How To Train Your Mind To Be More Resilient

While pregnant with my fifth child in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, I sought advice from a friend who trained specifically in resilience strategies at Harvard University.

Hoping to learn some helpful skills, I shared my fears of giving birth during the pandemic, and my anxiety over managing five children afterward, when the entire pregnancy had been so difficult, both mentally and physically. I was almost ready to throw in the towel, and the work had barely begun.

After I described my feelings, my friend told me that a person’s ability to manage stress, increase happiness, and build resilience all comes down to two words: mental flexibility.

This meant tossing out all preconceived notions for life post-birth, both good and bad. “You need to have zero expectations of how you will react or how you will feel post-baby. Anything could happen, and that is normal and okay. You need to just accept it.” 

My friend also suggested that I attempt a change in my perspective, through reframing, so that I would have the correct outlook to handle whatever happened from delivery onward.

Reframing is an excellent skill to help change one’s perception of a difficult situation into a more positive one. When visiting my parents in Atlanta, I saw a beautiful painting hanging on their wall. It looked like it had come from a high-end gallery. I asked her where she acquired such a gorgeous piece.  

My mother laughed, “I got it at a garage sale for a few dollars! It had such an ugly frame, so I just had it reframed. The frame was expensive, but the art cost practically nothing!” 

We have all been blessed with this incredible power to change our own perspectives. Our lives are a composite of hundreds of images, experiences, and memories–a painting if you will–which we may view negatively. But if we have the mental flexibility to change our attitude about them, these images can be transformed into beautiful works of art. The value is in the frame; by putting energy into reframing, we can start to see our lives as perfect masterpieces.

A flexible perspective requires creativity to transform any given situation into something positive. One way to successfully reframe is through counter-stories. 

Shawn Achor, a bestselling author, Harvard researcher, and professor shares the following scenario with his audiences. 

“Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are fifty other people in the bank. A robber then walks in and fires his weapon just once. You are shot in the right arm.

Now, if you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as unlucky or lucky?”

His listeners typically come back at a 70/30 split. Most would answer that the situation is objectively unfortunate. They might say, “I was just going about my day, making a deposit, and suddenly I get shot!” Or, “Seriously? I’m the only person who takes a bullet in the whole place? Definitely unlucky.”

Yet somehow, 30% of his audiences decide that this event is lucky. They see a different side of things: “I could have been hit in my head or a vital organ. I might have died. I can recover from an injury to my arm.” Others exclaim, “Fifty people were in the room, and no one died! This is incredibly fortunate.”

Where does the capacity to see such good come from? How can a person consistently reach a positive conclusion to an issue for themselves?

We mentally tell ourselves stories throughout the day. When faced with a situation, we subconsciously present ourselves with various counter-stories that compare what could have been with what actually happened.

For those whose counter-story was negative in Anchors’ example, they would logically believe that being shot in the arm was unfortunate. But those utilizing the comparative explanatory style of thinking would understand that the event could have meant death, so surviving at just a small personal cost was an ultimately positive experience.

The comparisons we make for ourselves in real-life situations determine our joy and resilience in life. Our willingness to develop a helpful counter-story is essential if we want to become well-adjusted, rather than paralyzed or on an emotional plateau. By honing the positive explanatory style, you can train your mind to be a part of the 30% who see the glass as half full.

I was presented with the opportunity for a positive counter-story after we welcomed our newborn into our family. When the honeymoon phase ended, I was left with utter exhaustion. However, as my friend had helpfully suggested, I discarded how I felt things were supposed to be, and was doing my best to accept the odd situation as our new normal.

As I described my new feelings and circumstances to another friend, I received a text message, asking me to pray for a new mother now ill with COVID-19. She was unconscious in the hospital, and not even aware she had given birth. 

Reading this message opened my eyes to a very real counter-story for any mother or pregnant woman during this time. It made me suddenly grateful for my sleepless nights and exhausting days with my other children. We never have actual control over life’s circumstances, but we have absolute command of our perception of them. 

A friend of mine, whose son was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer, shared that in the early stages of her crisis, she would ask, Why? Why me? Why my family? 

Feeling unsatisfied, she eventually stopped asking Why, and instead, she asked herself, What now? What is G-d trying to teach me in this trial, and what does He want me to become after this challenge?

She started seeing her son’s illness as a message from Hashem to draw nearer. “I inherited a trait of positivity from my parents and grandparents. They always told me not to dwell on the negative, and to move forward. This positivity is getting me through our struggle.” 

Now that her son is able to attend school despite his sickness, she views the small victories in life through a different perspective. For example, when she packs three school lunches instead of only two, her heart now sings with joy. 

We can all learn to adopt this mindset during this pandemic. We can either view the extended time spent at home as wasted or an opportunity to grow closer with our loved ones. The way we look at things will shape our experience of them, now more than ever. 

Sure, it’s a challenge to have a baby in a pandemic, but there is also so much less pressure to get out and resume regular obligations such as work outside the home, events, or school functions. 

We may feel more isolated on Shabbat these days, but there is also no requirement to entertain guests. I’m out of the kitchen quickly and am able to focus on my children and connect with my husband.  

Distance learning at home often felt like a rare form of torture, but because of it, we were able to eat lunch together every day, and my children have since expressed how much they miss that extra family time midday. 

The more we focus positively, the easier it is to remain afloat when we feel we are drowning. A silver lining exists in every situation. The question is, are we mentally flexible enough to start seeing it? This skill requires a change of perspective, ultimately reframing every experience to see the good. And the best part is, it’s never too late to start trying. 

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