Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being

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With powerful, time-tested exercises, Linda Graham guides us in rebuilding our core well-being and disaster-proofing our brains.

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INTRODUCTION: What Resilience Is and How We Rewire Our Brains to Recover It



What Resilience Is and How We Rewire Our Brains to Recover It

I’m not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.


IN MY WORK as a psychotherapist, I hear many stories of resilience in action, such as this one from my client Deborah. Deborah had had a wonderful day at the beach during a heat wave last summer, luxuriating in the soft sleepiness of the day. She had no worries, no frets: she was just relaxing into a peaceful feeling that “God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.”

Two hours later, stuck in gridlocked traffic and anxious about getting home in time to fix dinner for friends, she had to let go of the effortless good feeling of the day and click into the high-gear planning that she knew how to do so well: whom could she call and ask to pick up the salmon? Who had keys to let the others in? She was swiftly calculating and strategizing to navigate around this blip on the radar screen.

When Deborah arrived home, she encountered yet another setback: the dishwasher had flooded the kitchen. A good half inch of sudsy water covered the linoleum where people needed to be cooking dinner thirty minutes ago already.


CHAPTER ONE: How the Brain’s Strategies of Resilience Become Wired In



How the Brain’s Strategies of Resilience Become Wired In

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.


MY NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR has a big, affectionate, 125-pound malamute named Barney and an eight-year-old granddaughter who adores him. One day, as Samantha was arriving to visit, I watched her run up to Barney to give him a hug. Barney responded exuberantly, licking her face profusely. He was simply greeting her with affection, but Samantha clearly wasn’t prepared for such rough-and-tumble love: she burst into tears.

As I witnessed Samantha’s distress, I immediately felt a sympathetic response in my own body, as you may have felt in yours — a rush of “Oh, no!” I went to comfort Samantha with a hug and a quick wipe of her face with my sweatshirt. Then I held a bewildered Barney at bay while Samantha’s mom came outside for a more thorough wash-down with a wet washcloth and clean towel.

With her mom’s soothing words of “There, there,” Samantha quickly calmed down, wiped a tear from her cheek, then took her mom’s hand and walked over to Barney to start again. Her mom showed her how to hold her hand out and let Barney lick that first. After that, they both patted the top of Barney’s head, then Samantha slowly moved toward Barney and gave him a hug. His tail wagged exuberantly, but there was no more face washing.


CHAPTER TWO: How the Wiring In of Resilience Can Go Awry



How the Wiring In of Resilience Can Go Awry

All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.


AS OUR BRAINS DEVELOP, it is all too easy for the learning of resilient coping strategies to go awry, causing us to encode responses and behaviors that are unproductive or even harmful. We may have learned to respond to thwarted plans by threatening people rather than negotiating. We may pretend to not see bullying on the playground as long as our kid isn’t involved, rather than taking up the cause of safety and supervision at recess with the school administration. We may hang up the phone in irritation when the customer service representative puts us on hold again, leaving our business unfinished, rather than proactively asking to talk to a supervisor directly. This chapter examines five possible glitches in the ways our brains process experience that can derail the development of our resilience, and then it looks at how we can use neuroplasticity to restore our resilience.


CHAPTER THREE: Using Mindfulness to Foster Self-Awareness and Flexible Responses



Using Mindfulness to Foster Self-Awareness and Flexible Responses

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptive to change.


A CLIENT I’D BEEN SEEING for several months came in one day beaming with success. Ellen had often suffered from anxiety in dealing with computers and other new technologies. She had grown up with typewriters and rotary phones, not laptops and cell phones. Several times she had arrived for a session in tears of frustration after a disaster at work, not being able to figure out how to do something on her computer that most eight-year-olds could handle. We’d been working on finding people who could teach her what she needed to know and on developing her trust in herself to learn and master the necessary skills.

In this session, she reported a huge breakthrough. “Yesterday my computer crashed, and instead of going into shock, I found myself saying, ‘Oh, that’s a big problem to solve.’ I almost laughed, it was so out of character for me to be okay with something like that.”


CHAPTER FOUR: Using Empathy to Create Connections and Self-Acceptance



Using Empathy to Create Connections and Self-Acceptance

The roots of resilience are to be found in the felt sense of existing in the heart and mind of an empathic, attuned, self-possessed other.


WHILE MINDFULNESS and observation-reflection create the self-awareness and expanded brain capacities that allow us to create the changes in our behaviors critical to resilience, the other essential catalyst for brain change — empathy — requires skillfully interacting with other people to generate the connection and self-acceptance we also need for resilience.

