During these unprecedented times, consciously understanding and enlisting the great capacities of our brains is one of many useful strategies for enhancing resilience.
We each have the power to enlist our imagination to calm our brains, increase creative problem solving, and direct our energy toward leveraging possibilities. The brain’s ability to fast forward to the future, pause, and return to a focus on the present can be harnessed to build resilience.
Our brains are finely tuned to attend to, even magnify, problems and risks. We are biased toward catastrophizing from small data points, and scanning for problems. This focus is meant to enhance our survival in dangerous conditions, which is important when our survival is at stake. Small movements in the grass could warn us of a predator, or a certain noise could warn us of explosive danger.
However, when stress is chronic and diffuse, and the future is full of risk and uncertainty, our brains don’t function well if we constantly focus only on the problem.
Our brains get tunnel vision, so we lose perspective. Our brains see immediate danger, so we lose long term hope.
Our brains keep us hypervigilant and reactive, so we lose the comfort of being present with loved ones.
This is the downside of our imaginations – dread, fear, and bringing the potential worst-case scenario into the present.
But we can also use the powerful upside of our imagination to build our resilience. We can fast forward to a future where problems are better (or solved), pause, and return to focus on the present to build resilience. Let’s try it.
Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and started the day, doing what is absolutely most important to you. Did you kiss your spouse? Feed your children? Help a struggling co-worker? Meditate or pray? What difference would it make for you to purposefully and mindfully start every day that way?
Now, imagine tomorrow night, when you look back over your day, just before you go to sleep, what will you be most grateful for? What will you be most proud of? How might you build more of those things into your day?
Let’s take this a little farther. Take a deep breath, and then another. And just one more. Now…suppose…it’s April 2021 and you’re looking back on the year when COVID-19* first emerged. It was unimaginably disruptive and terrifying at first. The home schooling, the social distancing, the times you and your loved ones were sick, the initial loss of investments, retirement accounts and even some jobs, the stress of not knowing. But you made it. The cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin are in full bloom and hospitals are back to normal. You and your family are going to a wedding this weekend, and your work is more meaningful than ever. Looking back on the past year, what happened that you are most grateful for? How did you cope with all the challenges? What did you learn? How did you help others? What did others turn to you for? What amazed you about others’ responses?
Feel the difference in your brain when you use your imagination for building solutions. Is it more open? Creative? What else is different?
Tapping into the upside of our imagination can be done in conversation with loved ones, or alone by writing a song, a journal or a letter from the future, or perhaps drawing the future you hope for. The choice is yours.
How will you use your brain to its maximum capacity in the days to come?
About the Author: Cynthia K. Hansen, PhD is the senior advisor on resilience at the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience. Dr. Hansen has decades of experience impacting personal, team and leadership resilience programs and interventions in both the public and private sectors. She is also an alumna of the U.S. Department of State National Security Executive Leadership Seminar. Dr. Hansen has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Arkansas and an A.B. in Education and Psychology from Brown University.