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Resiliency is our capacity to recover from setbacks or challenges. Mindfulness helps us build the qualities that lead to greater resilience, and a stronger resistance to stress. We explore the science behind why.

“A tree that bends with the wind does not break.”

- Anonymous -

How Mindfulness Builds Resilience What Science Says

About Resilience

Resiliency is our ability to recover from challenges or hardships, and can also be thought of as a measure of our flexibility. That which is pliable can be stretched thin or bent out of shape, yet returns to its original form once it’s no longer under duress. 

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress.”

What makes us resilient is a complex mix of genetics, psychology, social and cultural influences, as well as our spiritual strength and our mindfulness.

Resiliency matters because happiness matters. Those who embody resilience score higher on measures of subjective well-being. They are generally more satisfied and report greater quality of life. 

While some seem to be born more resilient than others, resiliency can be learned. Mindfulness and meditation are among the greatest tools we have for developing resilience.

“Self-awareness is not just relaxation and not just meditation. It must combine relaxation with activity and dynamism.”

- Deepak Chopra -

Awareness vs. Just Relaxing

Those who are resilient are better adapted to handle stress. It might make sense then, that relaxation training and other self-care methods could strengthen resilience simply by reducing stress, but it’s not the case. When under duress, the last thing we want to be told is to ‘just relax.’

Unlike simply relaxing, mindfulness requires an active component of awareness that asks us to question our thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness gives us the ability to pause and observe the mind. Within that pause, there’s space for new perspectives which can break our habitual reactivity to stress. 

What Science Says:

A 2020 study of firefighters found resilience is not only trainable, but mindfulness training is far more effective than relaxation training when it comes to building resilience. In addition, those who received mindfulness training were more likely to continue and practice on their own, than those who received relaxation training only. This continued practice strengthens positive outcomes and long term resilience.

Similarly, a 2018 study on those in the human service industry found mindfulness training not only resulted in improved resilience and quality of life, but the results of this mindfulness training remained, when measured again one month later.

Mindfulness Exercises:

Build your resilience with mindfulness and heightened awareness.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

- Anonymous -

Equanimity for a Stable Mind

Mindfulness trains the mind to become more balanced and stable. Equanimity refers to a mind that is centered and equally balanced between desire and aversion. This quality of equanimity improves resilience by making it more difficult to throw the mind off center. Even in the face of great hardship, a stable mind remains stable.

Those who embrace the quality of equanimity are discerning and healthily detached. This does not mean they are uncaring. True equanimity is imbued with love. One who is stable learns to lovingly go with the flow. Rather than getting thrown by the waves, the centered mind rides them.

What the Science Says:

A 2017 study found mindfulness meditation improves emotional regulation by increasing activity in the areas of the brain responsible for self-regulation. Improved emotional regulation improved self control, making participants less impulsive.

A 2018 study found mindfulness reduces stress reactivity by emphasizing acceptance. When we’re mindful, we take note of what’s happening without judgement, and without needing things to be different. Acceptance in this instance was akin to equanimity, the ability to remain centered and non-reactive, despite one’s present circumstances.

Mindfulness Exercises:

Build resiliency by cultivating equanimity and a balanced, stable mind.

“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.”

- Thich Nhat Hanh -

Understanding Impermanence

The truth of impermanence is revealed through the practice of mindfulness. By curiously paying attention to our own breath, thoughts, emotions and the world around us, we notice nothing lasts forever. Everything is in a continual process of change, and anything could change for the better at any moment.

Impermanence encourages unattachment. Rumination acts in the opposite manner. Obsessively re-thinking the past keeps us trapped there, attached to our resentments. In truth, even our memories can change over time, if we allow it. Reflection is a healthy adaptation of rumination. The difference between reflection and rumination is mindfulness.

What the Science Says:

A 2010 study on the relationship between mindfulness and uncontrollable thinking found mindfulness is negatively correlated with rumination. The more self-aware we are, the less likely we are to get stuck in a pattern of obsessive thoughts.

