We all face adversity in life. Sometimes it’s something small, like a poor work evaluation or a misunderstanding among friends. Sometimes it’s big, like receiving a diagnosis of a chronic disease or having a loved one die. Occasionally, it is collective and traumatic, such as yesterday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon or a natural disaster.
As human beings, we are bound to encounter setbacks, some of which can be quite difficult to navigate, let alone recover from. In Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being, a marriage and family therapist shows how to handle adversity in a more positive and resilient way. Drawing from neuroscience research, Linda Graham shows us how our brains function under stress or duress and then provides us with tools we can use to train our brains to become more resilient.
Human brains are primed to respond to threatening situations, automatically releasing neuro-transmitters and hormones in the face of danger to regulate our fight or flight reactions. Yet, these same reactive systems can become dysfunctional if we are traumatized or under a constant state of anxiety. When this happens, we are less able to access the parts of our brain that are good at finding creative solutions or making plans for recovery, which is why we need to learn to manage these stress reactions and redirect them to induce calmer states of being.
We can all thank neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and change in response to experience—for allowing us to redirect automatic stress responses and rewire our brains for better resilience. By practicing more positive human connection, body-oriented therapies, and various types of relaxation training, among other techniques, we can actually change the wiring in our brains so that we become less reactive and more open to healthy processing of emotional stress.
For example, Graham suggests that when we are stressed, we can look to people around us and seek those who are calm to help us calm ourselves. Humans are born to resonate with one another’s emotions; so, if we learn to focus on those around us who are calm in the face of adversity, we can actually soothe ourselves—a lesson often learned in childhood, but somehow forgotten in adulthood.
Safe touch is another way to stay calm, as it triggers the release of oxytocin, sometimes called “the tend and befriend hormone” for its role in caretaking and trusting others. Any loving touch—whether a hug, cuddle, massage, or bodywork—can help release oxytocin and bring the body into a relaxed, calm state.
Graham also promotes mindfulness as a way of handling adversity. Mindfulness—a practice of staying open to your present experience without judgment—can help you stay calm and present when things go awry. Learning to engage with negative emotions—like pain, anger, or fear—rather than running from them or denying them can help you negotiate these emotions more intelligently.
Pairing positive associations with negative experiences can sometimes re-train the brain to handle adversity better, too. For example, if you are afraid to try something new, you can consciously recall the many times when you handled something well and allow your body to experience that emotion in a practiced way. Just spending time with the sensations of confidence will build one’s confidence “muscle” in the brain, much like one can work a real muscle through exercise.
There are hundreds of ways to access our calm center, and Graham’s book provides a wealth of ideas. Each recommendation comes with an explanation of the neuroscience behind it and a simple exercise for strengthening the neural pathway to resilience. So, whether you relate better to body-oriented therapies, practicing self-compassion, or showing kindness toward another person, you can find something in this book to help you gain resilience in your life and respond better to future adversity.