Chapter 1 shows that the early learning of resilient coping strategies and the development of the prefrontal cortex itself rely on the empathy developed through experiences of secure attachment. Research shows that five elements of that empathy are essential for maturing the prefrontal cortex in the first place and for continuing to strengthen it throughout our lives:

1.   Resonance: picking up the “vibe” of other people


CHAPTER FIVE: Five Additional Practices That Accelerate Brain Change



Five Additional Practices That Accelerate Brain Change

The difference between try and triumph is a little “umph.”


THERE ARE FIVE additional experiential practices that work synergistically with mindful empathy to guide and safely accelerate any process of brain change: cultivating presence, intention, perseverance, refuges, and resources. Here I describe some of the neuroscience that explains why these additional practices add a crucial momentum to the major practices of mindful empathy described in the previous two chapters. Each of these practices safely speeds up the processes of brain change we learn to use in the next chapter, allowing us to rewire our brain for resilience sooner rather than later.


To be present is far from trivial. It may be the hardest work in the world. And forget about the “may be.” It is the hardest work in the world — at least to sustain presence. And the most important. When you do drop into presence•you know it instantly, feel at home instantly. And being home, you can let loose, let go, rest in your being, rest in awareness, in presence itself, in your own good company.


CHAPTER SIX: Self-Directed Neuroplasticity



Self-Directed Neuroplasticity

To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to go on creating one’s self endlessly.


THE PRACTICES TAUGHT in the previous chapters help you establish a safe and strong neural platform for rewiring conditioned patterns encoded in your brain’s circuitry. Over time, these practices steadily strengthen the prefrontal cortex to do that rewiring and sustain the changes you create in your brain circuitry.

The actual rewiring, and the establishment of new patterns of coping, occurs through the three processes of brain change presented in this chapter: new conditioning, deconditioning, and reconditioning. All three processes can be used again and again as you discover more old strategies that you want to replace with more resilient ways of coping. These processes have a cumulative effect. The more you rewire into your brain skillful, resilient patterns of coping, the more competent your brain becomes at the task.

New conditioning creates new neural pathways in your brain. You learn new, more adaptive coping strategies that will then lead to greater resilience. We know that new experiences, and repeating those experiences, cause neurons in your brain to fire in ways that create and stabilize those neural pathways. To rewire your brain for resilience, you seek out new experiences that you know will encode these more adaptive coping strategies into your brain’s circuitry and repeat them.


CHAPTER SEVEN: How Bonding and Belonging Nourish Resilience



How Bonding and Belonging Nourish Resilience

Love guards the heart from the abyss.


RESONANT RELATIONSHIPS HELP US recognize our own deep inner goodness and feel competent and confident in the world. The film The Blind Side (2010) offers a good example of how people learn to be resilient through resonant relationships with others, even after trauma and neglect. This film is based on the true story of a homeless African American teenage boy adopted by a socially conscious family in Memphis, Tennessee. Leigh Anne Tuohy is portrayed as a fierce champion of her new son, Michael Oher, as he adjusts to life in a wealthy white family. Michael has never slept in his own room before; he has never even had his own bed. And he certainly hasn’t had the nurturing experiences that would have helped a growing boy feel resiliently good about himself. Michael is isolated from others his age and failing in school.

The rich connection and parenting by Michael’s new mom give him new experiences of himself and new ways of seeing himself. The father and younger brother pitch in, coaching, tutoring, and encouraging. Everyone’s faith in Michael’s potential, their reflecting his true self back to him, not only helps Michael learn to play football but also helps him earn good enough grades to be eligible to play on high school and college teams — and eventually to play as a pro in the National Football League. Connection — steady, loving connection — and others’ seeing Michael for the resilient human being he is, help him recover a sense of his own innate goodness and fulfill his potential.


CHAPTER EIGHT: Creating Inner Security and Confidence



Creating Inner Security and Confidence

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.


IN READING ABOUT less-than-secure attachment styles in chapter 2, you may have noticed that you missed out on some of the experiences that would have naturally encoded resilient coping styles into your neural circuitry. Nearly half of us do. You would have then missed out on some of the experiences that lead to development of what the attachment theorist John Bowlby called the internal secure base, the psychological capacities of resilience that are the outcome of secure attachment. Dan Siegel, creator of the discipline of interpersonal neurobiology, refers to these capacities as FACES: the ability to be flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable. These capacities, whether instilled from the beginning of our brain development or because of skillful rewiring through other relationships later in life, allow us to feel competent and confident as we navigate the bumps and bruises of the world. This base of inner security is a vital protection against trauma. It is also dynamic, more of a flow of processes (a verb) than a solid entity (noun). Neuroscience locates the neural substrate of that internal secure base, as you might expect, in the prefrontal cortex.


