“Each one of us is like a sailboat. When the waves of life come, do you get rocked, or do you get capsized? The difference is resilience.” – Rick Hanson, PhD
There are many books that focus on neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and reorganize connections following learning or experience. There are books about rewiring your brain for happiness, about rewiring your brain after injury, or just simply about how rewiring works. Rick Hanson, a psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, recently wrote a new book that focuses on how to rewire your brain for resilience. Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness proves a detailed and intensive approach to reshaping your brain, your thinking, and your response to life’s setbacks.
First, let me describe what Hanson means by resilience. Resilience is the ability to suffer adversity, trauma or setbacks and to keep on going. It’s the capability to fail, but choose to try again. Resilience is necessary in order to survive and to move forward in life, it is also necessary to thrive and grow. If we are not resilient, we end up shrinking from risks and not advancing. Resilience allows us to deal with stress, work through conflicts, continue despite pain and to adapt to a changing world.
Resilience feels like one of those soft-skills that you either have or you don’t, something that would be difficult to gain if you aren’t already born with it. Fortunately, Hanson wholly disagrees with this idea. He believes that it is possible to rewire your brain for resilience. In fact, he has a straightforward twelve-step plan. He explains the foundation as follows:
Every human being has three basic needs – safety, satisfaction, and connection – that are grounded in our ancient evolutionary history. While our circumstances have changed enormously over the last two hundred thousand years, our brains have remained largely the same. The neural machinery that enabled our ancestors to satisfy their need for safety by finding shelter, for satisfaction by getting food, and for connection by bonding with others is alive in our brains today.
We meet our needs in four major ways: by recognizing what’s true, resourcing ourselves, regulating thoughts, feelings, and actions, and relating skillfully to others and the wider world.
He organizes these three needs and the four major ways we meet our needs into a chart, beginning with compassion and ending with generosity. Hanson explains that the path concludes with generosity because “growing the good inside yourself gives you more and more to offer to others.”
Hanson later clarifies that as you grow each of these individual strengths, you will feel less anxiety and irritation, experience less disappointment and frustration, and ultimately feel less lonely, hurt, and resentful. Using the metaphor of a person as a sailboat, he says that when life’s waves come out you, you will be able to respond with calm rather than capsizing in the storm.
Hanson details each of these twelve traits and how to go about embracing them in order to gain grit. For adults, this twelve-step guide can certainly be helpful in building new pathways in the brain to create resilience. But, what can you do for children?
Robert Brooks, the author of Raising Resilient Children, suggests the following steps that do not place the child directly into negative or painful experiences:
Provide opportunities for chesed. Get your children out there helping those less fortunate or those in need.
Listen closely. See the world through your children’s eyes. If you have empathy, you can better help them care for others.
Be a strong moral role model. If you show that you are committed to living ethically and taking care of others, your child will be more likely to follow suit.
Help manage destructive feelings. Destructive feelings shouldn’t be ignored; they should be worked through.
How does caring for others connect to resilience? Well, the whole way that we parent is connected to resilience. One of the findings of the Harvard study on raising caring children was that “Parents who seek to preserve their children’s happiness by constantly protecting them from adversity can rob them of coping strategies that are crucial in their long-term happiness.”
Dr. Brooks explains, “If we examine our parental goals, it would not be an over-simplification to conclude that realization of these goals require that our children have the inner strength to deal competently and successfully, day after day, with the challenges and demands they encounter. We call this capacity to cope and feel competent resilience.
Resilience embraces the ability of a child to deal more effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity, and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others, and to treat oneself and others with respect. Numerous scientific studies of children facing great adversity in their lives support the importance of resilience as a powerful force. Resilience explains why some children overcome overwhelming obstacles, sometimes clawing and scraping their way to successful adulthood, while others become victims of their early experiences and environments.”
Resilience is an important life skills – whether as an adult or child – and as neuroplasticity demonstrates, it is never too late to rewire your brain!