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3 Strategies to Build Brain Resilience

Research reveals that we can change our brains to become more stress-resilient.

Hand shows the brain in the sun and the sky.
Source: Natali_Nis/Istockphots

In the face of adversity and hardship, most cope as best they can. What if you could change the structure and function of your brain to become even more stress-resilient?

Resilience has been defined as the ability to deal with adversity, be it small daily stressors or unexpected traumatic events. More specifically, resilience is seen as having the capacity to return to successful adaptation and functioning even after a period of disorganization and disruption.

Most often, resilience has been considered a function of our ability to call upon enduring personal attributes as physical strength, intelligence, interpersonal strengths, independence, sense of humor, creativity and spirituality.

While these are no doubt valuable assets for coping and stress reduction, recent research offers good news: You can expand on these. You can actually build resilience.

According to researchers Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, resilience is tied to brain function and we have the power to change the structure and function of our brains to become more stress-resilient.

When we face traumatic events we go into fight/flight responses because our brain activates the neural pathways of fear. Daily worry and stress do a similar thing. Ruminating about negative events, faulting yourself for mistakes, believing you cannot risk change, can activate the same neural pathways of fear that a pandemic or imminent hurricane invites. Essentially the more we activate the stress response and the neural fear pathways, the more this becomes our default setting.

Southwick and Charney report that new techniques like functional magnetic resonance imagining (FMRI) which show brain activity and can indicate which areas of the brain are active when engaged in a behavior or cognitive process, reveal that resilient brains shut off the stress response and return to baseline quickly.

For example, Martin Paulus reports that when exposed to extreme environments during training, the performance of both Navy SEALs and Army Rangers initially deteriorates, but then returns to a steady state.

Can We Do That?

What these scientists are proposing is that we can train our brains to build and strengthen different connections that don’t keep activating the fear circuit. We can train ourselves to “ Let Go” of the negative and the frightening, so that we can move forward despite adversity.

Neurologically “Let Go”

This is not the first time any of us have heard the suggestion to “let go.” We have heard and often been inspired by it for decades:

You can only lose what you cling to. (Buddha)

There’s an important difference between giving up and letting go. (Jessica Hatchigan)

Our focus on negative experiences persists because such experiences actually involve more brain activity than positive ones. This is called the negative bias. Another reason that letting go of the negative is difficult is that many of us have the mistaken belief that if we continue think about the disaster or the possibility of losing our job, we will be able to prevent it from happening again or be prepared for it.

The reality is that it doesn’t prepare us; it frightens us. Ruminating about the mistake, the failed mission, or what should have happened keeps us in a dysregulated state.

It is worth considering that letting go of the frightening is not just “letting go." It is making possible the activation of alternative neural paths and that equates to having a place to go other than fear in the rough times. It equates to resilience.

Strategies to Build Resilience

Drawing upon Southwick and Charney’s book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, here are three strategies that stimulate brain change and resiliency building.

Use Realistic Optimism. Optimism is considered to be a fuel that ignites resilience and empowers other resilience factors. That said, there is a very big difference between blind optimism and realistic optimism. Blind or unrealistic optimism underestimates risk, overestimates ability and results in inadequate preparation. For example, a group of young adults believe that if they only go out to bars with each other, they won’t contract Covid-19.

Realistic optimism, as opposed to blind optimism, is active not passive. The person using realistic optimism does not miss the negatives but disengages from problems that appear unsolvable and attends to problems they can solve. For example:

A single mother who worried how she could work if schools closed again, started calling other working parents whom she knew. She didn’t stop until she had a few parents with similar concerns for safety, kids, job security and a plan for pooling together to cover school and work time. The plan was to keep changing the plan until it worked.

A frontline medical worker bought his own back-up PPE’s and face-shields. He took his scrubs off in the garage every time he returned home and showered before he saw his family. He wore his mask at home. He was committed to his work. But with his wife and four children, he could not relax until he knew he was protecting his family as much as he could.

Utilize Social Support. According to Southwick, social support is critical to resilience. Few people are strong by themselves. Drawing upon the poignant stories of POW’s, Southwick underscores how the human bond often makes it possible to cope with the unspeakable.

He describes the ingenious communication systems used by POW’s to support each other by tapping on pipes. When he asked Bob Stockdale, the senior ranking officer who spent years as a POW at the Hanoi Hilton, what kept him going, the officer replied, “The man next door.”

In terms of coping with stressful situations, experiments reveal that oxytocin (the feel good hormone) stimulated by the presence of someone who cares, reduces the activation of the brain’s fear pathways and explains why social support reduces stress.

Any stress lasting longer than a few minutes increases levels of cortisol released from the adrenal cortex. The oxytocin reduces anxiety by dampening the cortisol system, the HPA axis, which is the body's "stress system," and which ultimately controls levels of cortisol and other important stress related hormones.

Approximately 54 million workers, or 35 percent of U.S. employees, are targeted by a bully at some point in their careers, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. In a study by Kathleen Krone of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Stacy Tye-Williams of Iowa State University in which they collected narratives from 48 bullying victims, more than half of employees reported being bullied by their manager or boss, while others were targeted by a co-worker. Most victims felt isolated and ostracized as other workers were often afraid to support victims. Importantly, those victims who had a co-worker to speak with and from whom they received support had lower levels of depression.

Social support is bi-directional. Staying connected by giving and getting support changes brain chemistry and builds resilience for those giving as well as those receiving. It can start with a simple hello to a neighbor, a note of kindness to a relative or a funny email to a friend. Giving kindness has the benefit of getting kindness.

Exercise for Brain Power. No one has not heard the suggestion to exercise. What is worth remembering is that we now have research findings that explain the connection between physical exercise, brain changes and emotional resilience. Consider that exercising your body exercises your brain and that is key to resilience:

  • Exercise has been shown to increase chemicals that are known to improve mood and lessen depression.
  • Stress results in a release of the hormone cortisol, which damages neurons in the brain. Exercise dampens this cortisol release and its impact on heightening stress.
  • Aerobic exercise aids in recovery because exercise both enhances the growth of neurons and promotes the repair of brain cells.

I have witnessed people walk or jog themselves out of the stress of heartache, the assault of a traumatic loss, and the devastation of natural disaster. I have encouraged people to pair exercise with friends or beloved pets to reap the double benefits of connection and exercise. I have marveled at the added boost of exercising in nature. I have never heard anyone dispute the power of exercise to make coping more possible and hope more accessible.

“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.” —Dieter F. Uchtdorf