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How to Deepen Personnel Resilience

By Fleet Maull, Ph.D. In today’s increasingly challenging world, we are facing scores of daunting problems – climate change, pandemics, cultural divisiveness, political polarization and extremism, global instability, persistent social and economic inequities, major wars, and refugee crises. Instead of the social cohesion we need to come together and find solutions to these challenges, we are witnessing and participating in deterioration and all but complete breakdown of the social commons and body politic.

The impulse to ignore all this and distract ourselves with entertainment of all kinds is very human but ultimately futile. No matter how hard we try, the deterioration, chaos, and instability of our world are impacting our lives. Whether it be the threat of severe weather from global warming, global pandemics, political violence, and/or socio-economic inequities, these complex problems will not disappear on their own. We need to address and solve them at an individual, collective, and systemic level. And that requires resilience.

Usually, when we're being stress-tested and feeling really overwhelmed, we either tend to withdraw and shut down, or we get too up-regulated and start acting out in ways that are not helpful. However, the current challenges we are all facing require us to muster the ability to hang in there and remain engaged in the game—increasing our access to what Dan Siegel calls the window of tolerance, and what I like to call our zone of resilience.

From this zone of resilience, we can respond as our best selves. This is not the same idea as our “comfort zone.” We can train ourselves to navigate considerable discomfort with resilience. Despite the stressors, we are able to stay relatively calm and maintain a responsive-relational mode rather than getting triggered into a reactive fear and survival mode. When we are triggered out of our resilience zone, we either move into what is called hypo-arousal – shutting down or disassociating, or we experience hyper-arousal, which can lead to frustration, anger, and acting out aggressively or rigid behaviors like obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictive patterns, or a complete muscular freeze response, a kind of paralysis.

The broader our zone of resilience, the greater our capacity to avoid being triggered into significant hypo-arousal or hyper-arousal reactivity and the more responsive and skillful we can be in stressful situations. When we do find ourselves getting triggered outside of our resilience zone, we can develop the ability to quickly recognize the physiological, emotional and cognitive signs of being triggered, and use self-regulation techniques like slow breathing to get ourselves back into our zone of resilience where we can again respond to life’s challenges with skill and wisdom.

Cultivating deeper resilience requires consistent practice and appropriate physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual self-care. By consciously cultivating a foundation of individual resilience, we can then collaborate with others to build resilient relationships, resilient communities, more resilient systems, and a more resilient society altogether.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, showed us the lack of resilience of our public health system in times of crisis. The market forces driving our capitalistic economic system optimizes for efficiency rather than resiliency, leaving little backup in place for times of crisis. We learned that in the public interest government needs to maintain sufficient backup medical facilities and supplies on hand for times of crisis or incentivize the private sector to do so. As our societies and systems become ever more complex and we face the challenges of climate change and overpopulation, the need to consciously build resilience into our systems becomes every more critical.

So resilience operates on all these levels, but cultivating our individual resilience is foundational, so we’ll start there, focusing on two primary strategies: 1) the health and well-being work we can do to increase our resilience, and 2) developing a resilient mindset.

Let’s start with enhancing our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness and resilience:

Physical Resilience The more resilient we are physically, the less likely we are to get ill and the more quickly we recover from stress, exertion, illnesses, or other challenges. We can increase and maintain physical resilience with:

  1. Good nutrition: a mostly plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins;

  2. Plenty of exercise: the right balance of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which will improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and flexibility;

  3. Enough sleep: aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night (sufficient deep sleep and REM sleep), which is essential for the recovery and repair of the body's tissues and for the brain to cleanse itself of damaged cells and waste;

  4. Proper hydration: x number of fluid ounces of water per pound of body weight.

  5. Learning to breathe properly: breathing primarily through the nose and breathing more slowly for most of us (12 seconds per breath cycle, or 5 breaths per minute) in order to maintain the ideal balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gasses in our system.

Making improvements in any of these areas will improve our overall physical resilience.

Mental resilience The main focus here is having a healthy brain; fortunately, everything that's good for the body is also good for the brain. In addition, we need to train and challenge the brain. Just as with our muscles, if we don’t use it, it will atrophy. One way to constantly challenge our brain is by learning new things. For example, when learning a new language, especially one that has a different grammatical structure from our native tongue, our brain has to create a whole new set of neural pathways to be able to understand and speak that language. That causes the brain to grow and thrive. Any effort put into learning new things or developing new skills is healthy for our brain. We can also engage in word games, puzzles, and online brain games to challenge our brain. The healthy functioning of our directly impacts the quality of our life, for better or worse, in every area of life; so maintaining a healthy brain should be one of our highest priorities.

Emotional resilience This aspect is related to the quality of our internal relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others. Befriending and learning to trust ourselves increases emotional resilience. It is also important to have close friends, mentors, or family members with whom we can be open and honest and share our feelings. Building a strong support network of people we trust to have our back is really important to our emotional health. In fact, the Harvard longitudinal study of adult development has demonstrated that the quality of our relationships impacts our overall health, well-being, happiness, and longevity more than any other factor.

It is also very helpful to develop more access to our emotional body. Neuro-somatic mindfulness (NSM)—the deeply embodied approach to mindfulness practice I developed and teach—allows us to experience and explore our emotional body at the subtlest levels. In addition to increasing awareness of the present moment and reducing stress, it helps us stay connected with our emotional life in a gentle and caring way.

Having access to a trusted psychotherapist, coach or other helping professional can be an important element of our emotional support system as well. A skilled therapist can help by providing support and strategies for building emotional resilience.

