Hierarchy of Resilience: Mindfulness

mindfulness resilience Em Capito, LCSW

Mindfulness has been practiced for 2600 years for a reason, and it’s one of the most powerful habits you can develop to build resilience.

As we move up the hierarchy, we create the bandwidth to practice mindfulness. If you’ve ever tried in earnest to meditate and struggled to follow through, it was likely due to unmet needs lower down the pyramid.

There are so many benefits to mindfulness, and the research keeps adding to the list day by day, but, specific to building resilience, mindfulness plays two critical roles:

First, if resilience is the space between what’s happening to us and how we respond… mindfulness is the tool that chisels out that space, such that we recognize all of the possibilities and have the freedom to choose our response.

Second, mindfulness, especially meditation, creates the opposite physiological state to stress, reducing our exposure to chronic fight-or-flight hormones that erode our resilience, health, and quality of life.

The Space Between

Ever felt like you’re flapping in the wind? That sense of being out of control, unable to react the way you want to as stressors appear one after another?

Any sense of calm is blown away, especially in the face of a particular trigger, such as a toxic person, the printer going on the fritz when you’re already running late, or a petty argument with your significant other.

When I find myself tumbleweeding down the road, knocked this way and that because of external stress triggers, I immediately recognize that I haven’t been meditating.

Mindfulness creates a space between you and everything happening all around you.

That space allows you to step out of the storm and practice being a nonjudgmental, curious, compassionate observer. That space is the difference between reacting out of fear and frustration, and responding with grace, humor and intentionality.

Recognizing our Culture of Mindlessness

Why are we only a tiny faction happier when we become wealthy or achieve big, audacious goals? Why is what we have never enough?

For survival purposes, our brains are hardwired to create security, to focus on where the next meal is coming from. But once we meet that basic foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our brains are still stuck in that scarcity mindset, focused on the future, rather than enjoying the present.

Now add in an invasive advertising culture.

We are socialized from a very young age that we are not enough. It’s the foundation for consumerism and the advertisers know it. The most immediately profitable ad is the one where we’re left feeling inadequate, followed by an affordable solution with payment plans.

By the time we’re adults, we’re sprinting on this hedonic treadmill – all to achieve more, make more, buy more to fill that giant chasm of inadequacy.

We even take pride in the rush.

Physiologically, we exist in a chronic fight-or-flight, sympathetic state, bragging about working long hours at the office while adrenaline and cortisol wear down our defenses, trigger inflammation, and spin up risk for autoimmune disease.

“How easy it is to sleepwalk through and therefore miss much of our life, telling ourselves nice stories of who we are and where we are going, along the way to some deluded fantasy we may never reach and might never recover from were we to arrive.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Brain on Stress

Upon being triggered, regardless of whether it’s traffic or trauma, the hypothalamus goes into action as our body’s natural alarm system, releasing adrenaline and cortisol at 2-5x the normal baseline.

Adrenaline increases our heart rate, elevating our blood pressure in preparation for fight-or-flight, all while shifting our body into energy storage mode (where our body converts what we eat into fat).

Cortisol alters our mood, increasing fear so that we shift into a threat motivation mindset. The immune system is compromised and our digestion suppressed.

As this cascade of hormones continually floods the system rather than abating as they should, in the hippocampus we experience cellular changes that further erode regulation of cortisol while impairing our thinking and memory.

Remaining in this sympathetic state is deadly.

In the immediate, it creates feelings of anxiety and depression, disrupts sleep, depletes our energy, impairs focus and memory, increases risk for accidents, and undermines our motivation for long-term goals.

This is all logical. When we are in a survival state, why would our body focus on anything except the immediate, burning us out on all levels as we redline through our day.

That’s why, in the long-term, chronic stress results in frequent illnesses, fertility problems, increased pain, and an increased risk for every disease out there, in particular obesity, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, cancer and stroke.

The Brain on Mindfulness

Just like we would need to run regularly to train our bodies to endure a marathon, we must meditate regularly in order to train our brains to endure the stress marathon we put them through.

Meditation activates what neuroscientists call the Core Corticol Network, which includes several parts of the brain, resulting in:

  • Increased energy
  • Sustained attention regulation and focus
  • Decreased fear, anxiety and depression
  • Emotional regulation and decreased reactivity
  • Improved empathy and conflict resolution
  • Motivation toward long-term goals
  • Increased flexibility and adaptability
  • Interoception (body awareness)
  • Meta-awareness (the ability to think about our thinking)
  • Memory consolidation and reconsolidation
  • Increased gray matter and corticol thickness, warding off cognitive decline

Perhaps most importantly, we shift out of a negative, threat-oriented perspective and into our authentic, compassionate and abundant mindset.

Remarkably, meditation has been shown in some studies to be as effective as antidepressant medication, with only positive side effects. And when traditional cognitive behavioral therapy was combined with mindfulness training, the added intervention reduced the risk of depression relapse by half.

Meditation programs have also been studied with healthy research participants, resulting in reductions in anxiety and overthinking combined with improved empathy and self-compassion, qualities that can greatly improve the quality of relationships and our lives.

You can geek out on a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies here and a meta-analysis of MRI studies here.

Mindfulness Fosters Resilience

Remember that treadmill mentioned at the beginning? And the underlying driving force of feeling inadequate, needing to achieve or become more?

