the metaphoric muscles of resilience.
But what do these muscles of resilience have to do with mindfulness? I also happen to be a 20-plus year meditator. This confluence of expertise in both psychological development and meditation training helps me to propose the links between mindfulness and the muscles of resilience.
Mindfulness as a Resilience Booster
What I want to suggest is that mindfulness can support growth in each of these muscles of resilience. Mindfulness works like working out, buffing up your natural resilience. You undertake practices that can initially feel odd or counterintuitive. You practice in safe, low-risk ways, stimulating the recovery and growth mechanisms of the human mind and emotions. Meditating builds resilience muscles that are strong enough to kick in during stressful moments in life, when you need them most.
Let’s look at each of these muscles of resilience and how mindfulness meditation can cultivate each of them in turn.
Resilience Muscle #1: Ability to persist through obstacles or failures
After experiencing a setback, a resilient person is able to try again. This bouncing back is the core measure of resilience. Common sayings such as “Success consists of getting back up just one more time than you fall down” point to our appreciation of resilience.
Learning mindfulness involves continuous practice in persistence. Once you focus your attention on something (the breath, a body sensation), you will be distracted. Guaranteed! But every time you bring your attention back to the focus object, you exercise the muscle of persistence. With practice, this returning gets easier. You learn to interpret distraction not as a failure of attention, but as an opportunity to practice persistence, until it becomes a powerful muscle you can rely on.
Resilience Muscle #2: Ability to stay focused under pressure
When faced with a challenge, a resilient person can stay focused on the task at hand. We have all faced high pressure moments. We may know what to do, but if we become swamped by our doubts, fears or physical tensions, we lose our nerve. We don’t perform to the best of our ability. Athletes face this kind of pressure regularly, and use the special term “choking” to refer to losing focus under pressure.
Mindfulness involves repeated acts of focus, which build the core skill of concentration. You learn that your attention doesn’t just happen. It is a faculty you can consciously direct, whether that is as narrow as the breath at your nostrils or as wide as the entirety of your sensory experience. Because you cultivate a habit of staying focused during meditation practice—when nothing significant is really at stake—it becomes much easier to stay focused during the pressures of daily life.
Mindfulness Muscle #3: Ability to handle unpleasant feelings
When you are faced with a threat or challenge, your primal emotions kick in. But will these emotions help or hinder you as you face the challenge? A resilient person is able to experience even very strong emotions without them unduly driving or distorting their behavior. They have developed emotional intelligence; the ability to identify and manage their emotions and the emotions of others. They are able to sit with even very strong emotions, can name them, can often to point to where in the body these emotions are being experienced, and identify specific triggers. (ex: When someone is critical of me, I get defensive and feel it as tension in my jaw.)
Mindfulness helps you develop the skill of equanimity, which dials down the intensity, but not the reality, of your feelings. You do not judge yourself for whatever feelings you happen to be experiencing. If during a meditation session I notice defensiveness, I allow myself to have a full experience of it; the tension in the jaw and shoulder, the angry or blaming stories in my head. Just because I’m aware of these experiences doesn’t mean I believe or endorse them. In fact, once off the meditation cushion, I am freer to act in a rational, compassionate way. But knowing how to handle a little bit of defensiveness during meditation means I’m much more capable of reacting sanely when a car cuts me off in traffic, or a client blames me for something gone wrong.
Resilience Muscle #4: Ability to stay connected with others
No one can be resilient all by themselves. A strong social network of friends, family, or neighbors is an essential support when the chips are down. Unfortunately, when we are stretched, too many of us are unwilling to express our vulnerability, or reach out for help.
How can mindfulness, which is often (but not necessarily) practiced by yourself, help you connect better with others? First, because you can actively cultivate habits of connection and positive intention through compassion practices. And second, because you become aware of all of yourself; the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s say I’m doing a compassion practice, and all I’m aware of is the defensive anger coursing through my body. From one point of view, this is a distraction to my intended object of focus. From another point of view, this is me; warts and all. I become painstakingly aware of, and learn to accept my vulnerabilities and weaknesses. So, in real life, I’m less embarrassed by myself. Less likely to think I can do it all myself and more likely to ‘fess up and ask for help.
Resilience Muscle #5: Sense of self-efficacy
A resilient person thinks differently than others. They are less likely to feel helpless because they do not perceive challenges as personal, permanent, and pervasive. They believe that at least some control resides in themselves and therefore are more likely to view a challenge as a chance to grow vs. an overwhelming trauma.
