Resilience – our Super Power
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
Dealing with Fear Series
How do people cope with challenging circumstances and come out the other side stronger and wiser? Neuroscience shows us how to increase our ability to strengthen our resilience by building new habits.
Dr Dan Siegel, author of The Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and many other books has identified 9 ways in which our brain, specifically our pre-frontal cortex (PFC), helps us to do this. In this blog I share my understanding of a few of these – and how ‘conscious living’ supports resilience.
Regulating our bodies
One of the primary functions of our PFC is the regulation of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS automatically regulates our heart rate, our breathing rate and our digestive processes. We don’t have to be conscious to breathe, for our heart to pump blood or to digest food.
The ANS is central to resilience because it keeps our bodies in a “window of tolerance” where our nervous system is relaxed, calm, alert. We feel safe and at ease. When we are startled or frightened, our bodies rev up out of the window of tolerance into alarm, anxiety, panic and fear – we do not feel safe. We need to consciously down-regulate the fear and agitation, we need to feel safe and return to the window of tolerance where we can think calmly and respond with all our resources. Where we can be resourceful, and resilient.
The amygdalae in our mid-brain constantly assess for threat or danger and when it perceives threat or danger, it signals the HPA (hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal) axis to release cortisol - our reaction to stress. The cortisol revs us up right out of the window of tolerance into the stress reaction of fight-flight -freeze – and we disconnect to protect ourselves. The antidote to fight-flight-freeze and disconnection is the regulation of the ANS through oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the hormone of safety and trust, released through warmth, touch and connection. When we feel safe, warm, loved, and cherished, we release small doses of oxytocin in the brain. Even thinking about, imagining, remembering being loved and cherished is enough to release oxytocin into our bodies.
How do you regulate your body? By building a daily habit of:
Consciously checking whether you feel regulated – check your breathing, heart rate, any physical symptoms of stress. Take the time to breathe, meditate or do an activity that calms you.
Setting yourself up to be resilient: consciously think of someone who loves you, supports you, believes in you. It helps if it is someone who is somewhat resilient themselves, but it’s more important that you feel safe, connected, understood, and cared about by them.