9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Resilience

The following is an excerpt from Episode 2 of the “Raising Girl Shaped Flames” podcast. If you’d like to hear the full episode, you can catch it here and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasting goodness!

9 Minutes of Neuroscience with Dr Diane Harner

Definition of Resilience:

So the first thing that I want to do is talk about my definition of resilience. There’s a few different ones out there, but the way I look at resilience is how we adapt and recover in response to stresses. So in other words, resilience is about how well our brain handles stress. 

And the important thing to realise about resilience, it’s not one of those things that’s static, the resilience we have now is just a snapshot of what we’re capable of. And that is particularly relevant for our teenage brain, which is going through massive change and massive growth. It’s one of the critical periods of brain development. So the potential for teenagers to develop their resilience is massive because resilience is an adaptive process. 

And what that means is that we change our brain changes as we become resilient through the process that I talked about in the last podcast called neuroplasticity. So that is the process of our brain making new connections. And so what we know about resilience is that it is about the connections that exist between the amygdala, which is in the middle of our brain, which is where we detect all of our threat and the prefrontal cortex, which is that the front of the brain, which is the part of the brain that sort of manages all our emotions and sort of makes us feel better and helps us to problem solve our way out of situations. So when we want to build resilience, we need to build those pathways between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Are the ways that we’ve often spoken about how to build confidence and resilience, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks or having failures and surviving failures is that physically building little connections in our brain?

The thing about resilience is that you don’t develop resilience by staying safe. You don’t develop resilience by not putting yourself in stressful situations because it’s about how you respond when you are in stressful situations that determine whether you develop resilience or not. So if you’re in a stressful situation and you withdrawal or avoid or detach from the situation and you remove yourself from it and you don’t want to experience that stress, that does nothing to develop your resilience. And what it does actually is strengthen that pathway for that response. And what that can lead to is a ‘learned helplessness’.

Conversely, if you’re in a stressful situation and you be present in it, you experience the stress and then you use active coping strategies to get yourself out of it the pathways that help you to get yourself out of it, will be in reinforced. And that is what resilience is.

How on earth do parents arm their daughters with active coping strategies?

So the first thing that we have to do is we have to encourage them to lean into experiences where they’re stressed by protecting them from risk by protecting them from stress. It doesn’t serve them in terms of building their resilience. So in some ways, part of what resilience is, is developing a tolerance to distress.

And so to do that we have to do that old saying of doing something every day that scares us. And so as parents, the best thing that we can do is encourage our kids to do that. Now, if you’re starting from a position of quite low resilience, the first thing that you might do is actually be with your child and experience those stresses together. So an example might be, you know, singing karaoke together. It’s quite a stressful situation, but nothing bad is going to happen. But then the next step to build on that might be then encouraging your daughter to go into those stressful situations on her own.

What level of stress do the girls need to be put under in order to ensure that they are going to be developing some sort of resilience out of the situation?

The idea is to put them into what’s called controllable stress. So it’s a stressful situation that has some risk attached to it, but is not going to be damaging in any way to either emotionally or physically. So, then what you do is you, arm your daughter with these active coping strategies.

What active coping strategies? What do we do?

One of the best ones that we can do is to encourage mindfulness when we’re in that stress. So that is about, noticing what’s going on in our body and not avoiding the feeling of the emotion. So that might include breathing through it and just reminding themselves that they’re okay. You know, that the emotion feels bad, but they are okay.

And once your daughter can sit with the emotion, it’s about reframing the situation. So when we’re in the middle of stress, sometimes we can blow things out of proportion and get overwhelmed by the situation. But it’s actually sort of stepping a little bit into our logical brain and going, okay, what is this situation I’m in? What does this really mean for me? And then the third part is to then take decisive action. And this then brings in our problem solving abilities. What’s the next best thing I can do to get myself out of this stressful situation

So the next time your daughter finds herself in this situation where she is experiencing a moment where there’s an opportunity to build her resilience or an opportunity to possibly continue down a learned helplessness angle, you can look at mindfulness, reframing, and taking decisive action

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