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How to Be Resilient in an Overwhelming World 

The key to cultivating internal calm amidst ever-present stress.

Key points

  • There is a psychological toll for the compounded personal and societal crises people have faced for the past two years.
  • While in many ways people have adapted to these difficult realities, chronic stress has generally decreased everyone's stress threshold.
  • By restoring balance to the three executive systems of the brain, one can create calm within an overly taxed nervous system.

Twenty-four months into a relentless barrage of bad news and collective crises at home and across the globe, no one can truly say they have come out unscathed.

As humans, our connection to one another is not just metaphorical, but biological. At a cellular level, we attune to our family members, co-workers, strangers, and people we see suffering on TV, even if they are thousands of miles away from us. This process, called sociostasis, refers to how our nervous systems absorb and react to information, emotional states, and vicarious experiences of others. It’s the reason that, when we are in distress, the mere presence of a loved one has an immediate calming effect.

But just as love and hope are literally contagious, so are distress, fear, and anxiety. In the face of a pandemic, instability, and economic loss, we’ve become intimately linked to one another’s pain, and subject to the media’s conveyor belt coverage of it, for months on end. It’s exhausting, makes everything feel overwhelming, and can leave us feeling uncomfortably numb.

The reality is we are out of our depths in our capacity to process the sheer volume and breadth of adversity, tragedy, and crises that we are constantly exposed to. So how do we stay informed without coming to fear that the world is a hopeless place? How do we stay engaged and responsive without burning out and checking out? How do we help those who are suffering while balancing self-care? How do we turn our awareness of issues into tangible actions that help improve outcomes for our fellow humans and our planet?

These are the questions our generation will continue to be tasked with addressing and it is no easy feat. Just as the problems are multi-dimensional and nuanced, so too will be the answers.

From a neuroscience perspective, it will be helpful to understand our vulnerabilities as well as our potential to overcome them on a biological level. In particular, our ability to create a calm internal world to fortify against external sources of distress will be invaluable in building the resilience we need to tackle them. When left to their own devices, our brains can inadvertently work against us with primitive fear-based survival responses to the pressures of modern life. However, our brains are also flexible and can be rewired to become an internal refuge of calm and proactive problem solving, if we can learn how to hack it.

The three executive systems of the brain

Hacking our brain begins with a clear knowledge of the three executive systems that run our cognitive processing. We’ll refer to them as the first executive (amygdala, fear response), second executive (frontal-parietal lobe, logic, and problem-solving), and third executive (DMN, empathy, and self-awareness). This control panel of sorts gives us a comprehensive view of the ways that our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings interact at any given moment.

When the three systems are online (meaning all three are activated and in balance with one another) we experience equilibrium in our daily life. In this state, we feel aroused enough to feel engaged with our lives, calm enough to make rational decisions, and self-aware enough to put our problems in perspective. When even one of those systems is out of whack, it sends the other two off-kilter. If we’re too aroused (1st executive overload), we have a more difficult time getting things done and our self-awareness is stunted. If we reflect without actively applying it to our real lives (3rd executive dominance), we can get stuck in a cycle of rumination.

It’s an art to learn how to restore balance within ourselves and having a clear understanding of how these systems work, especially in times of stress, can help us to heal our brains and restore a sense of calm when we’re overwhelmed. Understanding executive control is an invaluable tool.

Fear acts as an adaptive "cruise control" to help us stay alive. Because survival is of vital importance, fear has the ability to overpower our brains and bodies via the fight-flight-freeze response. When we get so overwhelmed by the stream of headlines and bad news that we start to detach and feel nothing at all, that’s the freeze response at work. On the other hand, some of us might respond by feeling full of anger and hypervigilance, amping up our bodies to get ready for a fight that isn’t going to actually help. This is because an overactive amygdala inhibits our ability to process rationally or remain in control of ourselves. Those of us who busy ourselves with distractions to avoid thinking about our stressors altogether are engaging in a flight response. This is our primitive brain’s misguided way of protecting us from predators. But the threats of our modern world are far too complex and abstract for these rudimentary coping mechanisms.

Imagine that your boss calls you unexpectedly into her office. As you stop what you’re doing, you notice that the muscles in your shoulders tense, and your heart rate increases. Your mind is racing with a flurry of possible reasons that she could be summoning you. Did you not meet your quota this quarter? Was there a COVID outbreak in the office? Did you forget to turn in a report? You’ve suspected that she dislikes you for quite some time and conclude that she’s probably going to fire you. As you page through the Rolodex of possibility in your mind, your first executive dials up and you’re flooded with physical sensations of anxiety. You can tell from her furrowed brow that it’s not about quota.

She explains that the branch is closing due to the loss of business during the pandemic. Even as she reassures you that you’ll probably be able to be placed at a different branch, you can feel the panic set in. At this point, your first executive system is fully activated, and you enter a fight, flight, or freeze response. When you're overly aroused, it inhibits the cerebral cortex and makes problem-solving more difficult. In your mind, you begin to catastrophize, fearing that you will never find another job in this economy and you’ll lose your home. Internally, you’re scanning your life for other threats and becoming defensive. This fear-based reaction is a primitive coping mechanism that is designed to help us survive potential threats. Of course, in the modern world, we can’t outrun job loss or fight a depressed economy so none of these coping mechanisms are going to help you. Instead, you must find a way to decrease your anxiety enough to take proactive steps forward.

This begins with calming your physical symptoms by engaging in whatever helps your turn down the emotional dial: a good cry, a deep breath, a long run, a phone call to a supportive loved one. This is essential because in order to employ our second executive system (logic and problem solving) we must calm the emotional response of the first executive.

Once the second executive system is activated, we can begin to thoughtfully analyze the situation. Perhaps we ask ourselves questions like, "What tools, resources, and support do I have? What is the healthiest way to approach this difficult change in my life?" Amidst the planning and reasoning of our second executive during a job loss, our resilience is strongest when we can also enlist the reflection, creativity, and empathy of our third executive.

The third executive system, which can be thought of as our inner world, is activated through calming activities. Since quiet moments are scarce (and even scandalous) in the modern world, the healing abilities of our third executive often remain untapped. The powerful simplicity of learning to quiet the outside noise and turn inward allows us to increase our capacity for introspection, creativity, imagination, and empathy.

Our third executive can be developed and strengthened through daily practices such as quiet reflection, meditation, yoga, daydreaming, or simply taking a pause to recenter before taking action in a stressful situation. If we actively tend to this part of ourselves, the result is greater emotional regulation, active compassion, and the ability to simultaneously hold both joy and pain. This balance promotes problem-solving, leading us forward rather than making us feel paralyzed under pressure. A cultivated and active inner world is a natural resource that we can mine for the hope and resilience we need to keep moving forward in the tumultuous times we are living through.

This snapshot illustrates just one of the many examples of loss, instability, and fear that many of us have experienced in a post-COVID world. Whatever stressors we face are now compounded by formidable pandemic-related financial, emotional and cultural distress. It’s essential that we recognize our tendency to assume the worst, especially after internalizing the stream of grim stories that pour out from our communities, social media, and the news. This chronic stress impacts our ability to process what happens to us directly and contributes to our sense of overwhelm in difficult situations. When we’re functioning in optimal balance, our first executive alerts us about important cues from the environment, which we put into context: I’m safe, I’m alive, I can move through this. In this state of calm, we can employ the critical thinking of the second executive and the perspective and wisdom of our third executive in order to foster resilience and equanimity.