- Mindfulness can significantly boost resilience.
- Resilience is a crucial skill because some amount of adversity in life is inevitable.
- Mindfulness qualities of present-focus, flexibility, tolerating uncertainty, and self-knowledge foster resilience.
Life is hard in our fragile bodies and in this unpredictable world; we could all use more resilience. It turns out mindfulness can play a pivotal role in cultivating resilience (yes, yet another area of life mindfulness can improve)! Mindfulness and resilience have also become hot topics in virtually all mental health fields, as well as popular culture. While professionals often discuss them as unrelated qualities, skills, or states, mindfulness can significantly bolster resilience (Linder & Mancini, 2021). First I'll define mindfulness and resilience briefly for you, and then summarize how mindfulness can specifically foster resilience.
If you've read any of my previous posts, you'd know that mindfulness comes from the word "sati" of the Pali language, literally translated as “to remember,” and refers to presence of mind. Mindfulness is paying attention non-judgmentally to the present moment without habitually and automatically reacting. There are numerous health benefits from mindfulness practices such as promoting a more flexible central nervous system, decreased anxiety, as well as violent expressions of anger, and other emotions that can cause problematic behaviors. Mindfulness can render us less impacted by painful events, more attuned to our loved ones, and enable us to respond more effectively and less reactively or helplessly in general. And these benefits do not hinge on meditating; they can be demonstrated and practiced in the normal activities of everyday life.
Resilience, in a nutshell, is how people bounce back from adverse events. While many become ruptured by a particular crisis or persistent stressor, remarkably many grow stronger and more resourceful as a result. Resilience encapsulates the human potential to recuperate and grow in the face of significant hardship. Fortunately, resilience is a norm for us humans; many impacted by significant trauma recover without treatment or developing PTSD.
How mindfulness fosters resilience
We cannot show or maintain resilience without present-focus. The basis of mindfulness, present-focus with acceptance and nonjudgment, is invaluable and frequently evident in those with a penchant toward resilience. For example, as Waldeck, Tyndall, and Chmiel (2015) highlighted, training people to relate more mindfully to their thoughts directly fostered resilience in response to ostracism. The authors surmised that instead of past trauma and/or anticipated future struggle, present focus facilitates intentional and effective action in the present. And that is one of over 30 scientific papers showing how mindfulness connects to resilience. So, more present-moment awareness (and thus attentional resources and using them efficiently and effectively) appears to help us face and bounce back from hardship.
Flexibility refers to responding to unanticipated internal and external events effectively and adaptively (Linder & Mancini, 2021). Three key features of flexibility from a resilience standpoint are how we read the situation (context-sensitivity); learning a new repertoire of behaviors; and the ability to adjust, modify, or iterate using corrective feedback. Responding with flexibility to one’s inner inner-world is a key mental muscle mindfulness builds (Linder & Mancini, 2021; Linder et al., 2019); noticing where the mind goes with nonjudgment and openness, no matter where it went. Our minds can be mercurial (mindfulness) just like the world can unpredictable (resilience). Flexibility is not only a hallmark of mental health generally speaking, but necessary to build resilience and face challenging and changing circumstances effectively.
3. Tolerating uncertainty
Prominent Buddhist monk and author Ajan Brahm often states in his widely distributed texts and mindfulness dharma-talks at monasteries that the “only certainty of the future is uncertainty.” With this in mind, mindfulness becomes an exercise of befriending the uncertainty as a way of being more fully “here.” Subsequently, a key objective in practicing mindfulness is to bring the mind back to whatever is happening in the present moment (the present-focus aspect articulated above) to embrace the uncertainty innate to life. In Pauline Boss's (2006) resilience research, "tolerating uncertainty" was found to be indispensable to those demonstrating resilience--parents of soldiers who had never returned from battle. Tolerating uncertainty was vital for these parent participants to come to terms with the unconfirmed possibilities that their child soldier had been potentially captured, killed, or was still alive as a hostage, and never knowing the truth for years, yet still recovering emotionally and having a decent quality of life (thereby showing significant resilience).
4. Self-knowledge and self-control
Resilience is correlated with self-knowledge and self-control (Linder & Mancini, 2021). Self-knowledge refers to turning your attention inward and being on familiar terms with your inherent uniqueness, whereas self-control is essentially using self-knowledge wisely to promote effective and intentional behavior. Mindfulness may be a primary vehicle instead of merely one of many, that facilitates the self-knowledge and self-control necessary to cultivate resilience or thriving in difficult circumstances. When you practice mindfulness, you are literally learning and discovering the inner-workings of your own mind in each moment.
Contact with serious adversity, indispensable to current notions of resilience, may be necessary to cultivate self-knowledge, self-efficacy, and related skills associated with resilience (Linder & Mancini, 2021). A certain amount of adversity not only fuels the need for self-efficacy, crucial to mindfulness and resilience, but may be essential to developing many of the adaptive capacities, such as self-knowledge. Mindfulness is connected to self-control and emotion regulation, as self-management of attention, arousal, emotions and actions (and what one practices during virtually all forms of meditation). These qualities are also vital to effective adaptation and resilience (Linder & Mancini, 2021). In other words, how can you maximize your skills and build resilience in challenging circumstances if you don't know them in yourself? Knowing them well in yourself appears to maximize their usefulness.
In conclusion, future hardship is coming for all of us at point; your car will break down, you'll lose something important, and someone you love will die. Hardship is a statistical certainty. Why not improve your readiness and capacity for resilience with a daily mindfulness practice? Resilience is, yet, another skill you're building through your mindfulness practice.
Linder, Jason N. & Mancini, Jay A. (2021) Observations on the relationship between resilience and mindfulness. Counseling and Family Therapy Scholarship Review: Vol. 3 : Iss. 2 , Article 1. https://epublications.regis.edu/cftsr/vol3/iss2/1
Linder, J. N., Walsdorf, A. A., & Carlson, M. W. (2020). Mindfulness Interventions for Latinx Immigrant Couples: Contextual and Cultural Considerations. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 19(3), 189-211. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2019.1687384
Waldeck, D. B. S., Tyndall, I., & Chmiel, N. (2015). Resilience to ostracism: A qualitative inquiry. The Qualitative Report, 20(10), 1646-1670.
Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma, and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. WW Norton & Company.