Increasing resilience: you can't control the waves of the ocean but you can ride them, build a better boat ... and learn how to get back on your boat, if you fall off.
In our Resilience Corporate Training Program, we explain the role of response flexibility in helping us become more resilient and cope better with challenges, stress, and adversity.
Response flexibility is the fulcrum of resilience and increases your self-regulation because it strengthens the homeostasis of the central nervous system. It is the gap between a trigger and the response to that trigger that allows you to make a conscious decision about how you respond.
Response Flexibility: pause-> options-> evaluate options-> appropriate decision
It’s the sweet spot between rigid and chaotic thinking. Where you aren't floundering between all the options nor sticking rigidly to a plan.
The challenge is that we live in a world that moves fast and is easily distracted. So we typically react based on automatic thinking pulled from past experience (or even bias) rather than pausing to respond appropriately. We’ve also been raised in educational systems that teach us convergent thinking and think of things as either ‘good’ or “bad,” “black” or “white” with no gray or in-betweens.
You might be stressed out because a deal you were counting on isn’t coming in, or your company was just acquired. Perhaps you just got some bad feedback in a review, or the market is turning sour... Typically, we go straight into rumination of the negative thoughts (hyper-arousal) or we emotionally check out (hypo-arousal). But, there is a middle ground. It’s called the “window of tolerance” (a term created by Dan Segal). And you can be more
resilient in everyday life.
Response flexibility is a way to stay within that window (the one where you can feel upset about something but still cope and function well). It is a way to self-regulate when we experience pain, stress, or hurt that pushes us near the edges of this window.
With my clients, I see two typical reactions to challenges: the cheerleader and the victim. The cheerleader is toxically positive. He tells himself to grind it out at all costs because he is lucky to be where he is, thus creating a very unhealthy situation for himself. My favorite is someone who is suffering on the inside but says, “everything is fine,” and ignores the disaster right in front of them—very rigid thinking.
The victim blames the world around him, saying “everything bad always happens to him.” He always gets the worst bosses, customers, or coworkers. This person wallows and can’t make any decisions because it seems like he is always making the wrong ones. He seems to be deep in the chaos pool.
Response flexibility doesn’t spin a story or ignore what’s right in front of you. It’s the pause to realize that maybe you did pick the wrong job... But now you have the opportunity (and knowledge) to find one that fits.
In our mindfulness practice, we learn to have a beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind encourages us to view all situations with a fresh perceptive and see them as if we were introduced to them for the first time. We do not bring our past experiences, preconceived notions, or biases with us into the present moment.
So this month, I’m asking you to use the beginner’s mind when a challenge, stressor, or adversity comes up. Approach the situation with an open mind and no prejudice. Feel the situation, be aware of and note your reactions without getting caught up in them. As you consider various options, simply notice whether ideas resonate or don’t at that moment.
When we explore with response flexibility, we do not set a bar that limits possibilities.
This month, we’ll be using the “baby step” tool.
During a challenging period, people easily get overwhelmed thinking, “what’s my plan?”, “what am I going to do?”, “how do I handle this situation?”.
We ruminate and stew because when we face an unfamiliar situation, a stress response is initiated. Our brain using something called the Default Network Mode (DNM)to reduce risk and uncertainties. DNM tells the brain to ruminate to get out of this uncertain situation. For survivial reasons, the brain wants certainty and stability, which is why it loves structure.
But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that it’s tough to guarantee certainty and make reliable long-term plans. So, the best thing that we can do is to embrace the next baby step ahead as we walk towards our ultimate goal.
The baby step is where we say to ourselves, OK, I’ve decided on this next step, so what’s the next step? And then we get to that next step, go through it, feel it, use our logic, facts, and feelings until we reach the next step. Then, we ask, “What is the next step?”
We need to use response flexibility (that pause and choosing our response) in deciding what our next baby step is rather then rigid or chaotic thinking.
I challenge you this month to try not to figure it all out but to use response flexibility to pause and think about your next baby step, even when faced with adverse situations.
Below is a great tool from Alan Marlatt who uses it in recovery programs: S.O.B.E.R:
It takes 3-5 seconds for the conscious processing of the cortex to come online in response to any experience. So we need to pause to hold the unconscious, turbo-charged reactivity of the ANS and the amygdala. Try counting from one to ten or take five deep breaths. These actions, though basic, help the cortex be available to process the experience.
Mindfulness is crucial in training the mind to observe what is happening inside (the mind) and outside (the environment) without reaction or judgment. Mindfulness breaks the automaticity of our habitual reactions and helps us clearly see all that is going on. That way, we are aware of what is happening out there and of our inner landscape of response.
Deep breathing calms the nervous system and helps it return to the window of tolerance. Essentially, deep breaths help create the pause we need to see clearly.
● EXPAND PERSPECTIVE.
To be resilient, we must be capable of disengaging from the neural cement of habitual response—detaching from the experience for a moment, to see the present experience as only one of many unique moments. The experience of this moment is here now, but it is not the only experience at this moment, and it is not the only moment in life. When we can disentangle, step back, and reflect, we can move from “poor me” to an empowered “I” that can make thoughtful decisions. This expanded perspective allows us to see any previous patterns of response as patterns. There can be new responses, new patterns. Once we see that, even once, the door is open to looking for options and choices about anything and everything.
● RESPOND WISELY.
Role models and proven wisdom can be great guides to making resilient choices.
That way, we let go of the unskillful or unwholesome, cultivating instead the skillful or wholesome. From an expanded perspective, we see that we have choices, even if the most skillful action at the moment is to endure. Stay in faith that the unfavorable situation will change because it is like everything to change.
Want support with the tools mentioned above? Reach out for a FREE 30-minute coaching call. Feel like you or your organization help increasing productivity and resilience in your employees? I work with both 1:1 and corporate clients to help increase performance and wellbeing through my proven Performance-Based Mindfulness methodology.