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.
Real time connection with others. Ask for, and give others an ear, support and a hug.
Regulating our Emotions and our State
Our PFC also regulates our emotions. If we’re angry, afraid, sad or ashamed – we move away from others - we withdraw and disconnect. When we feel delight, joy, interest or curiosity we move toward a person, event or experience. All of these emotions trigger responses, sometimes resilient, sometimes not.
The pre-frontal cortex allows us to consciously feel, recognize and hold the waves of emotions as they move through our body. As long as we stay regulated they do move through our body, but when we’re hijacked by the amygdalae they rev up or shut down our system. We can feel hijacked by our emotions, we all have been, when we get into a state and we can’t come back out of it for a few moments, or hours, or days, or weeks, or months. So the key to being resilient around emotion is to stay regulated, so the body sensations of the emotions can move through.
How do you regulate your emotions? By building a habit of:
Consciously acknowledging and allowing emotions, feel them fully, compassionately. Then allow a very positive emotion like gratitude, kindness, compassion, to arise also and allow the two emotions to be present at the same time. When the positive emotion is felt in the body strongly enough, the neural circuitry of the two emotions will begin to pair together, fire together and wire together. The positive emotion will literally re-wire the neural firing pattern of the negative emotion.
Asking for help. We become regulated by a friend or a therapist, so waves of emotion can move through.
Resilience through self-awareness
(our core values and intent)
The pre-frontal cortex also creates our “story” – it helps us to make sense and meaning of everything that is happening to us.
To make sense we must become aware of and accept:
what I did or didn’t do
To make meaning we need to become conscious of:
how well that worked, or not
what I learned
how I am different now or what I would do differently in future
how I am writing my story (my perspective)
Besides a more clear and conscious knowing of what’s what and what choices we can make to cope most resiliently, the pre-frontal cortex allows us to connect to our own core values, to know at a deeply intuitive level, what’s right for us to do or not – to be conscious of our intent. It is a deep and profound knowing what makes the most sense. The pre-frontal cortex integrates that “felt” knowing with conscious knowing to guide our choices.
It is not about right or wrong in the sense of following rules. It’s more based on empathy, and an understanding of the inter-connectedness of all beings, and therefore we can make choices not just for personal survival (which the amygdalae do full-time) but for the common good.
And when we can let ourselves care about the common good and receive from the common good, we can be much more connected and much more resilient.