Pathways to True Resilience

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Pathways to True Resilience

Dr Mark Atkinson, MBBS, Medical Director

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.

—Charles Darwin

Life is full of challenges. Whether it's adversity or loss, illness or failure, they are all part of life's unfolding. The impact they have on us, is shaped by many factors, including the one we are focusing on here - resilience. The Global Resilience Project defines resilience as the ability to bounce forward from life’s most challenging experiences.

Examples of adversity and challenges may include serious illness, bereavement, an accident, stress at work or home, redundancy, financial problems or relationship issues. It is our capacity to recover quickly or ‘bounce-back’ from these difficulties and move forward positively that determines our resilience. It is about us discovering and integrating resources and capacities that were previously unused or developed.

Importantly true resilience must also involve subsequently being in contact with our feeling experience and processing what is stuck. Failure to do so leads to a closed heart. Feeling numb or disconnected following a challenging experience is not resilience, that is trauma. Trauma is a psychological injury that continues to have a limiting impact on you and your life today. True resilience requires us to process and rewrite the trauma response embedded in our nervous system, body and brain. This is best done with the support of other human beings. Trauma healing and resilience requires a community.

Before we dive into how to build resilience, let's take a look at stress


Understanding Stress: The Essentials

Let's start with the basics, what is stress?
Stress is the natural response of the mind/body system of our survival focused brain to a Stressor combined with the Perception of Threat. This initiates the Energetic Activation System (EAS) making available to us the energy and resources to respond effectively.


Stressor is a specific event
These events can be internal and/or external, physical and/or psychological, acute (happen over a short-period of time) or long-term (happen over a prolonged period of time).

Psychological events
These include your thoughts, self-talk (the story you are telling yourself), the images you have in your mind, the emotions you are experiencing and your relationship to what you are experiencing.

Physical events
These include a physical challenge (exercising), exposure to heat or cold, a deadline, a presentation, a busy schedule to relationship problems or a challenging life situation.

Perception is the interpretation of the events
This typically happens automatically and immediately, until you have trained the capacity for mindfulness to become aware of the events in a way that enables you to choose the response versus having it be chosen for you by your survival brain.

When a stressor is perceived as a threat and/or challenge, the mindbody system will respond with stress activation, a coordinated response between the brain, the autonomic nervous system, the hormone system (especially the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system) and immune system. This mobilizes energy and resources from long-term growth, healing and repair functions to short term to deal with the challenge/threat. This series of coordinated, survival-focused processes is called allostasis. The term "allostasis" was coined to explain the adaptive processes that maintain homeostasis through the active adjustment of the body's internal states to perceived and anticipated environmental demands. While acute stress is typically manageable and can even promote growth and development, chronic stress—such as repeated exposure to stressful situations or sustained activation of the stress response—can lead to allostatic load.

Allostatic load refers to the cumulative wear and tear on the body and brain resulting from chronic stress or frequent activation of the body's stress response systems. Over time, high allostatic load can lead to a range of diseases and health problems, including inflammation, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, mental health disorders, and even premature death. What's the solution to allostatic load? It's the relaxation response.


The Calm State - the Relaxation Response.

The calm state or relaxation response is the opposite physiological state to the stress or "fight-or-flight" response. It's a term that was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s, following his research on the positive health effects of Transcendental Meditation. Think back to a time when you were receiving a massage or relaxing on a beach, chances are the relaxation response was activated.

When this happens:
- Heart rate decreases.
- Blood pressure drops.
- Breathing becomes slower and deeper
- Muscle tension decreases.
- Blood flow to the brain increases.
- Levels of nitric oxide increase. This molecule plays a role in preventing cardiovascular disease.
- Stress hormone production (like cortisol) is reduced.

When activated the relaxation response:
- Reduces Stress:
The primary purpose is to counteract the effects of the fight-or-flight response.
- Enhances Immunity:
Chronic stress can suppress the immune system, so regularly evoking the relaxation response can help maintain optimal immune function.
- Improves Focus and Concentration:
The calm state can improve clarity and focus.
- Promotes Healing:
There's evidence that the relaxation response promotes faster healing and recovery.
- Improves Sleep:
It can help insomnia and improve overall sleep quality.

