The Neuroscience of Resilience
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.
There comes a time in most people’s lives that their feet are knocked out from under them. The lives they were living are 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 around our country. This was an especially dark time for many of us. There were sad stories reported, as well as enlightening stories. My question at the time was – how do some people recover and come out better than ever, while other people never really recovered at all?
In investigating how the brain plays a role in bouncing back/resilience I discovered that brain determines how we react to challenging circumstances and guides us in recovery. The prefrontal cortex is the integrative structure of the brain for supporting resilience. Neuropsychologists consider the prefrontal cortex to be an “evolutionary masterpiece”. Dr. Dan Siegel has developed the nine functions of the prefrontal cortex. Linda Graham, MFT has designed reflections about resilience based on these nine functions of the prefrontal cortex. In all of the research that I did for this blog, I found this to be the clearest explanation of resilience. I will summarize how the prefrontal cortex assimilates and mediates stress response and eventual recovery or resilience.
Dr. Dan Siegel’s model demonstrates how the PFC (prefrontal cortex) accomplishes regulation:
1. Regulating of the autonomic nervous system – staying calm and engaged
2. Quelling the fear response
3. Regulate emotions – resilience is not blocked by fear or shame
4. Attunement – the felt sense of another’s experience, someone else ‘getting’ ours
5. Empathy – You know what I want, and I know that you know
6. Response flexibility – pause, options, evaluate options, appropriate decision
7. Insight – self awareness
8. Intuition – the “gut” feeling
(Linda Graham, MFT, 2010)
Autonomic Nervous System
This is the part of the nervous system responsible for all automatic functions without conscious thought, such as, breathing, regulating heart rate, and digestive processes. The ANS is basic to resilience because it keeps us in a ‘window of tolerance’. This is the zone where our nervous system is relaxed, calm, alert, and engaged. This is where we feel balanced and centered. We can cope.
When we are challenged or threatened the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear and we unconsciously organize to meet the new situation, challenge, or threat. When we are regulated by the social engagement system of the prefrontal cortex, we turn to people near us to help with regulation, or we turn to memories of people. These actions give a sense that everything is going to be okay. Our connection to others keeps us within the window of tolerance and we can go forward without fear. When circumstances overwhelm our social engagement system – we escalate into alarm, agitation, anxiety, and panic. When this happens we need to calm the fear and reconnect with our support system.
We have to look at the amygdala because it is our 24/7 alarm system. When it perceives threat or danger it activates the SNS to initiate the stress response. When we don’t have social support we go into fight-or-flight mode. This can push us into learned coping responses like submission, confusion, passivity, or isolation – in essence, shutting us down in order to be safe. Of course our brain/body has an antidote to this. When we feel safe, warm, loved or cherished we release Oxytocin, the neurochemical of safety and trust and the antidote to cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin is the neurochemical foundation of lifelong resilience.
Quelling the Fear Response
This all comes back to the prefrontal cortex. The PFC has the ability to bring about calm through the release of oxytocin. When someone feels safe through their connections to others they are primed to be less reactive to stress – a fundamental feature of resilience. Research has discovered that the PFC grows neuronal fibers down to the amygdala. These fibers carry GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) neurotransmitter which inhibits the amygdala.
The next function of the PFC is to regulate emotions. Emotions in this context are waves of body sensations that signal us to be on alert. Every emotion has a physiological marker:
Angry – we contract, tense up, ready to fight
Afraid – we stop, scan, ready to flee
Sadness and Grief – we feel waves of emotions building up, we fold in, action is to pull for comfort and support
Ashamed – we feel an inner drop, we collapse, withdraw, disconnect
The PFC allows us to consciously feel, recognize and hold the waves of emotion as they roll through our body. The key to resilience is to stay balanced, regulated. We allow our emotions to flow through us then. One way to process this is to feel the emotion fully, and then allow a positive emotion like gratitude, kindness or compassion to be present at the same time. When we feel the positive emotion strongly enough, the two emotions will begin to pair together, fire together and wire together. The positive emotion will actually rewire the negative emotion.
When a caregiver (parent) has the capacity to regulate their ANS, tamp down the fear response and regulate their own emotions, they have a direct impact in developing these capacities in growing children.
“Neuropsychologists see empathy as the integration of body-based information, emotional signals, and cognitive thought and beliefs about another’s experience, making sense, making meaning, creating understanding, and then checking out the accuracy of the understanding through a verbal feedback loop.” (Linda Graham, 2010) Brains develop interacting with other brains, and it is the PFC that allows us to learn how to live resiliently from people close to us.
This is the process of resilience: the capacity to stop, hold the experience, regulate body arousal and emotional waves, step back, think, reflect, and evaluate (NICE). Graham states “to cope with change, we have to be able to change how we cope”. The more flexible someone can be in their thinking; the more options they are able to perceive.
It is the PFC that creates the narrative of our life – making sense and meaning of what has happened to us throughout our life and making it whole; “here’s what happened; here’s what I did or didn’t do; here’s how well that worked, or not; here’s what I’ve learned; here’s what I would do differently now and here’s how I’m different now”. (Graham, 2010)
Through the PFC, an individual sensing their own core values knows on a deep level what’s right for them or not. Intuition is a deep and profound knowing, beneath the conscious level, of what makes the most sense. The PFC combines the ‘felt’ knowing with the conscious knowing and allows our intuition to guide the choices.
In this context, morality is not about what is right or wrong. This last function of the PFC is based on empathy and understanding the connectedness of all beings. In this vein of thought we make choices not just for personal survival (which the amygdala does full-time) but for the common good. Being immersed in the common good through giving and receiving, we can be much more connected and much more resilient.
Suffering alone cannot break the human spirit. Human sorrow is not a pathology; it is a poignant inheritance we share with all the family of the earth. In the face of whatever loss, illness, or harm we are given, we remain people of great courage, wisdom and healing.
Graham, L. (June 2010) The neuroscience of resilience. The Wise Brain Bulletin vol.4(6). Retrieved July 18, 2016 from http://www.lindagraham-mft.net/pdf/WiseBrainBulletin-4-6.pdf