Updated: Apr 22
We’ve all experienced disappointments and difficulties. No matter how hard we wish things would just go our way, sometimes we face the potholes and detours of life. What makes some people fall apart and give up while others are able to bounce back stronger than ever?
Scientists have been exploring this question for decades, and as it turns out, it all boils down to how your brain perceives and handles stress. The kinds of emotional and behavioral characteristics they’ve used to describe a “stress-resilient” person–optimism, a strong social support system, having a purpose in life – aren’t surprising. But more recently, they have begun to examine the neurobiological mechanisms of resilience.
The new question is: Do resilient brains look different? Although the research into the neuroscience of resilience is relatively new, scientists say YES!
Although the exact definition of resilience is still subject to debate, the most used working definition of resilience is the ability to achieve a successful outcome in the face of adversity.
Resilience is not a trait that you either have or don’t have. It includes behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed. Over time, those cognitive functions change the brain. When you break it down, resilience is a neuroplastic process.
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Resilient brains look different
Neurologically, resilience is what enables us to mitigate many stress-induced changes, specifically the activity and connectivity of the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s fear, memory, mood, and executive control centers.
Resilient people have higher activity levels in the left prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for emotional responses, mood regulation and meaning making. Dr. Richard Davidson, a pioneering resilience researcher, maintains that “the amount of activation in the left prefrontal region of a resilient person can be thirty times that in someone who is not resilient.”
In addition, the connectivity between the left prefrontal region and the amygdala – the threat detection center of the brain that activates the fight, flight or freeze response – also predicts resilience. Using MRI technology, Davidson discovered that the amount of white matter (axons connecting neurons) between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is an accurate indicator of how resilient someone is. Greater connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala reduces the intensity of feelings by enabling us to name emotions. Being able to name what we’re feeling calms the amygdala and allows us to process the adversity more rationally. Being able to explain adversity is one of the most important factors in developing resilience.
Resilient people think differently
One of the most significant longitudinal resilience studies followed a group of 700 children in Kauai, Hawaii from birth through their 30s. Developmental psychologist, Emmy Werner sought to determine identify what factors helped children develop resilience. Werner found social supports such as strong relationships with trusted adults like coaches, teachers, or mentors had a significant impact.
But she also found that other factors were psychological traits. One had remarkable predictive power. Werner found that resilient kids tended to have an “internal locus of control.” They believed that their choices and efforts had more influence over their lives than their circumstances. On a test that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations higher than non-resilient kids.
Martin Seligman’s early research with dogs demonstrated the powerful influences of learned helplessness and optimism. Seligman discovered that when the dogs accepted there was nothing they could do to avoid getting shocked they gave up even when the circumstances changed while the dogs who had control over their circumstances learned how to adapt. Both Seligman and Werner found evidence that one’s optimism and the perception of control are essential ingredients for resilience.
Further research has identified other factors that determine how well people adapt and bounce back from adversity. How we view the world and engage with others significantly influences how well we adapt to adversity. The good news is that resilience can be cultivated and strengthened. Here are four simple ways to do that:
1. Nurture healthy social connections.
Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Belonging to a community or group in which you both give and receive support is one of the best ways to cultivate optimism and strengthen one’s internal locus of control. Take inventory or those connections that are not healthy or positive and be intentional about how much influence they have on you.
2. Regularly set realistic goals and develop a plan to reach them.
Identify small steps you can take to move you closer to where you want to be. Integrating small but beneficial behaviors into your daily routine (i.e. walking around the block or sending a note of appreciation every day) can be powerful motivators and increase positive momentum. Combined, a sense of accomplishment and well-being keep us moving in the right direction and enable us to adapt when obstacles arise.
3. Exercise well and sleep well.
It’s no secret that exercise is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy. Physical activity helps the brain grow new neurons and stronger neural connectivity between them. Exercise also generates a boost of dopamine and serotonin. A lack of both are found in people who are depressed or unmotivated.
Conversely, lack of sleep can exacerbate many of the problems caused by stress. A recent study showed that sleep deprivation can decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, while also increasing activity in the amygdala. The combination of regular physical activity and healthy sleep patterns create the right neurological conditions for us to “keep calm and carry on” during difficult times.
4. Practice introspection.
When faced with tragedies or hardships, it’s easy to get lost in everything that is wrong and overlook lessons and learning that may be embedded within the experience. The practice of introspection is one of the best ways to discover growth that results from the struggle. Pay attention to your own feelings, give yourself permission to celebrate mistakes as evidence of learning, and try to minimize harsh self-talk. Introspection can be a wonderful way to reset, put things into perspective, and get back on track.