Ways to instantly defuse pressure and stress

Zoom Out
When we are stressed we zoom in to our thoughts/stories and our field of vision becomes narrow. The antidote is to soften your eyes and to allow yourself to notice (without thinking) the spaciousness all around you and sense the spaciousness within you. This activates the brain's relaxation response.

Quieten the thoughtstream.
Like a water tap left constantly on, many of us have minds with a constantly running thoughtstream. With training (and very quickly) we can learn how to turn the thought stream on and off. This is called the Fast Shift method and was developed by Dr Mark Atkinson. The instructions are simple. Enjoy what is about to happen. Allow your eyes to be soft, soft eyes (activates relaxation response). Now allow your tongue to be completely soft. Mouth open slightly. Soft eyes, soft tongue. Notice what has happened to your thoughtstream. It's gone quiet right?

Keeping the tongue soft prevents the process of subvocalisation, the silent internal narrative. Notice what happens when you start thinking. The tongue becomes tight and tense. It goes up. The tension patterns of your tongue are the master control switch for your thoughtstream. Soft tongue deactivates it, tight tongue activates it. Here is the invite. Anytime you are caught up in a narrative/story that is not helpful or is causing stress for you, soften your eyes and soften your tongue.

4-7 Breathing
In addition to your eyes and tongue, your patterns of breathing also has a direct connection to your autonomic nervous system. To bring your body into a state of calm, breathe in gently through the nose to the count of 4 and then out through the nose to the count of 7. Repeat 6 more times. How do you feel? The longer outbreath activates the relaxation response. Notice when you feel calmer how much easier it is to think more clearly and to think with perspective.


Healthy ways to be with your emotions

Always welcoming
Most of us reject and resist emotions that feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar or unwanted. Familiar? I am going to demonstrate to you how this increases tension within your body and keeps you stuck in survival mode. I will then provide the antidote! Notice what happens when I guide you through this exercise. Say the following three words and as you say them imagine you are sending those words into your internal world. Notice what happens to your breathing pattern and level of tension. No. No. No. What did you notice? You probably noticed your breath either stopped or became shallow and that a sense of tension and heaviness arose in the body.

Now contrast it with this. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. What did you notice? The breath would naturally have become full and deep and you might have noticed a sense of relaxation and of settling into the body - of becoming embodied. What did we just learn? When you message No to your internal world, the body/brain perceives threat and responds by activating its stress response. When you message welcome to the inner world, the body/brain perceives safety and it activates the relaxation response and social engagement response - the ability to connect with others.

Healing, health and true resilience arise when we bring safety to our interior world. Everytime you berate yourself, fight the reality of what you are experiencing or push away what is activating your body's alarm system. Here is the invitation from now on, welcome whatever arises within your internal world. How? Two ways. One, say welcome three times (like you did before) to whatever is showing up). Two, allow an inner smile to expand within you and to meet whatever it is you are experiencing.

The Inner Smile
This is the ultimate welcoming practice. You can practice this throughout the day and especially anytime you are feeling stressed, emotional or overwhelmed. It starts with allowing your eyes and then your tongue to be soft. Soft eyes. Soft tongue. Now allow an inner smile to arise. Allow your mouth and face to smile. Even if you don't feel like doing this (and especially if you don't feel like doing this) allow it to expand and fill you. The more you allow it the more natural and effortless it is. Practice Inner Smiling with me for just one-minute. Eventually (in just less than a week), you might find you can sustain it for more than 10 minutes. Typically people who do this practice will report experiencing a significant increase in joy and ease and a decrease in stress, worry and mind chatter.

Emotions are Gateways
It can be hard for us to admit to ourselves what we are feeling and yet when we do, and do so in a particular way, what we are feeling often spontaneously liberates. Our emotions can be a gateway into a deeper sense of ease and freedom we call Presence. I will guide you through this. Soften your eyes and tongue. Check in right now. What are you feeling? Choose one word. And then say out loud (for example) ‘I am angry.’ Now be with that experience whilst continuing to soften. Now say out loud ‘I am feeling angry’ whilst continuing to soften. Now say ‘I am aware of feeling angry.’ Continuing to soften. And now ‘I am aware of being aware’. Allow your body posture to shift. Notice what is present. Most of the time at this stage people will feel free and present. From here, think back to the original issue: what has changed? What if anything needs to happen? 9 times out of 10, when the emotion is transmuted in this way, the story attached to it dissolves.