CHAPTER NINE: Developing Relational Intelligence



Developing Relational Intelligence

The moment we cease to hold each other,
the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.


RELATIONAL INTELLIGENCE is an umbrella term I use for the people skills that allow us to navigate our world, especially our peopled world, competently, effectively, and resiliently. Similar to Daniel Goleman’s notion of social intelligence, relational intelligence allows our brains to create bonds with others that sustain us through thick and thin. Research shows that these bonds provide us with a deeper sense of happiness and well-being than anything else in the human experience. They are among the resources that sustain our resilience.

The skills of relational intelligence include empathic listening and speaking, wishing for the happiness and well-being of ourselves and others, taking in the good, and befriending all parts of ourselves and others — all presented in previous chapters. They also include reaching out for help, setting healthy boundaries, negotiating changes in behavior, repairing ruptures, and being willing to forgive. In this chapter you will learn to develop these skills. Studies show that these relational intelligence skills are more predictive of our success as human beings — meaning resilience and well-being in the workplace as well as in relationships — than IQ.


CHAPTER TEN: Losing and Recovering Our Equilibrium



Losing and Recovering Our Equilibrium

Serenity is not freedom from the storm but peace amid the storm.


“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” was one of the mottoes of the British government during World War II. When we feel we are under siege ourselves, enduring our own personal version of the bombings during the Blitz, we need to call on the CEO of resilience and use body-based tools (somatic resources) to regulate the progression of worry, fear, and panic in our nervous system that could cause us to freak out or fall apart. The somatic intelligence that flows from a well-functioning prefrontal cortex allows us to stay calm, stay steady in our wise mind, and deal.

That place of calm steadiness that the prefrontal cortex reliably returns us to is a physiological state known in modern neuropsychology as the window of tolerance. This is our baseline state of physiological functioning when we’re not frightened, stressed, overtired, or overstimulated. When we’re in this window, we’re grounded and centered, neither overreacting to other people or life events nor failing to act at all. Being able to meet the storms and struggles of our lives from that place of steadiness, and being able to return quickly to that window when we are pushed out of it, is the somatic prerequisite of resilience.


CHAPTER ELEVEN: Recovering Our Balance through the Body



Recovering Our Balance through the Body

To touch is to give life.


THE EXERCISES IN THIS CHAPTER are designed to help you learn to use body-based (somatic) tools to bring the prefrontal cortex back online and bring you quickly back into your window of tolerance. Once you have recovered your balance, you can use more somatic tools to help you rewire old body-based memories that might derail your resilience now.

When Cortisol Runs Amok, Oxytocin Calms It Down: Activating Oxytocin Release

The hormone oxytocin is the neurotransmitter of the “calm and connect” response and is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. The fastest way to regulate the body’s stress response and return to a sense of calm is to activate the release of oxytocin in the brain.

When oxytocin is released by the hypothalamus (in the limbic system) into the brain and bloodstream, cortisol levels plummet and blood pressure drops. Oxytocin is the neurochemical basis for the felt sense of safety and trust, of connection and belonging. When we know how to activate the release of oxytocin, we can quickly return to our window of tolerance and feel reassured that “everything is okay; everything is going to be okay.”


CHAPTER TWELVE: Developing Somatic Intelligence



Developing Somatic Intelligence

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.


A MASTER MONK is meditating in a temple with other monks. Suddenly a fierce bandit storms into the temple, threatening to kill everybody. The other monks flee, but the master monk remains, calmly meditating. Enraged, the bandit shouts, “Don’t you understand? I could run you through with my sword and not bat an eye!” The monk calmly replies, “Don’t you understand? I could be run through by your sword and not bat an eye.”

This teaching story from the Buddhist tradition has always struck me as the epitome of how priming the brain prepares a practitioner to maintain calm in a crisis. This is one form of the somatic intelligence — wisdom of the body — we are building in order to recover our resilience. However metaphorical and however great a stretch of the practice of equanimity it represents, the story illustrates how priming can regulate our reactivity, even in the most extreme situations. The monk’s brain was primed by years of mindfulness and compassion practice to remain calm in the face of life threat; modern neuroscience might say that his prefrontal cortex could regulate any reactive response from his amygdala. While we might not strive for that level of equanimity, and hopefully we will never face such a dire situation, we can learn to use our own mindful empathy and compassionate reflection to strengthen our equanimity by learning to prime our brains, too.