George Bonnano, who studies resilience at the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab of Columbia University’s Teacher College says, “Frame adversity as a challenge and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move from it and learn from it and grow. Frame it as a threat and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become inflexible and more likely to be negatively affected.” [i]
While I admit it’s a subtle point, I believe mindfulness affects our cognitive skills of perception in two ways; through an awareness of continuous change and through an approach versus avoidance strategy to risk. Let’s go back to the example of me experiencing defensiveness during meditation.
If I continue to focus on the sensations of defensiveness, I may notice that they ebb and flow. The volume of stories in my head can stop and start, get louder or quieter. The tension in my body can spread or contract. Sometimes, the tension may stop altogether for a few blessed minutes. My assumptions about permanence and change have been subtly impacted. With time, the experience of continuous change becomes my new normal.
When I first experience this defensiveness, I may turn away from it, for example by focusing on a soothing experience like the breath. But in time I turn learn to turn toward the experience, exploring its nuances. I am unlearning a primal survival-based response “turn away strategy,” based on bracing against challenge. Instead I am developing a “turn toward strategy,” which helps me develop curiosity and openness, a prerequisite for learning. Researchers such as Daniel Siegel and Mark Epstein also surmise that a fundamental mechanism in mindfulness is the skill of turning toward experience with an attitude of curiosity and learning, vs an automatic bracing against potential threats to survival. If I can turn toward this longstanding pattern defensiveness while meditating, surely it is much easier to catch it when I’m about to blame someone else at work!
A short peak at Resilience Muscles #6 and #7
Remember our definition of resilience? Resilience is the ability to recover, adapt, and grow in response to threat or challenge.” Resilience muscles #1 – 5 help you through the recovery phase: persist through obstacles, stay focused under pressure, handle unpleasant feelings, stay connected to others and develop self-efficacy. Once you have recovered, you have the opportunity to adapt and grow.
This is where the last two muscles for adaptation and growth come in. They are based on the field of adult learning and development and personal change. I’ll review them briefly here, but you can also find more detail in Chapter 4 of my book Mind Your Life. Resilience muscle #6 is the ability to look AT vs. Looking Through your assumptions. It helps you learn to solve new problems, or solve old problems in new ways. Resilience muscle #7 is the process of personal change, which can be initiated by the healthy dis-identification processes caused by meditation.
A resilient person doesn’t just stubbornly persist through challenges. Failure can teach them that they need to solve problems in new ways. But first they have to be aware of their current way of solving problems. Most of us are blind to this. We operate on automatic pilot, governed by unknown assumptions. We are not aware of our perceptual filters. What we aren’t even aware of, we cannot take responsibility for, let alone effectively resolve.
Let’s take another example. I wear contact lenses. Let’s imagine I have permanent lenses that are slightly gray in color. Since I always wear them, I don’t know the lenses are gray. I look through the gray lenses and behave accordingly, developing a pessimistic attitude and defensive behaviors. Then one day, I notice I’m wearing lenses. I take them off. Suddenly, the world looks different. I see that the gray was my perception of the world, not the way the world is. I dis-identify from my lenses, enabling me to look at my perception of gray versus through it.
Mindfulness can initiate healthy dis-identification and the process of personal change by helping us to look at what we were formerly looking through. No matter what you choose to focus on during mindfulness practice, you will become aware of thoughts and feelings you didn’t even know you had. You see, often for the first time, what you are actually thinking and feeling in real time. You now have an opportunity—and a responsibility—not previously available to you. So, in the contact lens example, I can begin to test my assumptions. I can act differently. I can ask others if they see the situation the same way I do.
These seven muscles of resilience are one way to explain why something as simple as mindfulness practice can be so powerful. Like the Tardis on Dr. Who, it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Practically, these seven points can give you confidence in your mindfulness practice.
If you are continually losing but coming back to your focus object, you are developing persistence and focus. If you are disturbed by unpleasant feelings, you are learning the first step of emotional intelligence. If you’re embarrassed by the contents of your mind and emotions, welcome to your vulnerable side. If you can face into interior challenges, you turn your stress response from brace-fight-or-flight into turn-toward-and learn.
With mindful attention, our normal stresses need not turn into distress. We can boost our resilience, unleashing our personal flourishing.
Meg Salter is an Integral Master Coach™ with a 30-year global business background in change management consulting and executive coaching. She is a senior facilitator in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system. Her decades of intensive meditation practice have occurred while pursuing a career and raising children.
[i] Maria Konnikova, “How People Learn to Become Resilient,” The New Yorker, February 11, 2016.
photos by Alexander