Three evidence-based ways to develop a resilient mind


Life throws chaos at us on a reg­u­lar basis—whether it’s our finances, our rela­tion­ships, or our health. In the work world, around 50 per­cent of peo­ple are burned out in indus­tries like health care, bank­ing, and non­prof­its, and employ­ers spend $300 bil­lion per year on work­place-relat­ed stress.

In response, we just keep on push­ing through, sur­viv­ing on adren­a­line. We over­sched­ule our­selves; we drink anoth­er cof­fee; we respond to one more email. If we stay amped up all the time, we think, we’ll even­tu­al­ly be able to get things done.

But all that does is burn us out, drain our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and lead to exhaustion.

There’s anoth­er way—a calmer way. Cul­ti­vat­ing a more rest­ful, relaxed state of mind doesn’t mean we’ll drown under all our respon­si­bil­i­ties. Instead, research sug­gests it will bring us greater atten­tion, ener­gy, and cre­ativ­i­ty to tack­le them. And sci­ence also points to sim­ple ways we can tap into that calm state of mind to be more resilient in our chaot­ic lives.

Stress was nev­er meant to be a 24/7 expe­ri­ence. As Stan­ford pro­fes­sor Robert Sapol­sky explains, you’re real­ly only sup­posed to feel stressed in the five min­utes right before you die. When you are being chased in the savan­na by a wild ani­mal, your stress response is sup­posed to save your life—it mobi­lizes your atten­tion, mus­cles, and immune sys­tem to get you quick­ly out of dan­ger. When ani­mals escape, they come right out of fight-or-flight mode and into “rest-and-digest” mode, where the parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem is work­ing to replen­ish their resources.

That stress response is sup­posed to be short-lived because it wears down your body, your health, and your ener­gy. It also impacts things like your emo­tion­al intel­li­gence and your deci­sion mak­ing. When you’re tight­ly wound up, you are more like­ly to react to sit­u­a­tions than to respond with reason.

You also per­ceive the world dif­fer­ent­ly. Stress makes us nar­row­ly focused, pre­vent­ing us from see­ing the big­ger pic­ture. When we’re calmer, our atten­tion becomes broad­er. In fact, we lit­er­al­ly see more things. In one study, par­tic­i­pants went through a three-month med­i­ta­tion train­ing. They then engaged in some­thing called the atten­tion­al blink task, in which you watch images appear rapid­ly one after anoth­er. Usu­al­ly when peo­ple do this exer­cise, their atten­tion doesn’t pick up all of the tar­get images. But after that mind­ful­ness train­ing, par­tic­i­pants were able to pick up more of the tar­get images than pre-retreat—suggesting that their state of mind had become more attentive.

Being able to attend more means that you notice more things about oth­er peo­ple and you’re able to com­mu­ni­cate with them in more pow­er­ful ways. High stress and anx­i­ety (or any kind of neg­a­tive emo­tion) make us self-focused, for an evo­lu­tion­ary rea­son: When our ances­tors were stressed, it was because they were in a sur­vival sit­u­a­tion. It was good to be focused on your­self so you could save your life.

When we’re stressed, we’re less like­ly to notice if a col­league looks burned out or sad and more like­ly to get irri­tat­ed if they don’t per­form as we expect. How­ev­er, when you’re in a calmer and hap­pi­er place, that’s prob­a­bly the day when you will have more empa­thy: You’ll notice your col­league and take the time to reach out and ask if there’s any­thing you can do to sup­port them.

When you’re calm, you also man­age your ener­gy because you’re not burn­ing your­self up con­stant­ly, spend­ing your days with your sym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem in over­drive. Calm helps you focus on what you need to do and get it done much more quickly.

Calm­ness can also impact your cre­ativ­i­ty. Research sug­gests that our most cre­ative ideas come in moments when we’re not active­ly focused or stressed. We are most cre­ative when our brain is in alpha wave mode, which is a relaxed state of mind—like when you’re in the show­er or tak­ing a walk in nature. Indeed, peo­ple who go on an immer­sive nature retreat for four days come back with 50 per­cent increased creativity.

If you want to get the most out of your­self in terms of your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, cre­ativ­i­ty, and innovation—making progress at work or just solv­ing the basic prob­lems of life that you’re faced with—calm is the key.

We know how to become stressed. Most of us are real­ly good at acti­vat­ing our adren­al sys­tem and get­ting wound up. The ques­tion becomes, then, how do you wind down? Research sug­gests sev­er­al prac­tices that not only feel good but also put us into a calmer, more relaxed state—a state from which we can cope bet­ter with what­ev­er life throws at us.

1. Practice Breathing

Jake, who appears in my book The Hap­pi­ness Track, was a U.S. Marine offi­cer in charge of a Humvee on a con­voy across Afghanistan, when his vehi­cle drove over an impro­vised explo­sive device. After the explo­sion, he looked down and saw that his legs were severe­ly frac­tured below the knee. In that moment of shock, ter­ror, and pain, he remem­bered a breath­ing exer­cise that he had read about for extreme wartime situations.

It allowed him to do his duty, which was to check on every­one else in the vehi­cle. It gave him the pres­ence of mind to give orders to call for help, and to then tourni­quet his own legs and prop them up before he fell unconscious—which saved his life.

Our breath­ing is a pow­er­ful way for us to reg­u­late our emo­tions, and it is some­thing we take for grant­ed. Through your breath, you can acti­vate your parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous system—the calm­ing response in your body.

