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When you face challenges in your life, do you feel equipped to handle it or do you become overwhelmed and stuck in the difficulty, grief or even the unfairness of your situation? Whether you are facing an illness, career change, divorce, family challenge, or any other significant difficulty, there are techniques you can use to build optimism and rewire your brain for resilience.
1. Embrace the power of vulnerability
“Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous,” says vulnerability and courage expert, Brene Brown. When I became a mum for the first time last year I discovered why being real and vulnerable was crucial to building resilience.
In the early days when our little guy was not sleeping well, unsettled and crying all night I quickly became overwhelmed. All I wanted to do was sleep, have a break and at times go back to my old life with all its freedom.
In those exceptionally difficult days I let myself feel what I was feeling. Some days that meant sitting on the bathroom floor and having a good cry; other days it was having a truthful conversation with my husband or mum about how hard I was finding it. It most certainty meant asking for and accepting help.
At first I felt guilty for feeling and thinking this way. I wondered if I was a “bad mum” for not loving every minute of motherhood. It took courage to be vulnerable and let my guard down. However, once I got over the guilt, I found that letting myself “unravel” released built-up emotion and actually created space in my mind to reconnect with my inner strength and to think, “OK, Jess, get up and keep going — you can do this!”
When you are in a highly emotive state your brain has shifted gears and your limbic system, the emotional driver of your brain, has taken over. This makes it harder to think clearly and to feel on top of your challenges and struggles. By acknowledging and sharing your feelings and thoughts, you can release some of the emotion you are feeling. This helps to calm your nervous system and “dials down” your fight-or-flight response.
When the emotional part of your brain is no longer in overdrive, your pre-frontal cortex, the critical thinking part of your brain, can step in. Your pre-frontal cortex can help you to see your situation more clearly and allow you to feel more confident in your ability to cope and rise above your difficulties and setbacks.
Do you need to ask for help and support to get through a tough time you are facing? Who might you be able to have an honest conversation with to clear some space in your mind?
2. Choose your focus
When things in life don’t go to plan it can be stressful. When your stress response is triggered, your brain automatically focuses your attention on your problems. Neuroscientist Dr Rick Hanson says the brain is like Velcro for bad experiences and is, in fact, hard wired to attach to negative experiences as part of your survival mechanism.
This narrowing of your focus on your problems limits your ability to respond resiliently to the challenges in your life and wires your brain to continue to only see what is not working. Have you ever noticed that when you are having a “bad day” everything goes wrong? On these days the traffic is slow, there are no car parks at work and the shops are closed when you get there … the list goes on.
While your brain is focusing on the problems around you, you are not aware of the good things that are happening and what you have in your life to be grateful for. What you focus on creates your perception and experience of life. To “unstick” your brain from focusing on your problems, consider these questions: “What is going well in my life?” and “What is the flip-side of this situation or challenge?”
3. Become intentionally grateful
Gratitude stops your brain from dwelling on what you have lost and what has changed and shifts your focus towards what you still have and what you can be thankful for. Seeing what is still possible amid your challenges is an essential element of resilience.
Becoming intentionally grateful allowed me to rebuild my life when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness in my twenties. Initially, I was all consumed by what I had lost when I became sick, but then I was able to see that I still had the ability to contribute by writing from my bed, even if I couldn’t work a normal 9–5 job any more or do most everyday things.
When you actively go looking for things to be thankful for, you train your brain to pay attention to the good around you. In doing so, you wire in a more positive outlook on your life. You will also begin to feel better, as gratitude activates your brain’s reward pathway and releases one of your feel-good chemicals, dopamine.
Being intentionally grateful is as simple as taking a moment each day to think of at least three specific things you are grateful for. They can be as big as “I am grateful for the support of my family” or as small as “I am grateful I had time to sit down and have a hot cup of coffee today.” When you become intentionally grateful you’ll begin to notice even the smallest things that have brought you happiness throughout the day.
You may even find that in time you become grateful for the adversity itself. Resilience expert, keynote speaker and quadriplegic Stacey Copas says in her book, How To Be Resilient, “Most people find it hard to believe that ending up as a quadriplegic and needing to use a wheelchair for the rest of my life is a positive thing … but I am truly happy about it. I have done things with my life that I can say with certainty I would never have done.”
Are you focusing on the negatives or the positives in your life? Looking back over your life, are you grateful for any adversities you faced? What did they teach you?