Ways to Build Resilience

1. Prioritizing self-care: Healthy self-care is taking care of your body and yourself in ways that are positive and nurturing everyday. Self-care covers everything from nutrition, exercise, sleep and rest to activity, fun, connection and hygiene practices. What one thing can you do, starting today to improve your self-care.

2. Neurofeedback training: This is a highly effective way to train your brain and nervous system for resiliency. For many years, its use was restricted to clinics and expensive neurofeedback 5 to 7 day intensives. However, more affordable home-use neurofeedback technologies such as have become available. Its headset and app provide real-time reading of a user’s brainwaves (neuro) and conversion into audio and visual cues back to the user (feedback). The system rewards (more cues) the desired brainwave patterns to reinforce strengthening (training). It works through the process of operant conditioning, a type of training that involves rewarding desired brain wave frequencies. When repeated overtime this rewires brain patterns. allows you to select and train a particular brainwave frequency, which are in turn associated with particular outcomes. Their Ultimate Resilience program consists of training in Focus (SMR / low-beta brainwave training), Calm (alpha brainwave training) and Calm Heart (heart coherence - see below). Check out this article from Paola Tefler,’s CEO for further reading

3. Heart Coherence training: Anytime you are feeling connected and in tune with another human being or an internal sense of harmony and aliveness, chances are you are in coherence. It’s a trainable resilient state of optimal mind/body functioning in which our physiological systems function more efficiently and our emotional stability, mental clarity and cognitive functioning is enhanced. In coherence, we feel energized and engaged, calm and balanced. Here is a quick way to access coherence. Allow your attention to be based in the area of your heart. Allow your eyes and tongue to be soft. Breathe into the count of 5 through the nose and 5 on the out-breath. Repeat for a minute or two. This is what coherence feels like. It's a great way to bring your nervous system back into balance and to prime your brain's responsiveness to neurofeedback. The system includes heart coherence training.

4. Self-Acceptance: Self-care and resilience are built on the foundations of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is about bringing kindness to all aspects of us consistently. It starts with refraining from believing the stories of your inner critic. When and if the Inner Critic shows up, say to it silently I am pleased you are here, smile on the inside and soften your eyes. Breathe into and make contact with the center of your heart. The more you do this the more effortless it will become.

5. Seek social support: As social beings, we need support and help. Whether they are friends, family, or support groups, surround yourself with positive, affirming people, and if you don’t currently have someone like that consider finding a therapist who can help meet that need for you.

6. Engage with a contemplative practice: such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and/or prayer. They are united in their ability to help reduce stress and promote physical health by moving the body/mind system to a restorative state called "deep rest." By sending signals of safety to the nervous system energetic resources are directed toward cellular optimization and away from energy-demanding stress states.

7. Limits: Establish limits by learning to say "no" and placing your health and wellbeing first. It's necessary for resilience over the long run.

8. Reduce your exposure to negativity: Limiting your exposure to stressful situations, such as bad news, social media and/or unhealthy relationships, is essential to protect your mental health.

9. Work with a therapist: Many people choose to work with a therapist, ideally a kind, skilled professional who has the knowledge and experience to help you navigate your life challenges, as well as teach you coping skills and help you process stuck emotions and thinking patterns. Word of mouth recommendations is ideally the way to go.

10. Gratitude practice: If you practice gratitude at the exact same time, daily for at least 21 days, and at this designated time you list three things that you are grateful for from the past 24 hours, the neural pathways in your brain will rewire so that you see the world from a more positive perspective.

Widen the Window by Elizabeth Stanley
The Mind-Body Bible by Mark Atkinson
The Stress Solution by Rangan Chatterjee
Resilient A.F.: Stories of Resilience by Blair Kaplan Venables

*This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Mark Atkinson or the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle pro


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