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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
"Resilience"

Definition of Resilience:

As always, the first thing that I want to do is talk about my definition of resilience. There are 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. 

One of the important things to realise about resilience, is that it’s not static, it’s an adaptive process. The resilience we have now is a snapshot of what we’re capable of. This is particularly relevant in the context of the teenage brain, which goes through massive change and growth. It’s a critical period of brain development where the brain is constantly learning and adapting, so teenagers have a tremendous opportunity to develop their resilience. 

Our brain changes as we become resilient through the process that I talked about in the last podcast called neuroplasticity. This is the way that our brain makes new connections in response to stimulus from our environment, both psychological and physical. The neurobiological basis of resilience is complex and continues to be the focus of research. Part of what we know about resilience is that our ability to control our stress response and recover is due, in part to the connections that exist between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain that detects threat and triggers our acute stress response, commonly known as our fight-or-flight response. The prefrontal cortex is at the front of the brain and is the part of the brain that helps to manage our emotions, calm down our fight-or-flight response and helps us to problem solve our way out of stressful situations. So when we want to build resilience, part of what we need to do is 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. If you’re in a stressful situation and you withdraw or avoid it, you miss the opportunity to develop your resilience. What it can actually do is strengthen the pathway for the withdrawal or avoidance response. When we immediately opt out of stressful situations without attempting to overcome, we miss out on the opportunity to develop confidence in our own abilities and to adapt and recover in response to stress in an active way.

Conversely, if you’re in a stressful situation and you are “present” in it, you experience the stress and then you use active coping strategies to get through it, those pathways will be reinforced and that contributes to our resilience.

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

The first thing that we have to do is we have to encourage them to lean into experiences where there is potentially stress. Constantly protecting them from risk, uncertainty and situations that scare them doesn’t serve them in terms of building their resilience. So in some ways, part of building resilience is developing a tolerance to some distress.

It’s that old saying of doing something every day that scares us. 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. An example might be singing karaoke together. It’s quite a stressful situation, but nothing life threatening is going to happen.The next step to build on that might be then encouraging your daughter to go into a stressful situation like that 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 and she feels as though she has some control over the stress e.g the stress of training to run in a fun run. Being exposed to controllable stress can actually help when she is faced with uncontrollable stressors in the future through a process called behavioural immunisation. It involves increased activity in the prefrontal cortex that we mentioned earlier. As parents the most helpful thing you can do is to arm your daughter with active coping strategies to help her manage these stressors.

What are active coping strategies? What do we do?

One of the best strategies is to encourage mindfulness when your daughter is in stress. So that is about her noticing what’s going on in her body and not avoiding feeling and being with the emotion. So that might include breathing through it and just reminding themselves that they’re okay. Stressful emotions feel bad, but they are transient and will pass.

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, engaging that prefrontal cortex and going, okay, what is this situation I’m in? What does this really mean for me? If my friend was in this situation, what would I say to her? And then the third part is to then take decisive action which brings in our problem solving abilities. What’s the next best thing I can do to manage this stressful situation?

So the next time your daughter finds herself in this situation where she is experiencing a moment where she is feeling stressed or uncertain and there’s an opportunity to build her resilience, you can look at mindfulness, reframing, and taking decisive action. 

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