That’s why we turned to breath­ing to help veterans—50 per­cent of whom don’t see any improve­ment in their trau­ma symp­toms from ther­a­py or med­ica­tion. The vet­er­ans were skep­ti­cal, but we began teach­ing them dif­fer­ent breath­ing exer­cis­es. With­in a cou­ple of days, some of them start­ed sleep­ing with­out med­ica­tion; after the week-long pro­gram, many of them didn’t qual­i­fy as hav­ing post-trau­mat­ic stress any­more, and that per­sist­ed up to a year later.

Using your breath, you can change how you feel. In anoth­er study, researchers observed peo­ple feel­ing dif­fer­ent emo­tions and found that there was a dif­fer­ent pat­tern of breath for each one. Then, they gave oth­er peo­ple the dif­fer­ent breath­ing pat­terns to per­form and asked them, “How do you feel?” It turned out that doing those breath­ing exer­cis­es actu­al­ly evoked the emotions.

One of the most calm­ing breath­ing exer­cis­es you can do is to breathe in (e.g., to a count of four), hold, and then breathe out for up to twice as long (e.g., to a count of six or eight). You can gen­tly con­strict your throat, mak­ing a sound like the ocean, which is used in deep relax­ation breath­ing. As you’re doing this, espe­cial­ly thanks to those long exhales, you’re acti­vat­ing the parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem, reduc­ing your heart rate and blood pressure.

2. Practice Self-compassion

Often we are our worst crit­ic. We think that being self-crit­i­cal will help us be more self-aware and make us work hard­er, but that’s a myth. In fact, accord­ing to a good deal of research, self-crit­i­cism destroys our resilience. We’re less able to learn from our mis­takes when we beat our­selves up. Self-crit­i­cal peo­ple tend to have greater anx­i­ety and depres­sion, and an inabil­i­ty to bounce back from struggles.

Imag­ine some­one run­ning a marathon for the very first time in their life, and they trip and fall. Some­one on the side­lines says, “You’re a los­er, you’re so not a run­ner. What are you doing here? Go home.” That per­son is our inter­nal, self-crit­i­cal voice. Self-com­pas­sion is some­body on the oth­er side, who says, “Every­body falls, this is nor­mal. You are so awe­some, you’re total­ly killing this.”

Self-com­pas­sion is the abil­i­ty to be mind­ful of your emotions—aware of the emo­tions that are going on inside when­ev­er you fail at some­thing. It doesn’t mean you iden­ti­fy with them; you can just observe and notice them, with­out feed­ing the fire. Self-com­pas­sion also involves under­stand­ing that every­one makes mis­takes and that it’s part of being human. And it is the abil­i­ty to speak to your­self the way you would speak to a friend who just failed, warm­ly and kindly.

When we adopt this atti­tude, research sug­gests, we are calmer—we have less feel­ings of stress as well as low­er cor­ti­sol lev­els. We’re also more resilient: We’re less afraid of fail­ure, and more moti­vat­ed to improve ourselves.

3. Practice Compassion for Others

Imag­ine a day when things aren’t going well for you—you spilled your cof­fee on your­self, and it’s rain­ing. And then a friend calls who’s hav­ing a true emer­gency in their life, and you jump up and go help them imme­di­ate­ly. What hap­pens to your state of mind in that moment?

All of a sud­den you have high ener­gy; you’re com­plete­ly at their ser­vice. That is what prac­tic­ing altru­ism, ser­vice, and com­pas­sion does to your life.

It increas­es your well-being tremen­dous­ly, as many of us have expe­ri­enced when we per­form lit­tle acts of kind­ness. When we feel com­pas­sion, our heart rate goes down and our parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem is more activated.

Kind­ness and com­pas­sion can also help pro­tect us from adver­si­ty. In one of my favorite stud­ies, researchers found that peo­ple who had been through trau­mat­ic life sit­u­a­tions had a short­er lifes­pan. But among these par­tic­i­pants, there was a small group of peo­ple who just seemed to keep on liv­ing. What was going on with these people?

When the researchers dug a lit­tle deep­er, they found that they were all engaged in help­ing friends and fam­i­ly in their life—from assist­ing with trans­porta­tion or shop­ping to house­work and child care. Ser­vice is one of the most pro­found ways to nour­ish the com­mu­ni­ty around you, but also to nour­ish, inspire, and ener­gize your­self. It’s like that children’s book—when you fill someone’s buck­et, it also fills yours.

Cul­ti­vat­ing calm isn’t about avoid­ing every kind of stress­ful emo­tion. In fact, when we make time to breathe, con­nect, and care, some of the neg­a­tive feel­ings we’ve been run­ning from might catch up with us. But that’s the time for self-com­pas­sion; it’s okay to feel bad. Resilience doesn’t mean that we’ll be hap­py all the time, but it does mean we have the ener­gy, the mind­set, and the sup­port from oth­ers to help us weath­er the storm.


– This essay is adapt­ed from Emma Seppälä‘s talk “Build­ing Resilience in Times of Chaos.” She is sci­ence direc­tor of Stan­ford University’s Cen­ter for Com­pas­sion and Altru­ism Research and Edu­ca­tion and the author of The Hap­pi­ness Track (Harper­One, 2016). Based at UC-Berke­ley, the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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