The Neuroscience of Building a Resilient Brain

What makes one person more resilient than another?

Some people go through unfathomable pain, tremendous suffering, and extreme hardship. While these events may slow them down and set them back for a bit, they manage to somehow endure, keep moving forward, and even grow through it all. On the other hand, some people are completely derailed by stressful life events, get stuck in depression, and maybe even spiral out of control.

As it turns out, it all boils down to how your brain handles stress.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress,  such as family or relationship problems, serious health challenges, or workplace and financial issues. It means “bouncing back” from difficult life experiences.

Being resilient doesn’t mean that you don’t experience hard times. In fact, emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity and trauma in their lives. The road to resilience most often involves considerable emotional distress.

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. When you break it down to the physical level in your brain, resilience is a neuroplastic process.

Resilience as a Neuroplastic Process

Eric Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., has made the study of resilience the primary focus of his neuroscience research. While human studies of the neurobiology of resilience are limited,  animal models of stress have contributed valuable insights about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying resilience. These insights are helping scientists unravel the physical mechanisms of resilience which may lead to drugs for treating depression and anxiety.

Nestler and colleagues use the “social-defeat” model to study stress in rodents. It involves placing a mouse in physical contact with a more dominant aggressor mouse for a few minutes a day, and then housing the mouse behind a screen in the same cage as the aggressor for the rest of the day. The mouse gets exposed to all of the sensory cues of the aggressor without actually having physical contact. In other words, the mouse is seriously stressed out.

This is repeated for ten days, after which most mice exhibit behaviors comparable to depression in humans. However, about a third of the mice don’t develop symptoms. These resilient mice are the focus of studies to understand what’s is different about them.

Nestler concluded that it all hinges on neuroplasticity.

Susceptibility to Stress Is a “Failure of Plasticity”

According to Nestler:

The most important and interesting principle is that resilience is not a passive process. It’s not that the mice that are resilient simply don’t show the bad effects of stress that are seen in susceptible mice. Some of those kinds of changes are seen, but by far the most predominant phenomenon is that the resilient mice show a whole additional set of changes that help the animal cope with stress.”

In other words, susceptibility to stress, a brain that’s not resilient, is a failure of plasticity.

Another study by  Ming-Hu Han, Ph.D., and colleagues demonstrated the neurobiology of “active” resilience. Han, an assistant professor in pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School, found in earlier work using the social-defeat model of stress that global gene expression was vastly different in resilient and stress-susceptible mice. For every 100 genes that changed in the susceptible mice, 300 genes changed in resilient mice.

More specifically, the researchers found that both groups of mice had increased neuronal activation in their brains due to the stress. However, the resilient mice brains reached a threshold point where they responded with compensatory, normalizing changes. This means that resilient brains are not insensitive to stress, but rather are actively using more genes to counteract stress.

One important observation the researchers made was that before things got better, they got worse. In other words, symptoms were more pronounced in the period up to the tipping point where the resilient mice brains kicked in to counterbalance the stress. Han likens the phenomenon to exposure therapy, which is used to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In exposure therapy, patients actually suffer more in the beginning, but eventually, the brain adapts and the treatment works.

This information could prove helpful in treating depression and other mental health conditions.

What a Resilient Brain Looks Like

According to Richard Davidson in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, resilience is one of the six dimensions comprising your emotional style. Resilience is marked by greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain. Davidson writes:

The amount of activation in the left prefrontal region of a resilient person can be thirty times that in someone who is not resilient.” 

Davidson’s early research found that signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, determine how quickly the brain will recover from an upsetting experience. More activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the period of amygdala activation. Less activation in certain zones of the prefrontal cortex resulted in longer-lasting amygdala activity after an experience evoking negative emotion. Basically, these people’s brains were less able to turn off negative emotion once it was turned on.

In later research in 2012 with the help of MRIs, Davidson confirmed that the more white matter (axons connecting neurons) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient you are. The converse is also true: less white matter = less resilient. By turning down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions. The brain can then can plan and act effectively without being stifled by negative emotion.

Don’t despair if you aren’t currently resilient. Every brain is capable of increasing the connections between the brain regions.

How to Increase Your Brain’s Resiliency

Again, resilience is not a trait that you either have or don’t have. It’s a skill that can be learned. You can develop resiliency by intentionally changing your thoughts and behaviors. Over time, through the process of neuroplasticity, your physical brain can change to reinforce the skill.

According to the American Psychological Association, here are some ways to increase resilience:

Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience. Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope. Assisting others in their time of need also can benefit the helper.

Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances may be a little better. Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with difficult situations.

Accept that change is a part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.

Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”

Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.

Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported better relationships, a greater sense of strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and heightened appreciation for life.

Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.

Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.

Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful. For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.

Mindfulness, visualization, and cognitive behavioral therapy have also been proven to increase resiliency.

5 Comments

  1. Debbie, I’m fascinated by this topic. I understand you to say that resilience can be learned and that your brain can be rebuilt in a sense to be more brilliant if you use some of the techniques you suggest. However, I suspect that some people are genetically less resilient than others, and that it’s much harder for them to develop resilience. For example, I’ve read that the brains of highly sensitive people are different than the brains of people who are not highly sensitive, and one characteristic of their brain is an overactive amygdala. So it seems like a tougher challenge for highly sensitive people to develop resilience. Not necessarily impossible, but more challenging, and even we greater resilience they may be more susceptible to stress events. I’m currently making my way through Brain Training for Highly Sensitive People by Julie Bjelland. So I have hope but it often seems like an uphill journey.

    • Sandra, I’m sorry if I give the impression it’s an easy thing to do. It’s not….but it can be done with time, persistence, and determined effort. I have done it. Yes, certain people have brains with a propensity to be less resilient because of various reasons: life stressors, childhood trauma, physical difference, etc… The course you’re taking sounds really beneficial. I hope you find it to be.

  2. This is an excellent post on resiliency, Debbie. Good to know as well that being resilient is something we can learn and practice. It is what has helped me get through the ups and downs of my life, for sure. A positive attitude is crucial as well as looking at the big picture. The list you included to increase resilience is very helpful, as well.

  3. I currently practice so many of your ways to increase your brain’s resilience Debbie. I think this is a great primer for those for whom overwhelm easily overtakes them. And like all things… not much changes overnight, but a little determination and persistence go a long way to helping yourself manage life better. 🙂

  4. Resilience is truly developed over time and it is never really easy. But I’m glad it’s an acquired skill. Your suggestions here are some I have tried ans tested. They are all excellent!

Write A Comment

Get information and inspiration on how to have your best brain and life delivered right to your inbox.

Close this popup