Brain on Resilience

Today let’s discuss what is resilience according to our brain and body.

At a deeper level, resilience is nothing but an interactive process between the individual characteristics and the environment in which the individual grows. It is more about balancing and counter balancing the positive and negative things that happen in the life of a child/adult within self/family/community.

Scientists explain resilience as a fulcrum that handles positive and negative outcomes of life. The fulcrum keeps moving depending upon the load balancing (of life).

The fulcrum is not fixed. It keeps moving throughout the life. If the number of positive outcomes increases it shifts towards positives and vice versa. The good and bad experiences matter.

Psychologically, resilience is a dynamic process reflecting positive adjustment despite negative adversity. Biologically this is close to Allostasis. In simple words, it is how an individual copes with stress and adversity in the environment.

Where was the fulcrum when you were born makes or breaks that individual to a large extent. Poverty, violence, losing loved ones, toxic relationships everything positive and negative counts. These genes are changing the expression of chemicals in our brain and body and as a result the response to stress and anxiety also changes. Resilience is all about moving the fulcrum so that the scale tilts towards more positive outcomes.

Behind the scenes

The human stress response is inbuilt in our autonomic nervous system to handle threats from a survival perspective. You must have read about the HPA axis in the previous nugget. In short, the fear center of the brain called the Amygdala, sends an alarm to the nervous system when an alarming threat appears in the environment/stressors/co-workers/trauma etc. The hypothalamus pushes pituitary to push adrenal cortex to release cortisol which prepares the body with flight-fight. With resilience in the picture how does the body handle stress depends upon four factors (genetics, epigenetics, neurotransmitters and circuits). Our genes respond to the environments. This is why it matters how your childhood environment was.

I got this analogy from Prof James Rodriguez. Our DNAs are like script of the movies with set outlines and the cells are like actors who have certain scripts for their role and that is our genes. Epigenetics is like a director who controls how the actors express themselves in the movie and hence making the experience very personal. The epigenetic factors includes exposure to stress, diets, exercise, prenatal environments, toxin exposure etc.

Neurochemically speaking, the HPA axis, Sympathetic Nervous system and the neurotransmitter gang work together in managing the stress response. For example: As much cortisol is released DHEA is also released which makes someone perform better under pressure (that must be super high for me). In addition neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, BDNF, oxytocin and ALLO are also released depending upon how we handle stress. When there is stress, dopamine is not released and no wonder we can’t enjoy simple pleasures of life when under stress.

This circuitry is super complicated to explain in words. My intent is not to load the sciency aspects here but just to give you a feel this is what the complex circuitry looks like. So what does this mean to you to build resilience?

Strategies to build resilience

  • A sense of touch in the form of holding hands, giving a hug, giving hi-five, getting a massage releases oxytocin and that helps you calm down. If you are an anti-touch person think twice. A famous MRI study showed that when holding hands the fear region of the brain was not activated so much compared to going through it alone.

  • 15 mins of pedalling a bicycle showed more activity in prefrontal regions and increased serotonin (responsible for sleep, appetite and wellness). Think about it, just 15 mins. Get some exercise everyday to enhance happy neurotransmitters.

  • It was strange that a patient got better when put in one side of the hospital but not on the other. When dug deeper it was found that patients in sunny rooms did not need so much pain medication compared to the other side. Sunlight helps the brain to produce its own form of morphine and hence high pain tolerance.

  • By making small changes to our actions, interactions, thoughts, words and environment, we can make changes to key brain circuits that contributes to mood, motivation and resilience. This is why NLP works. The usage of positive words help. Having a clean, decluttered environment helps. Avoid toxic relationships help.

  • Our brains are malleable and can be reshaped with very little intervention. A simple massage, sunlight, a good laugh, a good environment can help in neurogenesis. All the brain wants to do is move, connect with surroundings and engage with environment. Positive life changes leads to positive brain changes. You can achieve those without any medication like SSRIs.

  • A gratitude journal, a simple sleep routine, a mindful living, deep breathing helps immensely. The body by nature can’t produce some neurotransmitters in stress so induce the production by just taking a walk, smiling more etc. You can prevent your brain from sinking into depression by doing little things like running, jumping, hugging, social interactions, laughing and more. This helps in getting tired, syncing your circadian rhythms etc

One small step to strengthen your brain will make it easier to take the next one. If you are unable to do this on your own, rely on someone to help you calm down your emotional circuitry and increase positive neurotransmitters. It will take you to the next step forward.

In my personal experience, I have noticed that there are one or two adults in life who are key to providing that resilience. I attribute all my resilience to my ever supportive mom and an amazing partner who is always there whatever happens. Those little hugs, long walks, good massages, good sleep, good food, hot showers, little pecks keeps you going. If you don’t have a family member who is supportive, having a mentor or a coach (who is your well wisher) can build your resilience in your adult life. You don’t need lots to be resilient. Just one or two positive people around you will do. You can change your brain and change your world. It is my dream to transform all our brains (and in turn all our lives) through building compassionate communities.

We started Maker’s Guild with that intent at heart. So it is not just about design and product but it is also about those little walks, no sugar diets, hi-five GIFs, hugs, laughters, chai-charcha and more. It is a privilege to touch lives and my short cut is to touch brains positively 🙏

There cannot be a better gift than sharing my greed with you like this 🎉 Let’s make it happen!

🥂 to compassion!

Yo! Thanks for reading. Means a lot to me as attention is the hardest currency 🙏

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