The Brainwork of Resilience
There comes a time in most people’s lives when their feet are knocked out from under them. The lives they were living are now not the same – and might not ever return to their status quo. An example is the Great Recession of 2008. The collapse of the housing market, economic structures, job losses and cutbacks, the list could go on, destroyed many personal lives across the United States. This was an especially dark time for many of us. There were heart-wrenching stories but there were also enlightening stories. My question at the time was – how, do some people recover and come out better than ever, while other people never really recover at all.
Stress and Resilience
Resilience is a process of adapting to significant stress, adversity, trauma, tragedy, or threats. Our brain is hardwired to protect us by automatically going into a threat (stress) response mode. Throughout human history, we have had to be resilient in order to survive. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for all automatic functions without conscious thought, such as breathing, regulating heart rate and digestive processes. The Autonomic Nervous System is basic to resilience because it keeps us in a ‘window of tolerance’. So, we are made to develop resilience. We don’t have to figure it out or learn what to do – we are hard-wired to withstand the big blows of life.
As it turns out, our brain plays a role in bouncing back/resilience by determining how we react to challenging circumstances and guides us in recovery.
This happens below our level of awareness and a cascade of stress chemicals are released before we are even aware that our brain is responding. Although this was a necessary reaction to our prehistoric ancestors in order for them to stay alive, we live in a completely different environment. There is a feedback loop that will stop the acute stress response but because we are living in a 24/7 information overload society, our brain always feels like it is a threat response. Instead of resetting, our brain goes into the slow release, chronic stress cycle. The Hypothalamic – Pituitary – Adrenal axis is activated and now cortisol (the ultimate stress hormone) is released. Cortisol is toxic to our brain. It kills brain cells. I also instigate other physical indicators that damage our health and possibly our life. At this point our brain starts to rise to the occasion or sink to the situation. This is where resilience comes into play.
So, if we are hard-wired to develop resilience, why do some people never recover at all? Bear with me as I explain a little more about our miraculous brains. The Prefrontal Cortex is the executive function center of the brain. The PFC quells the fear response, regulates emotions, learns and exercises empathy, and exhibit response flexibility- the process of resilience. Finally, it is the PFC that creates the narrative of our lives. The ability to bounce back comes from our brain. And our brain learns from the experience whenever we encounter a tough situation. This proposes a possible explanation why some people can bounce back and others can’t. As miraculous as our brains are, it still adapts to our environment – good or bad. The experience of hard times or challenging situations primes our brains for tougher situations. Even though we have the brain anatomy to survive and bounce back, we are still human, and we always interject our response to the situation. Learning to trust our intuition will help develop resilience and allow us to recover.
Resilience is not an automatic response to significant stress. It is a learned response which actually offers hope for those who are buried in the chronic stress cycle.
Resilience Is a Process of Neuroplasticity
Dr. Eric Nestler, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, has made the study of resilience his primary focus of his neuroscience research. He believes that resilience is not a passive process. He points to a mouse study that examined the “social-defeat model,” in which animals are exposed over time to severe stress, resulting in a well-characterized syndrome of behaviors deemed comparable to depression in humans. Yet, about a third of the mice exhibited natural resilience”. As a reminder, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt to the environment. Dr. Nestler states “The most important and interesting principle is that resilience is not a passive process. It’s not that the mice that are resilient simply don’t show the bad effects that are seen in susceptible mice. Some of those kinds of changes are seen, but by far the most predominant phenomenon is that resilient mice show a whole set of changes that help the animal cope with stress.”
Researchers in these studies found that both groups of mice had increased neuronal activation in their brains due to the stress. However, the resilient mice brains reached a tipping point where they responded with compensatory, normalizing, changes. This means that resilient brains are not insensitive to stress, but rather are actively using more genes to counter stress.
The Mechanics of a Resilient Brain
“According to Richard Davidson in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, resilience is one of six dimensions compromising your emotional style. Resilience is marked by greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex on the brain. Davidson writes:
“The amount of activation in the left prefrontal region of a resilient person can be thirty times that in someone who is not resilient.”
Davidson’s early research found that signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, determine how quickly the brain will recover from an upsetting experience. More activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the period of amygdala activation. Less activation in certain zones of the prefrontal cortex resulted in longer-lasting amygdala activity after an experience evoking negative emotion. Basically, these people’s brains were less able to turn off negative emotion once it was turned on.”
