December 8, 2020 | Online
In 2020, global circumstances have taken a toll on professional and personal lives, and have posed unique challenges to those working in humanitarian relief, international security, and foreign policy. International security expert and mindfulness trainer Elizabeth Stanley joined WFPG and WIIS for a conversation on how to incorporate mindfulness skills to build resilience. Stanley explained the relationship between our conscious and unconscious decision-making processes and shared advice on how to form better habits to overcome chronic or traumatic stress. Beth Solomon of CARE USA and Co-President of the NY Chapter of WIIS Min Kyriannis also gave brief opening and closing comments. This conversation was a part of our Professional Development Series co-hosted by Women In International Security. Members can watch a recording on our Member Career Resources Platform.

What We Learned

Thinking Brain vs. Survival Brain

  • You have two models of decision making: You have your “thinking brain” and your “survival brain,” which both contribute to your conscious and unconscious decision making.
    • Your thinking brain controls conscious, cognitive responses and allows you to make plans, remember something consciously, access explicit memory and control your willpower. It works best when you are at a moderate stress arousal level (such as when you drink caffeine), but degrades under chronic stress or traumatic stress.
    • Your survival brain determines if your current environment is a threat and controls your emotions, implicit or unconscious memory, and fight/flight/freeze response among other things. It is the ONLY thing capable of turning your stress arousal on or off: if your amygdala perceives a stimuli as a threat, then the survival brain turns your stress arousal on; if it believes you are safe, then your survival brain turns your stress arousal off and turns on recovery functions. It works best at the highest level of stress arousal and operates outside of your conscious awareness.
  • The relationship between your thinking brain and survival brain can be called a “window.” The wider the window, the better these two parts of the brain can work together and the more resilient you are. If your window is too narrow, however, one part of your brain will take over.
    • With a narrow window, your thinking brain can override your survival brain by compartmentalizing, suppressing, or just “powering through” but this does not address your body's needs.
    • Similarly, your survival brain can take control and manifest as a range of cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms.

5 Steps to Widen the Window

  1. Get at least 8 hours of restful sleep a night! Sleep is when our survival brain is in safe mode and can activate recovery functions like tissue regeneration and repair.
  2. Make sure you’re eating a healthy diet. The microbiome in your gut controls gene expression, and can either boost immunity or contribute to chronic inflammation as well as influence your mood.
  3. Get your exercise in! You should get at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 4 times a week, with extra time set aside for stretching or weight training.
  4. Invest in your relationships. Investing time and energy into relationships where we feel safe and heard is important because ultimately we are social creatures who depend on human interaction.
  5. Train your attention. Practice training yourself to focus on something that can make your survival brain feel safe, even if it is only for a few minutes at a time.

4 Characteristics of Stressors

  1. Novel: If something is new or unfamiliar to us, such as a change of environment or new information.
  2. Unpredictable: If things are unpredictable to us and we can’t plan for the future, the need for “what ifs” and contingency plans can be overwhelming.
  3. Uncontrollable: Circumstances outside our control can be very threatening to our survival brain and cause our stress arousal to turn on.
  4. Threatening: If a stimulus is threatening to either our physical safety or our sense of identity, then it could be perceived as threatening.
Note: The COVID-19 pandemic is all four of these things!


Key Takeaways

  • Your survival brain is responsible for turning your stress arousal on and off; to turn stress off, you have to focus on things that make your survival brain feel safe. You can’t always control your environment or your circumstances, but you can always control where you are directing your attention.
  • Resilience is an active process that you have to practice. Having a wider window increases your resilience and allows you to perform better during times of high stress, fully recover after times of stress, be more tolerant of uncertainty, and better able to adapt to change.
  • Our habits are really important. When our survival brain takes over, we can rely on stress reaction cycle habits, such as self-medicating, acting in adrenaline-seeking behavior, or procrastinating. We feel guilty about these habits, which increases our stress levels and represses our willpower which makes these disruptive habits harder to interrupt.

Thank you to our speaker!

Elizabeth A. StanleyElizabeth A. Stanley is an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. An award-winning author and editor, she speaks, teaches, and writes about resilience, decision-making, political psychology, civil-military relations, technology and innovation, and international security. She’s the creator of Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training, which has been taught to many thousands in civilian and military high-stress environments. Her research has been featured on 60 Minutes, ABC Evening News, and NPR, as well as in Time magazine and many other media outlets. Earlier in her career, she served as a US Army intelligence officer in South Korea, Germany, and on two peacekeeping deployments in the Balkans, and she has served on several advisory boards. She holds degrees from Yale, Harvard, and MIT. |