CHAPTER THIRTEEN: How Neuroscience Is Revolutionizing Our Thinking about Feelings



How Neuroscience Is Revolutionizing Our Thinking about Feelings

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad emotion.
The only bad emotion is a stuck emotion.


ONE EVENING MY CLIENT Curt came to session fuming because his nine-year-old daughter, Cathy, had been punished at school for a soap fight in the girls’ bathroom that she had neither instigated nor participated in but merely witnessed. Cathy had been hauled into the principal’s office that morning along with three other girls. Her protestations of innocence were ignored, and she was made to pick up trash on the playground at afternoon recess as her punishment. Curt wanted to throttle the principal, haul him in front of the school board, and sue the district for what he perceived as the school administration’s shaming and bullying of his daughter.

Every one of us has had our emotional well-being derailed by worry, irritation, or envy from time to time. We may have a pattern of comparing ourselves with colleagues or neighbors to determine our status in the pecking order. We may find ourselves hypervigilant any time we have to travel to a new part of town. Many of us also have our resilience derailed for long stretches by the toxic biggies: anxiety, anger, depression, shame, guilt. We may carry a fear of failure or potential embarrassment into new projects. We might be hypersensitive and reactive to even casual remarks about our parenting. Or we may feel stuck in a low-grade sense of the blahs. In these states, our capacities to see clearly, to find the courage to claim our competence, and to connect to the people and resources we need to create new options are thrown off. Our resilience is derailed.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN: How Positive Emotions Build Resilience



How Positive Emotions Build Resilience

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs —jolted by every pebble in the road.


THE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY MOVEMENT has gained momentum in recent years because of the research data showing the effect of positive emotions like joy and delight in enhancing our mental, emotional, and physical health and thus our capacities to cope. Scientists have demonstrated that cultivating positive emotions can actually undo the constricting effects of negative emotions on our behaviors, moving us beyond the narrow band of our default survival responses to more resilient options. Deliberately cultivating positive emotions can broaden and build our repertoire of possibilities. Joy can spark the urge to play, to push the limits and be creative. Interest can spark the urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the sense of self in the process. Laughter breathes some space into grief. Contentment creates the urge to savor current life circumstances and integrate that savoring into new views.


CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Developing Emotional Intelligence



Developing Emotional Intelligence

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.


EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE is a phrase used by Daniel Goleman almost two decades ago to describe a range of skillful behaviors that allow us to navigate our peopled world with effectiveness and resilience. Curt used it when he channeled his anger into constructive action, meeting with the school principal and obtaining an apology to his daughter. The two Canadian women put it to work when they decided to trust each other with their cars so that they could get through the snowstorm to their loved ones. Toby used it when he expressed loving acceptance that brought Richard out of his swamp of shame, and it helped Monica hold the grief of her several simultaneous losses with compassion. My brother, Barry, put emotional intelligence to work when he was willing to try a gratitude practice to help get him through a medical crisis.


CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Using Reflection to Identify Options



Using Reflection to Identify Options

Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.

Austrian psychiatrist, survivor of Auschwitz

WHEN A BUDDY at a summer barbecue accidentally spilled a beer all over Darron’s new blue jeans, Darron didn’t react with annoyance as he might have done some months before. Instead, he deftly responded, “No worries! These jeans need a good washing anyway.” For most of us, it takes practice and rewiring of the brain to be this flexible in our responses, especially when faced with bigger troubles: To be able to say at the loss of a job, “Maybe I need to look at the direction my life is heading anyway.” Or, if the bank is threatening to foreclose on the house, “It’s time to think through our finances again.” Or, on being told about soaring blood pressure, “It’s time I learned more about taking care of my health.” Rather than remaining mired in thoughts that see such life events as disruptive — which they certainly are — or traumatic — which they certainly can be — we can choose to take them as cues to learn new responses: to find ways to respond to a trigger or a stressor with new behaviors rather than out of automatic, reactive habits, to shift perspectives, create options, and choose among them wisely.


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Shifting Gears: Modifying Our Patterns of Response



Shifting Gears: Modifying Our Patterns of Response

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.


I WAS DEEP in a worrisome thought one day, not paying attention to where I was walking, when I blithely stepped ankle-deep into the wet cement of a freshly laid crosswalk. I was startled, then horrified. Negative reactions started cascading inside me, including, “How careless! How could you have been so asleep at the wheel!” I was just about to fall into an all-too-familiar pattern of berating myself for being so clumsy when another inner voice piped up, “Wait a minute! So I was preoccupied! I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about my being clumsy.”


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