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You Can Actually Build Brain Resilience: Strategies


Nov. 29, 2020 Psychology Today

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.

Building Brain Resilience–Findings

According to scientists, 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 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.

One of the things these scientists report is that new techniques like functional magnetic resonance imagining reveal 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?

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)

“Letting Go” of The Negative is Difficult

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.

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 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 the 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:

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