Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Build a Stress-Resilient Brain: Findings and Strategies

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

Most often, resiliency 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, recent research offers good news– we can actually build resiliency.brain scan

Building Resilience–Findings

According to scientists like Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, resilience is actually 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 an imminent hurricane invites. Essentially the more we activate the stress response and the neural fear pathways, the more this it becomes our default setting.

One of the things these scientists found using new techniques like functional magnetic resonance imagining is that resilient brains shut off the stress response and return to baseline quickly. For example, scientist Martin Paulus found that imagining of the brains of Navy Seals shows that they don’t get glued to the traumatic or emotional experience. They “ let go” and move on to the next mission. Essentially they focus less on the negatives and respond with alternative neural pathways.

Can We Do That?

Yes, 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.

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)

But “letting go” of the negative is difficult. For one thing it persists because it actually involves more brain activity. For another, many of us have the mistaken belief that if we think about the disaster or possibility of losing our job enough, 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.

New Perspective

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 Steven Southwick and Dennis 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 which puts a priority on feeling good and realistic optimism that improves your chances of dealing with what life throws you in a successful way.
  • As opposed to blind optimism, realistic 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.

A high school senior doesn’t make the two top schools he wants so he starts focusing on the benefits of the school he will attend. He checks out coursework of interest to him and goes on Facebook to meet up with some other entering students. He knows if he does well he will likely stay but will also have options for transfer.

 A new young widow is so lonely and bereft that she doesn’t want to be alone but can’t face socializing. She decides to become a volunteer for a charity with the thought that it may be a source of new connections and if not she will have helped others who are also dealing with pain.

 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 he underscores how the human bond often makes coping with the unspeakable possible. He describes the ingenious communication systems used by POW’s to support each other and reports that when he asked Bob Stockdale, the senior ranking officer who spent years as a POW at the Hanoi Hilton, what kept him going, the response was, “ The man next door.”

In terms of coping with stressful situations, experiments reveal that the 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. Staying connected by giving and getting support changes brain chemistry and builds resilience.

  • In her research on workplace bullying, Stacey Tye-Williams reported on a radio show that short of harassment for sexual, racial, gender or disability discrimination, workplace bullying often goes unchecked and takes its toll. The most consistent resiliency builder reported in the interviews that she held was social support. In one case the morning after a boss was publically demeaning to an employee, that employee found a bouquet of flowers on her desk with the note, “We get it, we are with you.” The employee reported that was all she needed.
  • Someone once told me that when he starts getting caught up in negative thinking, he reminds himself- “ The mind can be a dangerous neighborhood—don’t go there alone.”

Exercise for Brain Power

There is no one who has not heard this suggestion. What is different and worth remembering is that we now have the 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 never heard anyone dispute the power of exercise to make coping more possible and hope more accessible.

After a day’s walk everything has twice its usual value.(George Macauley Trevelyan)