A neuroscientist shares the 6 exercises she does every day to build resilience and mental strength
When I first began researching anxiety in my lab as a neuroscientist, I never thought of myself as an anxious person. That is, until I started noticing the words used by my subjects, colleagues, friends and even myself to describe how we were feeling — "worried," "on edge," stressed out," "distracted," "nervous," "ready to give up."
But what I've found over the years is that the most powerful way to combat anxiety is to consistently work on building your resilience and mental strength. Along the way, you'll learn to appreciate or even welcome certain kinds of mistakes for all the new information they bring you.
Here are six daily exercises I use to build my resilience and mental strength:
1. Visualize positive outcomes
At the beginning or at the end of each day, think through all those uncertain situations currently in your life — both big and small. Will I get a good performance review? Will my kid settle well in his new school? Will I hear back after my job interview?
Now take each of those and visualize the most optimistic and amazing outcome to the situation. Not just the "okay" outcome, but the best possible one you could imagine.
This isn't to set you up for an even bigger disappointment if you don't end up getting the job offer. Instead, it should build the muscle of expecting the positive outcome and might even open up ideas for what more you might do to create that outcome of your dreams.
2. Turn anxiety into progress
Our brain's plasticity is what enables us to be resilient during challenging times — to learn how to calm down, reassess situations, reframe our thoughts and make smarter decisions.
And it's easier to take advantage of this when we remind ourselves that anxiety doesn't always have to be bad. Consider the below:
- Anger could block your attention and ability to perform, OR it could fuel and motivate you; sharpen your attention; and serve as a reminder of what's important.
- Fear could trigger memories of past failures; rob your attention and focus; and undermine your performance, OR it could make you more careful about your decisions; deepen your reflection; and create opportunities for changing direction.
- Sadness could flatten out your mood and demotivate you, OR it could help you reprioritize and motivate you to change your environment, circumstances and behavior.
- Worry could make you procrastinate and get in the way of accomplishing goals, OR it could help you fine-tune your plans; adjust your expectations; and become more realistic and goal-oriented.
- Frustration could stymie your progress and steal your motivation, OR it could innervate and challenge you to do more or better.
These comparisons may seem simplistic, but they point to powerful choices that produce tangible outcomes.
3. Try something new
These days, it's easier than ever to take a new online class, join a local sports club or participate in a virtual event.
Not too long ago, I joined Wimbledon champ Venus Williams in an Instagram Live workout, where she was using Prosecco bottles as her weights. I'd never done something like that before. It turned out to be a fantastic and memorable experience.
My point is that for free (or only a small fee) you can push your brain and body to try something you never would have considered before. It doesn't have to be a workout, and it doesn't have to be hard — it can be something right above your level or just slightly outside of your comfort zone.
4. Reach out
Being able to ask for help, staying connected to friends and family, and actively nurturing supportive, encouraging relationships not only enables you to keep anxiety at bay, but also shores up the sense that you're not alone.
It isn't easy to cultivate, but the belief and feeling that you are surrounded by people who care about you is crucial during times of enormous stress — when you need to fall back on your own resilience in order to persevere and maintain your well-being.
When we are suffering from loss or other forms of distress, it's natural to withdraw. We even see this kind of behavior in animals who are mourning. Yet you also have the power to push yourself into the loving embrace of those who can help take care of you.
5. Practice positive self-tweeting
Lin-Manual Miranda published a book about the tweets he sends out at the beginning and end of each day. In it, he shares what are essentially upbeat little messages that are funny, singsongy and generally delightful.
If you watch him in his interviews, you'll see an inherently mentally strong and optimistic person. How do you get to be that resilient, productive and creative?
Clearly, part of the answer is coming up with positive reminders. You don't necessarily need to share them with the public. The idea is to boost yourself up at the beginning and at the end of the day.
This can be difficult for those of us who automatically beat ourselves up at the drop of a hat. Instead, think about what your biggest supporter in life — a partner, sibling, friend, mentor or parent — would tell you, and then tweet or say it to yourself.
6. Immerse yourself in nature
Science has shown again and again that spending time in nature has positive effects on our mental health. A 2015 study, for example, found that it can significantly increased your emotional well-being and resilience.
You don't need live next to a forest to immerse yourself in nature. A nearby park or any quiet environment with greenery where there aren't that many people around will work just fine.
Breathe, relax and become aware of the sounds, smells and sights. Use all your senses to create a heightened awareness of the natural world. This exercise boosts your overall resilience as it acts as a kind of restoration of energy and reset to your equilibrium.
Wendy Suzuki, PhD, is a neuroscientist and professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. She is also the author of "Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion." Follow her on Twitter @wasuzuki.
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