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A Talk With Linda Graham, Author of "Bouncing Back"

Linda Graham, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and meditation teacher in full-time practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She integrates her passion for neuroscience, mindfulness, and relational psychology through trainings, consultations, workshops, and conferences nationally.

How did you get interested in resilience?

I’ve been a psychotherapist for 20 years. My work every day is helping people cope with their lives better, to come out of confusion or trauma, to come into an inner strength and resilience, into healthy and wise choices in relationships, in work, in life purpose, and meaning.

I got interested in writing a book about resilience because I needed to reconcile the conflicting messages, they seemed conflicting at the time, from Western psychology where we do everything we can to strengthen a sense of personal self and from the Buddhist meditation tradition where we practice diligently to let go of any sense of self. I had to reconcile that if I was to be both a psychotherapist and a Buddhist practitioner.

The bridge came for me through the neuroscience. Modern brain science shows that tools from both paradigms strengthen the functioning of the brain, and strengthen flexibility in the processing in the brain, so that from either paradigm we can change patterns in the brain where we have gotten stuck. You do need a healthy sense of self to function well in this world, and techniques from modern psychology help us get unstuck from old patterns, old conditioning, that would block our resilience, our well-being. Mindfulness and other meditation practices also help us get unstuck from old patterns, old conditioning; you can experience freedom in the letting go of the self, not taking the self so personally, resting in a more spacious awareness that’s not caught in any patterns at all. Resilience is the outcome of using those tools to both strengthen and let go of the personal self.

So you were interested in neuroscience before you became an expert in resilience?

I’m still not an expert in resilience. But I am somewhat of an expert in the brain integration that leads to resilience. How we know which experiences will cause our brains to fire in new ways that will create new patterns of coping or even completely rewire old patterns of coping. I talk in the book about experiences, especially early on, that cause our brains to develop either neural cement, too rigid in our processing, or neural swamp, too chaotic in our processing. We need to be able to respond to the challenges of our lives in ways that are both flexible and stable. That requires a healthy integration of brain structures and processes, and that’s what Bouncing Back attempts to teach readers to develop in their own brains. How to use self-directed neuroplasticity to change their brains in directions that lead to more resilience.

How would you define resilience?

Capacities – innate in the brain – to cope skillfully, flexibly, adaptively. Capacities for resilience develop through experience. Any experience causes neurons in the brain to fire; repeated experiences, repeated firings; the brain stabilizes its responses into stable neural circuitry. We can choose new experiences that will cause neurons in the brain to fire differently. When we choose experiences that will rewire the brain for resilience, we develop or strengthen what I call the five C’s of coping: originally calm, clarity, connections to resources, competence, and courage. I’ve since added compassion, because being kind to ourselves and kind to others when things go wrong is also essential to resilience.

So if resilience is about coping, what does Bouncing Back offer that other titles on coping don’t?

Many self-help books on personal growth and self-transformation presume the level of brain functioning that Bouncing Back teaches readers how to develop. I’ve called the executive center of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, the CEO of resilience because it integrates so many functions of the entire brain that we need for resilience. Many, many exercises in the book are intended to strengthen the functioning of the pre-frontal cortex itself so that we can then use that part of our brain to better learn new patterns of coping or rewire old ones that don’t work so well. So the book is brain-based; the neuroscience explains why the exercises taught in Bouncing Back work so well to build more resilience and well-being.

Can you give us some examples of exercises?

Exercises to calm down the stress response so we don’t stay in fight-flight-freeze-appease or collapse when something startles or upsets us. We can return to a baseline equilibrium where we can think clearly about how to deal with whatever we’re facing, and everyday disappointment or an extraordinary disaster.

Exercises in mindfulness to help us see what we’re facing clearly, to step back from whatever we might be reacting to, shift our perspective, see options, and then choose wisely. Exercises in compassion so we can even tolerate looking at what we have to look at. Exercises in connecting to resources, especially the resources of other people, so we don’t have to cope with our troubles and tragedies alone. Exercises in becoming more competent at coping; there are many of those exercises to help people become more resilient and to see themselves as someone who is good at being resilient.

Do you teach your clients exercise?

All the time, whenever it’s appropriate. I teach a bit of the neuroscience, too. I’ve found clients love learning how their brains work, and especially learning that they can have some effect on how they work. Once clients realize they can choose to change their brains to support the changes they want to make in their behaviors, they not only feel excited, they begin to feel more competent about making the changes they want. No shame-blame for what has happened before, but a new sense of responsibility, and a new freedom, to change it now.

Any caveats about people using the exercises on their own?

Throughout the book, I’ve suggested readers practice the exercises in the spirit of curiosity and experiment. Try something, check to see if it makes a difference, good or bad, then try the next something. Resilience is about flexibility, so staying flexible as you notice this worked or this didn’t. Everyone has their own history of conditioning, their own patterns of how they’ve coped until now. In trying to change those patterns now, everyone’s experience will be slightly different, too.

The other caveat is that discoveries are made in neuroscience every day, and sometimes they contradict or supersede what has been discovered before. Keeping the spirit of experiment about our knowledge and understanding keeps us flexible and resilient, too.

You tell many stories of people who have struggled to cope, including yourself. Are those stories based on true events, or are they fictionalized?

All the stories I’ve told about myself happened pretty much the way I’ve told them, stepping into wet cement because I wasn’t paying attention, then realizing “Yes, shit happens, but shift happens, too.” Not going down the rabbit hole of condemning myself just because I wasn’t paying attention. Or finding the larger perspective when I damaged my bike on the trip in Canada. Would I be worried about that five years from now, or next week, or even by dinner? Some of the stories about clients, like Curt connecting the dots of his anger over his daughter being mistreated at school linking back to his anger when he had been bullied at school, or Margaret realizing that her panic at her boyfriend not calling when he said he would could trace back to her dad sometimes forgetting to pick her up from kindergarten, those are composite stories, mostly to protect people’s confidentiality. But the thread of truth, how we learn to cope, how we learn to change how we cope, that’s always based on what I’ve experienced is true for people.

Bouncing Back. Where did the title come from?

My brother Barry gave me the title. When I told him I was writing a book on resilience, he said, “Resilience? What’s that? …Oh, I know. It’s Bouncing Back from the terrible.” He also gave me the ending line in the book, actually he gave me a flag that hangs in my garden that says, “Live well. Laugh often. Love much.”

Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being

By Linda Graham, MFT · Foreword by Rick Hanson, PhD

April 16, 2013 · Psychology · Trade paperback/ebook

$15.95 · 352 pages · ISBN: 978-1-60868-129-7

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