The Neuroscience of Resilience

Throughout life, we respond to problems, stressors and losses that are part of being human. In our current world, there is no doubt that we face multiple challenges, including a global pandemic, human rights inequities, economic uncertainties, violence and climate concerns. As humans we don’t have the luxury of choosing all the events in our lives, but we can choose how we respond to them.

When bigger events and traumas occur, we have to dig even deeper to engage our resilience skills. Resilience is the “process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, or stress” (APA). Understanding key concepts of neuroscience and neuroplasticity show us how to intentionally develop our resilience. There is an old saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Resilience and the Limbic System

You’re giving a presentation at work, it’s one that you’ve been dreading all week. You can feel the clamminess of your palms, and are finding it difficult to breathe. Your heart rate noticeably increases. You begin to panic.

While not a life or death situation, commonplace activities, such as speaking in front of groups of people or interviewing for a new job, can send us into the fight or flight response. It’s a term most of you are probably familiar with. But what many of you may not know is that the fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered by a little something called the limbic system.

The limbic system is a key player in our body’s autonomic functioning. It is composed of structures which influence our autonomic nervous system—the primary mechanism which regulates our fight or flight response. Through the amygdala the limbic system reacts to input, classifying it as either pleasurable or painful. If pleasurable, this input is passed along to the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning and thinking center of the brain. If incoming signals are perceived as threatening, they are blocked by the amygdala and our bodies may react and engage the fight, flight, or freeze response without engaging the prefrontal cortex. Eventually, when a threat dies down, the prefrontal cortex resumes activity and sends messages to the amygdala to stop the fight or flight response and relax our nervous systems. This whole event will be stored away in the hippocampus, the limbic system's way of preserving memories.

But what happens when a person’s prefrontal cortex is less active? This occurs more frequently in those who have experienced accumulated trauma—experiences that are far more prevalent and damaging than public speaking or running late for work. Their responses will tend much more to fight or flight, and may continue well past the moment of danger. Over time, the prefrontal cortex decreases its activity in response to the hyper-responsiveness of the amygdala.

This research may seem a death sentence for many. How can they overcome their trauma, build resilience, and regulate their limbic system? This is where neuroplasticity comes in. The good news is that if we take time to pause and process sensory input, we create a buffer between the input and our response.

Changing the Brain through Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experiences (Siegel). This is done by creating new neural pathways (synapses) between neurons. Simply put, we can develop “positive” and “negative” brain pathways through reinforcement. By practicing resilience, we actually build it in our brains.

Here are some helpful practices to begin building resilience today:

  • Mindfulness techniques - Practice mindful meditation, journaling, breathing exercises.

  • Attending to emotions - Note how you are feeling in the moment. Name and categorize emotions. See them from a distance. Notice that you are not the emotion that you experience.

  • Caring for ourselves - Building daily practices that nurture your body and mind through right diet, exercise, a regular sleep routine, taking on new projects, learning something new.

  • Creating social connections - Reaching out to friends and family, being generous with our time and attention, seeking ways to build and join community.

  • Finding purpose

  • Seeking help when needed.

Resources and Sources

[This post was originally a part of our ongoing newsletter series—Leaning on Your Strengths with Eugenie Lewis]

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