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16 Sep. 2020 | Comments (0)

According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, in 2019, 8% of Americans had anxiety disorders. Today, 38% of us are reporting anxiety disorders. And according to Johns Hopkins, 1.5% of Americans have been infected with COViD as of this writing, so the number of people who are anxious is 25 times the number of people who have caught it.

In this world of tremendous uncertainty and anxiety, the word resilience is being used more and more frequently. However, little attention is paid to what it actually means and how we can become more resilient. The definition of resilience that I base my work on is this: The ability to thrive amidst adversity.

It is a definition based on hard neuroscience. It’s not about coping, stress management or mere survival. It is rewiring the brain to enable you to thrive even in this world of COViD, economic disruption, and all the other issues from systemic racial injustice to homelessness to disparities in education that have resurfaced.

What’s the science underlying the rewiring of our brains to be resilient? Our brains continually create and pare or delete neural networks. This is called brain plasticity. As long as a brain is healthy, it continues to automatically rewire itself driven by what we experience both externally and internally (e.g., emotions, thoughts, memories.).

Anything we experience, feel, think or do consistently over 60-70 days will create a durable set of neural networks in our brain. As the saying goes, brain cells that “fire together, wire together.” As new neural networks become stronger, our brains automatically pare back or completely delete competing networks. Overtime, the new neural networks become our “automatic response.”

At this point in the U.S. experience of the pandemic and all the other related crises, many of our brains have been rewired to make anxiety our primary or automatic response to any perceived threat. This fits perfectly with the science as we are way past the 60-70-day mark of consistently experiencing anxiety. So, anxiety has been wired as our automatic response to the crises that envelop us.

If we are among those experiencing automatic anxiety, we need to focus on rewiring our brains to become more resilient. We can rewire our brains to minimize—and in some cases eliminate—anxiety and make other more healthy and productive behaviors into our automatic responses. The really good news is we not only know that we can and have to rewire our brains—we know the specific rewiring that will build our resilience and quell our anxiety.

I developed a resilience model by doing a qualitative meta-analysis of leading research from across the globe to identify the sets of behaviors that rewire our brain to be able to thrive amidst adversity. While there are 10 sets of behaviors or factors in the model, thankfully, we don’t need to develop all 10 in order to enable us to thrive in this environment. We can get started with only three.

My model is depicted below. The first three behavior sets starting from the left on the top row (Focus, Pragmatic Optimism, and Empathy) are the ones to develop to provide the fastest relief from anxiety. The remaining two behavior sets (Fact-Based Decision-Making and Agility) on the top row move us beyond minimizing anxiety to improving performance in the COViD environment. (I’m including the remaining behavior sets so you can see the complete model, but I’ll cover them in other blog posts.)


Source: The Center for Resilience, 2020

To begin with Focus, learn basic breathing meditations. Try to practice a breathing meditation for 20 minutes each day. During the day, meditate for 3 minutes whenever you feel your anxiety rising or you are getting ready to enter a potentially stressful situation.

Then, after a week or two, start practicing behaviors that build your Pragmatic Optimism. Each night before going to sleep, you should write down five things that went well during the day.

Next, when you are faced with a disappointment or a bad news answer, ask these three questions:

1. Will this last forever?

  • No. While there is debate about exactly when COViD will be defeated and when the economy will recover, all the experts agree they will end and recover.

2. Will everything be impacted?

  • Probably. But not negatively. Somethings will get better. Living and working in new and different ways has forced many of us to develop new skills. For example, some of us are becoming closer to loved ones. Some organizations have realized that productivity has not decreased despite remote work.

3. How can I use my skills and experiences to make things just a little better?

  • Think back over the times in your life when you worked through what at first appeared to be an overwhelming situation. What did you do? What can you apply here?

To begin developing Empathy, select 3-5 people you want to develop more empathy toward. Then simply have conversations with them where you follow the following five steps:

  1. Be Curious – ask questions
  2. Listen Closely – to the words that are said and how they are said
  3. Acknowledge – let them know what you are hearing in terms of their point of view and their feelings
  4. Stay Open – don’t be turned off by hearing things you don’t agree with or understand.
  5. Be Authentic – talk about yourself comfortably

Start today and in about two months you will feel about 30% better in terms of emotional and physical wellness.

  • About the Author:Leo F. Flanagan, PhD

    Leo F. Flanagan, PhD

    Leo F. Flanagan, Jr., PhD is a Distinguished Principal Research Fellow in the Human Capital practice at The Conference Board and Founder & President of The Center For Resilience, LLC. The Center a…

    Full Bio | More from Leo F. Flanagan, PhD


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