(Hampton, D. (August 5, 2018). The neuroscience of building a resilient brain. www.thebestbrainpossible.com)
In later research, Davidson confirmed that the greater the amount of white matter (axons connecting neurons) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient your brain had become. The opposite is also true: the less white matter -> the less resilient. When the amygdala is turned down, the prefrontal cortex is better able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions. The brain is then better equipped to plan and act effectively without being stifled by negative emotion.
And this is where the ability to learn how to be resilient lies. We are all able to make new connections between the brain regions – through neuroplasticity.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survived, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Common Resilience Factors:
Through their two decades of work with trauma survivors, Dr. Steven and Dr. Dennis Charney identified 10 common resilience factors: realistic optimism, facing fear, moral compass, religion and spirituality, social support, resilient role models, physical fitness, brain fitness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and meaning and purpose. The following factors are the ones they singled out as the most commonly identified as being critical for managing stress and trauma by the resilient individuals they interviewed.
Positive Emotions and Optimism
A large body of research has shown that optimism and positive emotions have a robust association with physical and mental health. This is a realistic optimism where close attention was paid to both positive and relevant negative information but filtered out or disengaged from irrelevant negative information. Realistic optimists use relevant negative stimuli to inform their decisions, but not dwell on it.
Many resilient people embrace a core set of moral and ethical principles that help to build character and guide them during times of high stress. These principles focus on self-control, discipline, perseverance, endurance, the moral courage to stand up for what one believes to be right, and altruism. That is quite the collection of attributes to follow.
Having a strong social network is associated with resilience. Close supportive relationships may enhance resilience as well as mental and physical health by increasing self-confidence, fostering the use of more effective action-based coping strategies and reducing high-risk behaviors.
Connectivity to other human beings is a hard-wired trait passed to us from our prehistoric ancestors. One method of capitalizing on role model connections is to observe and then imitate how the role model reacts in time of high stress. Noticing if the role model takes an active approach (assessing the situation, solving problems, reaching out for social support) rather than a passive one (waiting for the dust to settle, procrastinating, blaming others, drinking alcohol) allows for a principle to follow that will enhance resilience.
Researchers have discovered that we have mirror neurons. When humans observe the behavior or emotion of another person, the same brain regions that are activated in the observed person are also activated in the observer. It is possible that mirror neurons play an important role in empathy and social competence.
Physical exercise improves physical health. But exercise can also have a strong positive effect on mental health and resilience. Exercise reduces symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety, to elevate mood, and improve brain function and cognition. Besides exercise having positive effects on health and to enhance resilience to stress through a number of neurobiological mechanisms: increased cerebral blood flow; increased perfusion of the hippocampus; increased release of chemicals known to lessen depression (e.g. serotonin, dopamine) and improve mood (e.g. endorphins); dampening the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal response to stress, which may protect the brain from the damaging effects of prolonged cortisol exposure; and enhanced expression of genes associated with neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, which may help repair and promote growth of neurons in a number of brain regions.
(Southwick,S., & Charney,D. (June 25, 2019). Resilience: How Your Brain Helps You Bounce Back)
Practical Ways to Increase Your Resilience
According to the American Psychological Association, here are some ways to increase resilience.
Make Connections: Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthen resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.
Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems: You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.
Accept that change is a part of living: Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
Move toward your goals: Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly – even if it seems like a small accomplishment – that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go.
Take decisive action: Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would go away.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery: People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect, as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even when feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and heightened appreciation for life.
Nurture a positive view of yourself: Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
Keep things in perspective: Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.
Maintain a hopeful outlook: An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
Take care of yourself: Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and fell relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful: For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.
Mindfulness, visualization, and cognitive behavioral therapy have also been proven to increase resiliency.
(Hampton,D. (August 5, 2015). The neuroscience of building a resilient Brain. The Best Brain Possible)
Hampton, D. (August 5, 2018). The neuroscience of building a resilient brain. Retrieved from www.thebestbrainpossible.com/neuroscience-resilient-brain-stress/
Southwick,S. & Charney,D. (June 25, 2019). Resilience: how your brain helps you bounce back. Retrieved from https://brainworldmagazine.com/resilience-brain-helps-bounce-back/