Mindfulness and Resilience
“Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.”
The words “mindfulness” and “(tranquility) meditation” are often used interchangeably. In essence, tranquillity meditation means “focusing continuously on the body,” i.e., not pursuing our usual thoughts and not relating to the external world. It primarily emphasizes sustained attention to the body and the control of thought. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is metacognitive and adds a higher quality of observation to the meditation. Mindfulness does not mean meditating mechanically and gradually feeling better. It involves observing how we are meditating, monitoring what else is happening around us, and noticing any discrepancies, at the moment. It includes a conscious perception of mental and physical phenomena, which may also contribute to insights or ideas that are unlikely to occur in pure meditation. Therefore, although mindfulness is not reliant on the practice of long-seated meditation, a formal sitting meditation helps improve our physical (quick conscious relaxation), emotional (detachment) and cognitive (deliberate self-monitoring) skills. Thus, mindfulness is a flexible state of conscious awareness that arises from attending to the present moment in an open, accepting, and non-judgemental manner.
Several studies account for the beneficial effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness helps decrease heart problems, hypertension, tiredness, aches, and pains. It also improves physical health, emotional self-regulation, emotional intelligence, openness, cognitive functioning, behavioral regulation, interpersonal relationships, and subjective well-being. Combined with psychotherapy, it plays a significant role in treating psychological disorders, including depression, PTSD, and anxiety.
Recently, interest in the relationship between mindfulness and resilience has increased. Resilience is a personal trait that helps individuals adapt positively in the context of significant adversity or risk; the ability to “bounce back” after adversity. From a developmental perspective, it refers to meeting age-salient developmental tasks despite serious threats to development. Resilience can be considered as a trait that inoculates individuals against the impact of traumatic events. How can the ability to remain focused on the present moment foster the ability to bounce back after trauma? Some would suggest that it would lead to rumination, habitual worrying, and depressive thinking. However, the literature suggests otherwise.
In a literature review,
Thompson et al. (2011) stated that an accepting and mindful orientation toward a traumatic experience helps prevent ruminative and depressogenic thinking, thereby promoting psychological resilience.
Mindfulness demonstrates the potential to foster resilience as mindful people are better able to respond to difficult situations without reacting in automatic and non-adaptive ways. They are open to new perceptual experiences, tend to be more creative, and can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without being overwhelmed or shutting down. Consistent to this, Smith et al. (2011) demonstrated that trait mindfulness was negatively related to depressive and PTSD symptoms, physical symptoms, and alcohol addiction among firefighters, suggesting that trait mindfulness may reduce avoidant coping in face of stress and contribute to resilience.
Neuroscience also offers insight into how and why mindfulness may foster resilience. According to Davidson and Begley (2012), mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep people ruminating about and even wallowing in a setback. Mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex (responsible for supervising and directing operations of brain regions, governing and integrating cognitive and behavioral processes) and the amygdala (responsible for aggressive and defensive behaviors) in the brain, promoting self-control that will restrain people from spiraling down the setback thoughts. Studies have also shown that resilient individuals could maintain their physical and psychological health both by buffering negative consequences from difficult times and by improving psychological well-being. Both mindfulness and resilience have been found to be positively correlated with life satisfaction, positive affect, and subjective well-being. On a sample of Indian students, Bajaj and Pande (2016) verified that psychological resilience was more pronounced in mindful people, which consequently increased their life satisfaction. They posit that since mindfulness helps individuals cope with difficult thoughts and feelings without becoming overwhelmed, it produces emotional balance and helps in faster recovery from setbacks. High levels of mindfulness may help people maintain a decentered attitude towards difficult situations and foster resilience, ultimately improving their well-being. Therefore, resilience is not only strengthened by mindfulness, but it also mediates between mindfulness and well-being.Apart from the new intellectual perspectives and understandings gained from these studies, a crucial thing to learn from them is application. Although it seems to be common sense that such practices must be applied for improved resilience and well-being, very few truly do. We need to begin the process of cultivating mindful habits in ourselves as well as those around us. A new habit is undoubtedly hard to establish and maintain. However, breaking down our goal into small steps can be very helpful in this regard. Begin by searching short audio on a guided mindfulness exercise with a voice that is clear and soothes you. Most often, such an audio contains soothing background music (flowing water, rain, Zen music, etc.) with a gentle voice guiding the listener through the mindfulness exercise. Find a quiet and peaceful environment to practice; it would help establish a routine at the beginning. We can begin our practice by taking out 15-minutes for ourselves. Given the benefits we are aware of, it would be genuinely worthwhile.
Let’s refrain from making a new year’s resolution or a promise to ourselves about forming this new habit. Let us start practicing mindfulness by being mindful of starting it!