In a recent blog post, I talked about how resiliency is a leadership quality given more weight these days. I focused on one aspect of resiliency, effectively dealing with stress. But “resilient” has a broader meaning, which is the ability to handle adversity. There is a natural connection between mindfulness and resilience. People who practice mindfulness experience lower levels of anxiety and depression and report reduced levels of chronic pain. Mindfulness practitioners are better able to maintain cognitive focus in stressful, multi-tasking work environments. And leaders who manage emotions well have better business outcomes. What is the common link in these experiences?
The best explanation I have heard is not a scientific one but instead is an analogy. When we deal with challenging circumstances, the environment we find ourselves in and our accompanying thoughts and feelings might seem overwhelming. This can be akin to being caught in a wild river, struggling, swept along, and out of control. When we practice mindfulness, we practice non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness. We observe everything happening in this moment, almost like a third party would. It is like teaching ourselves to sit on the river bank and watch the rapids. Through mindfulness, you create a gap between yourself and any situation, thought, or feeling. And watching the wild river is different than being caught in the wild river. This space between ourselves and a stressful environment in turn allows us to cultivate these other capabilities, which help us be resilient:
Developing comfort with discomfort. Many of us think that the best way to deal with challenging events is to push them out of our minds, to distract ourselves from them. However, in one study, experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain than non-practitioners. And the researchers in the study could tell from the brain activity of the participants that the mindfulness practitioners actually turned greater attention toward the pain sensations while viewing them more neutrally. When we are willing to stay open to the present situation exactly as it is, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort.
Reappraising the situation. We have a “negativity bias.” We have evolved to scan the world for “hazard” (negative) instead of “opportunity” (positive), to ensure our survival. This means that we notice and remember things that made us angry (like insults) more than things that made us happy (like praise). Mindfulness allows us to pause in the moment and consciously focus on what is right instead of what is wrong, and to identify what is going well, even in difficult circumstances. Mindfulness gives us the ability to step back from our skewed view of the world, that focuses on the negative/stressful, and rebalance our perspective.
Responding differently. When we are in stressful environments, we can often be our own worst enemies. We tend to resort to old patterns that might create additional angst for ourselves, like snapping at someone instead of calmly and thoughtfully responding. Mindfulness allows you to break the loop of auto-pilot behaviors and make more constructive choices. One study found that mindfulness training was twice as effective at helping people quit smoking compare to a more traditional smoking cessation program. Mindful attention to our behaviors enables the ability to self-regulate and make different choices, choices that may diffuse and reduce challenging circumstances.
We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we relate to the things that do happen to us. When you develop the skill of mindfulness, you change your relationship to difficult circumstances and increase your ability to deal with stressful environments more effectively. Then whether you can stop or change the situation is no longer as important, no matter how challenging.