I have never been in jail.
But even the thought of going to jail…even the merest firing up of my imagination around the subject…brings on unimaginable stress.
When I have imagined myself in jail, I have pictured myself sitting for meditation 24/7, in that way winning over all the “real” criminals with my gentle spirit and wise mind.
Or at least keeping my eyes closed so if doom approaches, I won’t have to say hi before it finishes me.
Speaking of stress, recently I read a fascinating article that reports on what scientists are learning about building resilience (aka “the ability to quickly bounce back from tough experiences”).
It reminded me of what I have shared so many times with friends who fear public speaking (and I mean fear it – the way I fear jail).
Our limbic brain – the very primitive part of our brain that remembers our caveman-with-spear days like they were yesterday – responds to stress as if it were a fanged predator.
Or many fanged predators.
So when my artist friend stands in front of a crowd of 3 or 300 to share her work, her prefrontal cortex is thinking “cool, maybe all 300 of these folks will buy a piece.”
Meanwhile, her limbic brain is thinking, “300 predators….and they all look very hungry. Get me out of here!”
In order to override our hundreds of thousands of years of genetic programming and develop resilience (which will enable my friend’s prefrontal cortex to quickly transcend her limbic brain’s historical conditioning and deliver a speech that sells lots of artwork!) we must train for it.
Scientists can now spot more resilient brains by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to see how quickly brain activity returns to a normal or “baseline” state after a stressful incident.
Not surprisingly, the faster the return, the more resilient the brain.
What is most intriguing and important about this research is what comes with it – the knowledge that resilience can be taught…and learned.
About this, scientists Drs. Charney and Southwick, both at the forefront of resilience research, say it is none too soon, because we have more stress in our lives than ever before, and we are living longer than ever before, which means our quality of life can be directly and cumulatively impacted by stress in a greatly magnified way over time.
A more resilient brain will cope much better with life’s stressors and experience improved quality of life.
A less resilient brain can look forward to the exact opposite.
Drs. Southwick and Charney say there is no single prescription for resilience training that works – it is different for each of us.
For some (including Dr. Charney) it is exercise. For others (including Dr. Southwick and myself) it is meditation.
For still others, it is facing what scares you until it doesn’t scare you as much or (ideally) at all.
For some, the key to building resilience is developing a strong social network for offering and accepting support.
And for still others, setting up a series of unshakeable core beliefs (for instance, that resilience training will work!) is a golden ticket.
For all of us, noticing what works best is key to developing as much resilience as possible as quickly as possible.
For example, if I notice my stress level rise on a day I skip my morning meditation, that is information I can and must act on right away.
I have a friend who always likes to bring a friend along when she goes to the doctor (I know this because often the friend is me). She finds it calming to have a loved one with her in case of bad news – this is her resilience training at work.
So whether it is meditation or mindfulness training (both of which researchers are finding hugely effective at building resilience), building your social network, maintaining optimism through trying situations, developing beliefs that ground and uplift you, learning how to face and overcome your fears, learning new things to keep your brain feeling fresh and open to growth, exercising your body to release physical and mental toxins, all of the above, or something else that works best for you, the key is to find your uniquely perfect recipe for resilience-building and dive on in!
Your body, your mind, your loved ones, and your quality of life will thank you for it.
Today’s Takeaway: Just off the top of your head, can you think of one or two habits or practices you’ve developed that really help you to stay calm and centered with stress hits? What works best for you? Is there a skill or practice you’d like to learn that you think might help even more? What is it – and what’s holding you back from pursuing that skill?
Jail photo available from Shutterstock