4. Reframe your challenge
According to psychologist Angela Duckworth in her book, Grit, the belief that you have some control over your life is critical to hope, optimism and resilience. When it comes to facing adversity, you may not be able to change what has happened to you, but you can choose how you perceive and respond to the situation.
Dr John Arden in his book, Re-Wire Your Brain, says, “The emotional tone and perspective with which you describe each experience can potentially rewire your brain. The more you describe your ongoing experience in a particular way, the stronger the neural circuits that represent those thoughts become. Your narratives can be positive or negative.” What you tell yourself when you face challenges will determine how well you bounce back. I found this to be especially true after I gave birth to my son, as the birth didn’t go smoothly.
At 38 weeks I was induced and ended up having an emergency caesarean. The caesarean happened after 12 hours of intense but ineffective labour, an epidural that didn’t work and rising concerns for my baby. I was beyond relieved to meet our gorgeous boy and to know he was safe and healthy, but it was an experience that left fear in my mind.
I had gone in hoping and “preparing” for a natural labour and I was upset about not having what I felt was a positive birth experience. To find some peace and healing around this experience, I knew I needed to reframe the narrative I had chosen.
To shift my thinking, I asked myself, “In what ways was the birth a positive experience?” By moving my focus away from everything that went wrong and all my disappointed expectations, I realised something powerful: I had, in fact, experienced an incredibly positive birth experience because my son was delivered alive and healthy and for that I was intensely grateful.
Stepping back and asking yourself different questions can give you a new and more helpful perspective. Is there a situation you have framed in a negative way that you could reframe? What narrative do you tell yourself about this situation? What is it costing you emotionally? Is there a more positive way to view this situation?
5. Switch to a solution mindset
“Resiliency consists of maintaining hope in the face of adversity that things will eventually get better, while doing what it takes to make those things happen” says Arden. Taking action in your life, no matter how small, creates momentum and confidence and gives you back your control.
“Getting weighed down in what has happened will make it difficult to focus on finding a solution to the problem at hand. Think clearly about the next action, not a series of actions down the track or the series of actions that have gone before” says Copas.
To develop a solution-focused mindset, reactivate your pre-frontal cortex by asking yourself a series of questions that inspire a more critical way of thinking, focusing on solutions and moving forward. To build resilience, ask yourself:
- What capacity do I still have?
- What support do I have around me that I could use more?
- What other resources do I have that could help me?
- What is one small thing I can do right now to move my life in a positive direction?
6. Visualise a positive future
You may have noticed that when you imagine something stressful your heart starts to race, your stomach can feel queasy and your palms can feel sweaty. Your fight-or-flight response can be activated just through the images you play through your mind. Your brain is greatly affected by what you imagine. Studies show that the same neural pathways light up when you imagine something and when you actually do it.
Positive visualisation allows you to intentionally replace any worst-case scenarios running through your mind with best-case scenarios that will allow you to feel confident and optimistic. For example, if you were facing a career change, instead of imagining being out of work for months, you could visualise yourself confidently attending interviews, answering questions with ease and landing your dream job.
Neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay explains that to create a powerful visualisation you need to imagine yourself in the situation, not imagine yourself from an outsider’s perspective. She also says that to get the most out of positive visualisation you need to practise your scenario frequently. To practise your visualisations, you can write out your best-case scenario and read it back to yourself, or record yourself saying it on your phone and listen to it while commuting or before going to bed.
Are you running a worst-case scenario through your mind that is making you anxious? What would your best-case scenario look like? When could you practise visualising this scenario throughout your day?
7. Protect your energy
Responding resiliently to life takes energy. To keep your brain and body energised, become aware of what helps you to feel relaxed, happy, confident and supported and make time for those experiences.
Stay in the moment. There are times when the big picture will actually undermine your resilience and drain you of the energy and confidence you need to keep on keeping on. By focusing on each day as it comes (or even each hour) you can help your brain stay calm and in control and steer clear of overwhelm.
10 ways to stay energised
- Don’t compare your journey with others
- Accept and ask for help and support
- Prioritise sleep and rest
- Move your body regularly
- Create healthy boundaries and say no when you need to
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet
- Spend 5–10 minutes a day focusing on your breathing or meditating
- Connect with loved ones
- Change your environment and spend time in nature
- Laugh as much as possible
Going through tough times is never easy, but when you can take charge of how your brain is firing and wiring, you can effectively deal with the challenges in your life and rewire your brain for greater resilience and optimism and a far brighter future.
This article first appeared in WellBeing Magazine.