Spiritual resilience. Spiritual well-being has been described clinically as a deeply-felt sense of connectedness—within ourselves (intrapersonally), with others (interpersonally), and with some dimension greater than the self (transpersonally)—that gives our lives meaning and purpose. Cultivating this sense of connectedness and engaging in activities that give our lives meaning and purpose, rather than giving in to feelings of alienation, isolation, or meaninglessness, are essential strategies for supporting our overall well-being and happiness. Some of us nurture spiritual resilience through religious faith and religious activities like meditation, prayer and fellowship, some of us through more secular approaches to meditation and spiritual growth, some of us through communion with nature, or through community service.

The Importance of Mindset The other aspect of individual resilience, which I mentioned above is mindset. Focusing on our mindset is important because it impacts our ability to commit to practices that will deepen and sustain our resilience. So what do I mean by mindset? A mindset is a person's set of attitudes, beliefs, and values that shape their perspective and influence their behavior. Let’s first clarify the distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. There's been a lot of interest in this distinction in the field of education, because researchers like Carol Dweck Ph.D. and others have demonstrated students who manage to have a growth mindset do phenomenally better than students who, for whatever reason—their family and childhood circumstances, or other factors—have a fixed mindset.

Fixed Mindset With a fixed mindset, we believe that who we are is firmly established and permanent. I have the personality I have. I have the IQ I have. I have the talents and abilities I have, and that's just the way it is. It's not going to change. I'm not going to get any better, and I’m constrained by a lot of limitations. My potential and weaknesses are already fixed by the time I reach adulthood. That's just the way I am. The fixed mindset involves a certain degree of resignation. With this mindset, we have given up on ourselves.

Growth Mindset The growth mindset is the opposite of that. The growth mindset doesn't believe anything is fixed. I realize that "Yes, I may be highly conditioned by my childhood experiences, but I can change that. I have self-agency. I can continue to grow. I can change my programming. I can change my conditioning." Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to change based on what we expose it to. This can include the formation of new neural connections, the strengthening or weakening of existing connections, and even the creation of new neurons, in certain areas of the brain. The brain is not as plastic in adults as during the formative years of childhood, which is why childhood experiences imprint so deeply, but it is still neuroplastic and thus changeable. Also, current brain science has demonstrated that physical exercises and various forms of mind training can actually increase neuroplasticity in adults of any age.

Neuroplasticity shows us that we don't have to settle for the way we are right now. Extraordinary things are possible. It's just a matter of making the effort, having faith in the possibility that we can be lots of different things, and then doing the work. We can change just about anything about ourselves. You might think, " I like chocolate ice cream. I'm just a chocolate ice cream person. I wouldn't eat pistachio ice cream if you held a gun to my head.” Well, that's just conditioning. After three days in a room with a skillful psychologist, you could become a pistachio ice cream person. It's purely conditioning, but we identify with these things which then makes them more difficult to change.

We're born into a very groundless situation, very vulnerable and helpless, and as we grow and start individuating, we develop a self-structure in order to survive and navigate our world and relationships. In fact, we're desperately looking for and forming an identity, wondering "Who am I? How do I play the game here? How do I win? How do I lose? What's the deal here? And that goes on throughout our whole development. By the time we're adults, we're highly identified with the personality, self-structure, and habitual strategies we’ve developed for survival. We believe that it is who we are. However, we are something much vaster, much more profound, much more fluid—our ultimate being is intrinsically whole, good, resilient and wise. But we mistakenly create an identity of all our conditionings and then defend it tooth and nail. That's the fixed mindset.

From the growth mindset’s perspective, we realize it's all changeable. All I need is that sense of possibility, that faith that my current habits and conditioning are malleable, which current neuroscience 100% confirms, and then we just need to do the work. This is how mindset impacts resilience. From a fixed mindset, I'm either resilient or I'm not. I'm as resilient now as I'm ever going to be. Whereas, from a growth mindset point of view, I can become more resilient. I can deepen, evolve, and grow, and there's no limit to how resilient I can become. So that's the distinction between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

Radical Responsibility Mindset The other mindset I want to explore is what I call Radical Responsibility, which is related to the growth mindset. Radical Responsibility involves embracing 100% ownership for every circumstance we face in life, day in and day out; but without blaming or shaming ourselves in the slightest. We embrace this radical level of responsibility and/or ownership purely for the purpose of learning and accessing self-agency, our genuine personal power. By owning our circumstances, we are focusing on our own choices and our own decisions, which is the only place we have any real power.

We cannot control the world around us, nor can we force others to behave as we want them to. Why lose our time and energy on a project that is doomed to fail? We can, however, learn to regulate our own physiology, emotions and behaviors. By doing so, we can get into a self-leadership position in our own lives and experience a great deal more self-agency as opposed to feeling victimized by the circumstances we face each day.

The Radical Responsibility mindset accelerates our ability to become more resilient. We become very clear on how to make progress. “Whose job is it to become more resilient? Mine. What's it going to be based on? My choices, my behaviors, the resilience practices that I do every day, and how I design my life. What are the rituals of my life? What do I literally do from the time I get up in the morning till the time I go to bed at night? Those are the things that are going to help me become more resilient or not. And who are those things up to? Me. End of story."

I’m not saying it's easy. We can't just decide to suddenly have a much healthier routine. To change our habits, we need to learn how to deconstruct the ones that are no longer serving us and build new habits that do serve us. But it's all entirely possible, and scientifically proven to work. The combination of the radical responsibility mindset and the growth mindset sets us up to be unstoppable, unstoppable in terms of what we can accomplish in our life and how we can develop resilience in every domain of our lives.

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