The Brainwork of Resilience (Part One)
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. When I wrote this originally, the pandemic was nowhere on my radar. The ultimate take down of America was never something that I could have ever imagined. Since we haven’t hit the peak of this crisis, I am going to use the Great Recession of 2008 as an example. 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.
I can’t see what recovery will look like here in the US so I thought that explaining how our brain adapts to extreme stress might give some of us an outline we can follow to build resilience.
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. It also releases 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.”
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/