Resources for Recovering Resilience: Changing the Wallpaper

My friend Lynn shared with me the phrase from her German-born mother “die Tapeten wechseln”….translating roughly “to change the wallpaper” meaning roughly to find leisure and wellness in a change of environment, going for a walk to clear the mind, going on vacation to allow new sights and sounds to shift your perspective.

Changing the wallpaper, needing to shift perspectives because of a change in environment doesn’t always arise for positive reasons. People have to practice changing the wallpaper when their company downsizes or their job is suddenly outsourced overseas. People have to practice changing the wallpaper in the face of retirement, or divorce, or a cancer diagnosis. My friend’s mother experienced her wallpaper changing in a most extreme way, leaving her home and family in Berlin forever on the Kinder-Transport which brought her to Britain as a 10-year old refugee from Nazi Germany.

Whether the task of changing the wallpaper is catalyzed by positive reasons – a welcome vacation or even Saturday morning hike on a new trail or a Saturday evening venture to a new restaurant, or for more difficult reasons – the death of a parent or an earthquake/winter storm/hurricane, being flexible in our own coping is essential if we are to meet the new wallpaper resiliently and skillfully.

The latest findings in neuroscience demonstrate that taking ourselves out of a familiar environment, or out of a familiar pattern of behavior, wakes the brain out of patterns of perception that have become routinized. New scenery and scenarios activate new neural circuits in our brains. New experiences open us up in ways that can lead to new learning and new views, to seeing the “big picture” they can help us shift the processing of our experience to the defocusing network: we loosen the grip on our old ways of thinking and create more flexibility in the brain to more easily shift our perspectives.

The suggestions below for strengthening our resilience by deliberately practicing changing the wallpaper are adapted from Louis Cozolino’sThe Healthy Aging Brain, based on his 52 ideas for preventing the “hardening of the categories” and keeping our brains fit as we age by regularly stimulating them by exposure to the new.

Try a different exercise every day for a week, and see if you notice more comfort in coming in contact with new people, new ideas, new environments, new wallpaper:

1. Drive a different way to work or walk home a different way from the grocery store.

2. Visit a randomly chosen town within a 50 mile radius of your home that you’ve never visited before. Make a day trip of exploring new landscapes, new shops, new activities.

3. Visit a new restaurant and eat something that sounds a little strange.

4. Listen to a radio station that you normally don’t; see what you can appreciate about a new kind of music.

5. Read three articles from a magazine you’ve never read before.

6. Learn to play a computer game from a teenager in your life.

7. Buy a new gadget from a computer store and ask a young person to teach you how to use it.

8. Buy some art supplies and draw/paint/collage your mood for the day.

9. Introduce yourself to someone new in your neighborhood.

10. Start a conversation with the grocery store clerk/post office clerk/bank clerk.

11. Read an editorial in your local newspaper and try looking at the world through the lens of that view for a day.

12. Lie down on the grass or on a beach and look at the grass, flowers, stones directly from eye level rather than from above.