Ups and downs are a natural part of life we each have to weather. The hope is that they balance each other out in the big picture. Sometimes though, we experience events that so wholly transform our lives—heartbreak, loss, or even an accident that changes how we move through the world, like a brain injury.
In times of adversity, some people seem to be able to rise to the occasion, turning stress into strength, and drawing wisdom from the worst situations. They seem to remain grounded and see the good in life, despite hardship. We call this resilience.
Because life events can so profoundly impact our mindset, and also the physical structure of our brain, building resilience is a powerful skill set for a healthy brain.
So how do you train your brain to be resilient?
What does resilience really mean?
Resilience is the process of adapting in the face of adversity, or “bouncing back” from stress.
It doesn’t mean we don’t experience stress or hardship in our lives. Everyone feels sadness and emotional pain at times. Many people, for example, go through grief when adjusting to changes brought on by brain injury. These difficult emotions are common experiences, even among resilient people.
Resilience is a dynamic, rather than a static state. From a biological standpoint, according to Steven Southwick, MD, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Yale University “resilience is the ability to modulate and hopefully constructively harness the stress response.” The whole process makes use of our brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to heal and form new synaptic connections.
Rather than being an innate trait, resilience is like a muscle. Resilience is built by learning to regulate our bodies and minds after difficulty. Through a combination of behaviors, mindset, and actions, we can return to a state of function and balance.
Overcoming feelings of defeat
Difficult life experiences can leave us feeling defeated, and this can change the way the brain functions. To fully appreciate the power of a resilient brain, let’s first look at what happens in our brains when defeat takes the front seat.
One of the most studied models of resilience is the social defeat stress paradigm. In it, a smaller animal is exposed to the stress of competing with a more aggressive, dominant animal. After feeling defeated, the smaller creature may show signs of:
- Increased anxiety-driven behaviors
- Higher stress reactivity
- Metabolic changes
- Reduced neurogenesis
- Reduced motivation
The effects of defeat are very telling: defeat makes the subject anticipate future failure, and stop seeking social support and it suppresses the reward-seeking behavior that’s behind motivation.
What does this mean in the context of brain injury recovery? During recovery, defeat can come in the form of overexertion. When you push too hard, you’re likely to crash—and that’s when symptoms like fatigue, overstimulation, and frustration can reach a peak. If you let defeat get under your skin, these setbacks to healing can amplify negativity.
The great news—resilience starts with believing that even when you experience a setback, you can try, try again, and you can achieve positive results.
3 traits of resilient people
What gives resilient people the mindset to keep trying in the face of defeat?
Lucy Hone has been a resilience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for over a decade. She found herself putting her research to the test in a deeply personal way when she experienced her own tragedy in 2014—the sudden death of her 12-year-old daughter.
As shared in her TED Talk, Hone distilled her research and learnings from that life-changing event into 3 traits of resilient people that you can apply in your own life:
- Resilient people know that suffering is part of life. As Hone expresses, this doesn’t mean resilient people welcome suffering, but they recognize that everyone faces tragedy. This shifts their mindset when tough stuff happens. Rather than feeling victimized, they lean into resources to rise above life’s challenges.
For someone with a brain injury, this can mean knowing that you’re not alone. Concussions and brain injuries are widely researched and growing awareness means that there are tons of resources to help you adapt. Whether at work or at school, advocating for your needs and getting support can help you succeed.
- Resilient people are really good at choosing carefully where they select their attention. Generally, they manage to focus on the things that they can change and somehow accept the things that they can't. As humans, we are hardwired to have a negativity bias, to notice threats, and remember when things went wrong. This becomes a kind of feedback loop. Resilient people take control of this loop, infusing realistic optimism to create a more encouraging, constructive, positive feedback loop for themselves.
Practices like cognitive pacing support brain injury recovery by helping you tap into the positive feedback loop. It gives you a steady path of recovery and, step by step reinforces good mental health and a healthy brain.
- Resilient people ask themselves, "Is what I'm doing helping or harming me?" This simple question can be a powerful guide for your behaviors, attention, and actions in tough times. It can interrupt choices that feel comforting in the short term but might compromise your long term well-being.
