Building resilience for chaotic times

Jun 18, 2018 | Change, Stress

The world is in chaos – what can we do?

When the world feels like it’s gone mad, or life gets overwhelming, it’s tempting to put our heads in the sand. Let’s face it, there’s a lot to feel upset about, and often it seems there’s little we can do – climate change, school shootings, the suicide and mental health crisis, racism, political polarization – enough, already!

Common responses to all the craziness are to check out, or to feel overwhelmed, anxious or depressed.

If we check out, we not only become less connected with others and the world, we also lose confidence in our ability to handle what life sends our way. If we get stuck in anxiety or depression, our mental and physical health suffer.

What else can we do? Strengthen our resilience.

Resilience and the brain

Being resilient doesn’t mean that we zen out when the world is in chaos. It means that we get upset, but we bounce back quickly.

When we are resilient, our brains have the flexibility to think or feel one thing but then to shift our attention away from it as needed. This cognitive flexibility is marked by flexible neural circuitry in the brain.

This flexible neural circuitry is a marker of brain integration and well-being.

Research has shown that when people cope well with stress, their brain circuits and part of their prefrontal cortex adapt and help control their behavioral responses. Those who do not cope as well show less “neuroflexibility.”

The good news is that our brains are meant to be flexible and are wired for resilience. Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center, believes that our resilience is connected to survival processes that are naturally hardwired in the brain.

And because our brains have an innate ability to adapt and change (i.e., neuroplasticity), research suggests that if we promote our neuroflexibility, we will promote our resilience.

7 ways to build resilience and neuroflexibility

Often, after we become upset, the brain can stay in a state of stress. When it does, it looks for negative facts to align with the upset feeling.

But because of the brain’s innate flexibility or neuroplasticity, we can create new neural pathways that challenge that thinking, boost our flexibility and prefrontal cortex circuitry. And in doing so, we can improve our stress response and resilience.

Here are 7 ways to improve your neuroflexibility and resilience:

1. Do something new. Challenge yourself. Step out of your comfort zone in little ways.

2. Sit with discomfort briefly. What if you simply allowed an uncomfortable feeling for 30 seconds instead of brushing it aside? By simply allowing it, you just might shift it, and you’ll show yourself that you can handle it.

3. Speak your feelings. Simply giving words to the emotions you’re feeling helps to take you out of the stress itself. As you speak your feelings, you become an observer of them and clarify them, which help to calm the stress response.

4. Laugh. Schedule some time for laughter, whether it’s watching your favorite comedy or spending time with a funny friend. Research has shown that laughter can help calm the stress response and even improve some cognitive functions.

5. Look for positive experiences. Notice the beauty and peace in a moment, even as the world feels like it’s falling apart. You might notice a beautiful sky, the peace of the ocean, or the innocence of a child or animal. You might savor the taste of ice cream on a hot summer day. Gratitude for these experiences can improve neural activity in the prefrontal cortex which supports emotional balance and resilience.

6. Take care of your body. After significant stress, the body needs to reset and repair from the buildup of stress. Make sure you get sufficient sleep (between 7-9 hours a night). Exercise also helps your body stay balanced and clean out toxicity. Finally, a healthy diet is also important.

7. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practices (e.g., meditation, yoga, tai chi, mindful breathing) help strengthen your brain’s prefrontal cortex circuitry which is related to emotional balance and resilience, among other important cognitive functions.

Want to learn more about building your brain for greater flexibility and resilience? Contact me for a free consultation.

Photo by Ryan McGuire at


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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