Executive Coach Bridget Blackford surveys the recent research that investigates the relationship between mindfulness and resilience and provides a framework for understanding the five ways that mindfulness creates a foundation for resilience.
‘Mindfulness’ has well and truly entered the collective consciousness in recent years. There’s a proliferation of resources from books and courses to podcasts and apps, as well as increasing evidence that adopting ‘present-moment awareness’ can have real benefits both personally and professionally.
But how does it relate to that newer concept that’s becoming widely embraced in the working environment - ‘Resilience’?
Before we explore that question we need to get down to specifics. What do these two terms actually mean?
These two “buzz words” are being used increasingly now, so much so that definitions become all the more critical.
Mindfulness is defined by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn as the intentional and non-judgemental focus of our attention on the present moment.
Resilience is often described as an ability to ‘bounce back’ or to get up and carry on after a stressful event. But as well as the capacity to rebound from adversity, resilience also refers to the ability to develop and grow as a result of these challenges.1 At a more granular level, resilience is a state of being (influenced by your external environment, self care, mindset), and is ultimately a set of skills that can be taught.2
Anecdotally, a causative link has often been made between mindfulness and resilience. But is mindfulness a critical cornerstone of resilience?
Increasing research is indeed finding a link and is backing up initial anecdotal observations and early research findings. Interestingly, the correlation between dispositional mindfulness and resilience is being found in research across a range of different occupational groups from teachers3 and health professionals4 to CEOs, leaders and entrepreneurs.5
Much of the research that is currently being undertaken is integrating a range of paradigms from behavioural and organisational psychology to neuroscience and somatic intelligence. Whilst there’s no doubt we’re still in the early days (like many areas drawing on neuroscience and neuropsychology), these recent findings provide a little more insight into the interplay of mindfulness and resilience.
What’s clear is that there are several ways in which mindfulness creates a foundation for resilience, including:
1. Grounded perspective
It’s been found that the neutral, curious attitude to the present moment that mindfulness fosters can enable you to not be as easily overwhelmed by stressful events that may occur at work. Mindfulness generally encourages greater awareness about what’s happening in the body (increasing your somatic intelligence). Taking time to be present and really notice what is happening in the body helps you to drop down into the body, and in doing so, adopt a more detached mindset. Good et al have found that stressful work situations or toxic workplaces are often perceived as less threatening as a result of this grounded or ‘decentred’ perspective.6
Dr Martin Paulus and his colleagues at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research believe resilience is largely about body awareness, not rational thinking: even smart people, if they don’t listen to their bodies, might not bounce back as quickly.7 Being attuned to your physiology can be as simple as spending a few minutes each day in focused breathing.
2. Greater response flexibility - increased ability to adjust habitual reactions (conscious choices)
Related to this is the ability mindfulness facilitates to become aware of your habitual reactions when negotiating stressful situations. The grounded perspective that mindfulness enables can also support the ‘de-automatisation’ of negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours that may result in the face of workplace challenges.8 By decoupling habitual stimulus-responses, there is greater ability to not only be aware of how you usually react, but to make a conscious or more intentional choices about how you want to respond to the stressor in question. In doing so, you are “weakening the chain of associations”;9 essentially rewiring the brain. Neuroplasticity at work!
3. Quicker recovery following stressful events
The plasticity of the brain is also a key element of another link between mindfulness and resilience. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson has found that a key attribute to resilience is the increased speed at which you recover from stressful situations.10 When you react to a stressful situation with a lack of control (or with high emotion), the amygdala has hijacked the brain’s executive centre of the prefrontal cortex. The brain circuitry for ‘bouncing back’ from stressful situations is focused in the left side of the prefrontal area. Practising mindfulness can lead to faster recovery in the amygdala. The amygdala circuitry will always respond to stressful circumstances, however mindfulness may assist to more rapidly re-establish equilibrium.
4. Positive mindset – emotional regulation and perspective
Research on the neurobiology of resilience has found that a positive mindset can be an effective means of enhancing resilience.11 Given the role mindfulness plays in your emotional experience, it is thought that positive emotions may be more prevalent among those with a regular mindfulness practice. Frederickson has also found that a positive mindset can be critical in your ability to recover physiologically from stressful events.12
5. Growth in the face of workplace stressors and challenges
Lastly, exposure to workplace stressors and challenges has been found to be crucial to developing one’s resilience. Exposure to workplace stress whilst not feeling overcome by that stress can result in higher levels of well-being than if the stressful event had not taken place at all.
Do you have a mindfulness practice? Have you thought about how it may be influencing your general resilience and performance in your day-to-day role?
Peoplemax use a great tool called Resilience at Work (co-created by Peoplemax coach Kath McEwen and Dr Peter Winwood) to support individual clients, teams and leaders to develop and maintain their resilience and to drive ongoing high performance.
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1 Luthans, F.; Avolio, B.; Avey, J.; and Norman, S. (2007), Positive Psychological Capital: Measurement and Relationship with Performance and Satisfaction. Leadership Institute Faculty Publications. Paper 11.
2 McEwen, K. (2011) Building Resilience at Work. Bowen Hills: Australian Academic Press.
3 Flook, L., Goldberg, S; Pinger, L.; Bonus, K; and Davidson, R. (2013), Mindfulness for Teachers: A Pilot Study to Assess Effects on Stress, Burnout, and Teaching Efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7: 182–195.
4 Kemper, K. MD; Mo, X. PhD; and Khayat, R. MD. (2015) Are Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Associated with Sleep and Resilience in Health Professionals? Journal of Alternative and Complentary Medicine, 21 (8).
5 Roche, M; Haar, J; and Luthans, F. (2014) The Role of Mindfulness and Psychological Capital on the Well-Being of Leaders. Management Department Faculty Publications. Paper 126.
6 Good, D.; Lyddy, C.; Glomb, T.; Bono, J.; Brown, K.; Duffy, M.; and Lazar, S. (2016). Contemplating Mindfulness at Work: An Integrative Review. Journal of Management, 42(1), 114-142.
7 Johnson, D.; Thom, N.; Stanley, E.; Haase, L.; Simmons, A.; Shih, P.; Thompson, W.; Potterat, E.; Minor, T.;, and Paulus, M. (2014) Modifying resilience mechanisms in at-risk individuals: a controlled study of mindfulness training in marines preparing for deployment. Am J Psychiatry. 171(8): 844-53.
8 Kang, Y.; Gruber, J.; & Gray, J. (2013). Mindfulness and De-Automatization. Emotion Review, 5(2), 192–201.
9 Bajaj, B. and Pande, N. (2015) “Mediating role of resilience in the impact of mindfulness on life satisfaction and affect as indices of subjective well-being” Personality and Individual Differences.
10 Davidson, Richard (2012), The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.
11 Hamilton-West, K. (2010) Psychobiological processes in health and illness. London: Sage Publications.
12 Fredrickson, B.L. (2009) Positivity, Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity and Thrive. New York: Random House.