A 2014 study found mindful awareness and the ability to reflect in a healthy manner enhances our tolerance for distress. Participants were able to persevere in a stressful task longer when acting with awareness.

Mindfulness Exercises:

Strengthen your resilience by embracing impermanence and letting go.

“Resilience is based on compassion for ourselves, as well as compassion for others.”

- Sharon Salzberg -

Compassion for Yourself and Others

Hardships, difficulties and challenges are part of life. There’s no avoiding them. Through mindfulness and meditation, we connect deeply to this truth. We drop learned behaviors of avoidance, and with great compassion, curiously turn toward our suffering.

The greater our self-compassion, the more we can be present with our pain. It’s only when we’re able to face our own suffering that we can extend compassion to others. Compassion also leads to forgiveness. It allows us to drop the resentments that keep us stuck in our struggles, and frees us to carry on and try again.

What the Science Says:

In a 2017 study of patients living with Multiple Sclerosis, those who practiced self-compassion experienced greater resiliency and quality of life. The study reiterated that self-compassion, and by extension resilience, is modifiable. Training in self-compassion can improve overall wellness. 

A 2018 study on resilience in adolescents found those who cultivate healthy self-compassion approached life challenges with a greater sense of curiosity and exploration. This increased their resiliency and improved their emotional well-being.

In the workplace, a 2020 study found organizations that implemented self-compassion training improved their worker’s resilience to stress.

Mindfulness Exercises:

Grow compassion for yourself and others to strengthen your resilience.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity.”

- Melody Beattie -

Developing Gratitude

Gratitude is the mindful act of seeing the good in all things, even our most challenging hardships. There’s a transformative quality to gratitude that allows us to reframe our experiences so that even our moments of deep suffering become opportunities to learn and grow.

When we’re grateful, we take nothing for granted. We mindfully notice our connection to the world and to others. With this understanding of interdependence, we’re more likely to be kind, which leads to greater health and happiness. 

What the Science Says:

A 2017 study on post traumatic stress found gratitude was a predictor of positive outcomes following trauma. Gratitude may promote post traumatic growth (PTG), the positive growth that results from adverse experience.

Learning and growth were also key outcomes in a 2016 study that explored the effect of gratitude on college students’ ability to remain resilient in the face of stress. Students who intentionally practiced gratitude reported greater focus in class, when studying, and during exams. Their resiliency was rooted in gratitude and appreciation for struggle which helped them grow and learn.   

Mindfulness Exercises:

Transform obstacles into opportunities, and build resilience through gratitude.

“Willingness to suffer fully, even for an instant, without trying to escape or be safe, means that suffering is no longer an obstacle to full surrender into the mystery of existence.”

- Gangaji -

Surrender

While it may seem counter intuitive, to surrender and fully accept the present moment is the true key to unlocking your greatest resiliency. Through mindfulness, we develop the capacity to remain present with our greatest struggles and our most challenging emotions. Once we can do this, they no longer have the power over us they once did.

The true cause of our suffering is our avoidance. It’s our inability to turn towards our hardships, roll up our sleeves and do the deep, transformative work we need to do. To surrender, be still, and face our demons, unlocks resilience by revealing the resiliency that’s already within us. For it’s only the strongest among us who have the courage to practice this deeply introspective type of mindfulness. 

What the Science Says:

If it’s resiliency we’re after, we must take the goal as the path. We must be resilient in our practice and in mindfulness itself. Science says the skill of your mindfulness teacher matters, but also, the consistency of your practice matters. Resilience to stress is more pronounced in long term meditators.

This does not mean, however, that it takes a long time for meditation to have an effect. Those with a mindfulness meditation practice know results can be experienced immediately. Science says the brain can change in as few as four days.

Mindfulness Exercises:

Embrace your innate resiliency by surrendering to life.

Take a Walk in Nature

For more mindful tips for the holidays, check out our complete guide to holiday gift-giving.

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