It’s all a myth; a convenient facade.

We do enough. We have enough. We are enough.

And we already have everything we need to feel peaceful, happy and whole in this very moment.

Logically, we (hopefully) know this. But the expectations, pressure and comparison inherent in our culture, media and social media erodes that understanding.

We can reconnect to the reality of the abundance all around us readily and regularly through mindfulness.

When we do so, we renew our resilience, experiencing less shame and guilt, big picture clarity and gratitude, Beginner’s Mind humility, spontaneous self-care, and perhaps my favorite outcome: self-directed, non-resistant self-growth, where we naturally make those decisions which are aligned with our values, needs and goals.

Nine Attitudes of Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn is recognized as a father of Western mindfulness, given his role in bringing this Eastern practice into the West. In 1979, he developed an 8-week program now widely known and practiced as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction).

Within that program, he identified these nine core attitudes of mindfulness:

  • Non-judging
  • Acceptance
  • Patience
  • Beginner’s Mind
  • Trust
  • Non-striving
  • Letting Go
  • Gratitude
  • Generosity

Imagine for a moment that these qualities were with you in your everyday experience.

How would your life look different? How would these qualities impact your relationships?

Your Personal Mindfulness Practice

What is mindfulness, exactly?

Mindfulness is simply paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.

“Quiet the mind, and the soul will speak.” – Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Mindfulness allows us to get unstuck from the ruts that we wish we could eliminate from our lives, through:

  • Awareness of typically unconscious or automatic behaviors
  • Nonjudgmental clarity of deep-seated fears and insecurities
  • Cultivating that space between stimulus and reaction where we can choose something new, a different path

Mindfulness can be practiced in any given moment by tuning in. However, if we don’t create spaces and rituals that remind us to tune in regularly, we will never fully adopt a more mindful way of being in the world.

Crafting your own personal mindfulness practice requires experimentation and intuition.

Follow what excites you and work on repetition before duration. Daily habits eventually lead to increased ease, quality and spontaneous mindfulness.

Mindful Spaces

A good first step is to create a mindful, sanctuary space in your home, as well as cues in your car if you get stressed while driving, and in your office if you work outside of the home.

This can take many forms.

A former client tossed the clutter from a closet that was just large enough to transform into a small meditation room with a cushion, glow in the dark stars, and aromatherapy oils.

A course student set up a corner of her bedroom with a large pillow, a candle, and a few pictures from favorite travels.

Yet another got a fish bowl for her desk at work, complete with a small Buddha and a goldfish to help her release expectations of her colleagues and be present in the moment, taking responsibility for her attitude and experience.

Mindfulness Rituals

Mindfulness rituals take advantage of routines you already perform everyday to create mindful moments.

It could be when you brush your teeth, focusing on the flavor of the toothpaste and sensations of the brush.

A favorite of mine and several other students is to sit down and savor our first cup of coffee or tea in the morning, focusing on the sunrise or gratitude for just a few minutes before we begin our day.

Another great option is to starting taking a mindful walk outside midday – during a morning break or after lunch. This combines the benefits of mindfulness with a dose of nature, fresh air, sunshine and movement.

If you commute to work, the drive is an enormous opportunity to build mindfulness and compassion muscles by tuning in 100% to the experience of driving. Keep the radio off and notice the texture of the steering wheel, sit up intentionally, bring a smile to your face. Notice what your experience is like, and how you feel and perform when you get to work.

This ritual stands in remarkable contrast to the default ritual of feeling rushed and angry at everyone around you, and anecdotal evidence is consistent: you get to work at the same time or earlier even if you drive mindfully in lieu of the typical, accident-prone racing from light to light.

Flow States

The concept of flow states was formalized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He describes the mental state of flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”

The concept rests on the research finding that “periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives.”

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

He goes on to assert that flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”

“…self-consciousness is lost, one surrenders completely to the moment, and time means nothing”

It is within these flow states where we find the balance between challenge and confidence.

Working excessively or feeling inadequate in our work leads to burnout, and we also don’t really want an easy beach life in retirement. Undemanding life activities lead to depression and apathy.

Yerkes Dodson Curve Window of Tolerance Resilience Em Capito LCSWWhat we want to create in our daily lives is active engagement in challenging tasks that we feel confident tackling.

As we look at this from the lens of resilience, we can see how retreating into comfortable routines would result in a smaller and smaller window of tolerance for challenge, such that we experience burnout sooner.

Practicing intentional discomfort continually expands that window, such that we can still respond to life effectively even under very stressful conditions.

In what activities in your life do you simply lose yourself? Lose track of time? Forget to eat? These experiences can become prioritized flow practices.

The more often we are in flow, the happier we feel and the more we benefit.


Now we come to the base practice of meditation, which is a concentrated form of mindfulness, and still extraordinarily simple.

Just three steps and you’ll be meditating:

  1. Choose a focus
  2. Give it your full attention
  3. Gently bring your mind back when it wanders

“Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have. We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves.” – Pema Chödrön

“Let the silence do the work.” – Cal Fussman

Mindfulness is how we break out of “the waking sleep of automaticity,” as Kabat-Zinn so aptly framed our typical state of doing.

Over time, we can train our brains to let go of all of chaos all around us, and tune in to the moment – to our loved ones, our work, and the beauty and awe that exist all around us each day.

The Resilience Class with Em Capito, LCSW

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