With a brain injury, pushing yourself further when you’re feeling well might feel good in the short term, but if it leads to burnout, you’re not doing favors for your recovery.
In essence, what makes a resilient brain stay healthy and strong in the face of adversity is the opposite of defeat. Subjects expect that they can succeed in the future despite failure, they draw from social support (think: family, friends, health care providers, etc.) and they stay motivated towards reaching their goals.
How to transform stress into resilience
Knowing that stress is a part of life is the first trait of resilient people. The next step is learning how to harness that stress in constructive ways.
A few healthy ways to use stress to your advantage include:
- Positive reframing: Cognitive flexibility means being able to see your current situation from a new perspective. Rather than a permanent state, issues become problems that can be solved. This mindset can help you break out of a narrative of victimhood if that’s where you find yourself stuck. It’s not about suppressing feelings of sadness or grief, it’s about also being able to see a hopeful way forward.
- Facing stress in small doses: Too much stress is unhealthy for anyone, and can negatively alter your body and brain. Are you aware of the activities and stimuli that cause you the most stress? Start by limiting your exposure to them and then gradually increasing it over time. Think of it like training your brain. Little by little, you’re teaching your brain to stay calm and regulated during stress. While overwhelming yourself can lead to defeat, facing challenges in small doses can actually build up your self-confidence.
- Exercise and exertion: Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. Benefits include that exercise boosts levels of the feel-good neurochemicals dopamine and serotonin, which help to offset the impacts of stress or depression and help regulate mood and memory.
- Purpose: Connecting to a sense of purpose can keep you motivated even as you face stress. Purpose is a strong antidote to helplessness. When you’re working hard and putting consistent effort into your brain injury recovery, just remember your reasons for persevering through stressful times.
Rest—an essential ingredient to resilience
When you face your stress head-on and with a mindset of realistic optimism, you give your brain an opportunity to respond in new, constructive ways to difficult situations. But along with all your effort, rest is an essential ingredient to supporting a healthy, resilient brain.
Here are a few more ways to get more rest as you build resilience:
- Meditation: You can practice meditation at any time throughout your day to bring attention and a sense of calm to your body and mind. Meditation has been proven to help ease stress and anxiety, improve creativity, and help you to remain calm under pressure. Neuroscience has also revealed that meditation increases the density of the brain’s white and grey matter, enhancing its health and resiliency.
- Preparation: A little preparation goes a long way to bring ease to your life. Facing challenging situations, such as navigating a busy work or study environment with a brain injury, requires adaptation. Sometimes, adaptation is about responding at the moment; other times, it’s about being prepared for whatever you might face. Preparation might look like having some resources ready or practicing some skills you’ll need for an activity before you participate.
- Sleep: While you sleep, your brain is processing information and stimuli from the day, consolidating memories and physically healing. A core component of memory, mood, and mental regulation, sleep is fundamental to all areas of your health. By getting better sleep, you’re supporting your brain’s ability to process stressful situations and reinforcing all the resilience training you’ve put in place.
Resilience isn’t something you do or don’t have. It’s a skill you can build and develop over time using the tools we’ve explored above.
It’s true that traumatic events can radically change our lives, and in the process, they change the physical and mental structures of the brain. Fortunately, our brains aren’t static. That gives us the flexibility to overcome situations that are painful. Rather than give in to defeat, resilient people, develop the ability to find strength in the face of stress.
Resilient people do this by recognizing stress as a part of life, focusing their attention on the outcomes they want, and consistently practicing constructive behaviors. The result? Resilience leads to better well-being and a healthy brain.
- Lucy Hone: 3 secrets of resilient people | TED Talk
- Erasing Fears & Traumas Based on the Modern Neuroscience of Fear | Huberman Lab Podcast #49
- The Neuroscience of Resilience | Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research: Vol 9, No 2
- How to Build a More Resilient Brain | by Dana G Smith | Elemental
- The Neuroscience of Building a Resilient Brain
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