Growing and Fostering a Resilient Brain

Resiliency, to summarize, is the ability to bounce back from difficult circumstances. People living with mental health challenges often have high resilience to the opposition because they have grown resilient through trial by fire.

This piece will focus on what is going on in the brain with resiliency and perhaps a few suggestions on how we can help our brains form it.

The Different Aspects of Building Resiliency

First, let us discuss what scientists believe are the building blocks of resilience. In one paper written in 2013, they examined the “multiple interacting factors” of resilience including, “genetics, epigenetics, developmental environment, psychosocial factors, neurochemicals, and functional neural circuitry, play critical roles in developing and modulating resilience in an integrated way (Wu et al. 2013.)”

Centering on the “neurochemicals and functional neural circuitry,” they go on to state that genetics (how we are changed by genetic changes) and epigenetics (the study of how a person’s environment influences their genes) interact and determine the biological characteristics of a person including how, when, and if they will form resiliency

One’s environment, where you grew up, your family of origin, along with any trauma that may have been involved, shape and regulate our genes and through that changes our neuroplasticity (the idea that the brain is pliable, and we can learn throughout a lifetime.) Neuroplasticity molds and modulates neurocircuits in the brain and forms psychological factors that underlie the formation of resilience.

Training Our Brains to Be More Resilient

Genetics and epigenetics are not the only forces molding our brains through neuroplasticity, and we can harness these factors to help our brains become more resilient.

A study conducted by Eric Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., utilized the social-defeat model of stress, used mice to model stress and responses to it, such as exhibiting the symptoms of depression. They put an average mouse in the cage with a more dominant and aggressive one. They continued the treatment for several days and then placed a screen between them. Some of the mice reacted with depression even though they had been removed from the aggressive mouse’s physical presence, but interestingly, other mice did not (Nester et al., 2012).

Nester and his colleague’s experiment gave insight into how the brain can become resilient to stress and aggression against one’s person. The next step was to understand why some mice formed resilience while others did not. In a quote by Dr. Nester, we find the answer.

“The most important and interesting principle is that resilience is not a passive process. It’s not that the resilient mice simply don’t show the bad effects of stress seen in susceptible mice. Some of those kinds of changes are seen, but by far the most predominant phenomenon is that the resilient mice show a whole additional set of changes that help the animal cope with stress.”

There is a firm connection between resiliency and neuroplasticity, which means all of our brains are pliable and can be changed, as we shall see, with exposure to stress so long as we keep in mind that we are the teachers of our brains (see my articles on neuroplasticity.)

Brain Changes and Resiliency

In yet another study performed by Ming-Hu Han, Ph.D. and colleagues focused on the neurobiology of “active” resiliency. Building on earlier work and also using the social-defeat model, they researched how gene expression is immensely different in resilient and stress-susceptible mice.

Interestingly, for every one-hundred genes changed in the susceptible mice, three times that or 300 genes changed in the resilient mice. Although both types of mice had increased brain activity, the resilient mice reached a threshold point then responded to their stressors in balancing and normalizing changes in their brains.

These findings don’t mean that resilient mice (brains) are not

This means that resilient brains are not asymptomatic following stress, but instead, they are actively using more genes to counteract stress. Another and perhaps more critical observation made by the researchers was that before things got better for the mice, things got worse for them in the time leading up to the tipping point where the resilient mice brains became counterbalanced to the stress (Friedman et al. 2014).

This, Han observed, was like the changes patients experience in exposure therapy, used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where people are exposed to their fears to gain control over their reactions to them. Exposure therapy patients will suffer more at the beginning of treatment, but will slowly their reactions subside as the brain adapts.

Summing it All Up

Genetics and epigenetics hold considerable sway over a person’s ability to form resilience. However, they are not the entire story. Although our brains may seem unchanging, they are plastic and pliable (neuroplastic.)

As it has been shown through research, brains form resilience in the face of stress, our brains are capable of creating a balance in our perceptions of what is happening to us, but first, we suffer before we heal.

Resiliency is something we can all learn to handle the stressors of our day-to-day lives in the rough-and-tumble world.

“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” ~ Robert Jordan

“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.” ~ Jodi Picoult

References

Averill, L. A., Averill, C. L., Kelmendi, B., Abdallah, C. G., & Southwick, S. M. (2018). Stress response modulation underlying the psychobiology of resilience. Current psychiatry reports, 20(4), 1–13.

Friedman, A. K., Walsh, J. J., Juarez, B., Ku, S. M., Chaudhury, D., Wang, J., … & Han, M. H. (2014). Enhancing depression mechanisms in midbrain dopamine neurons achieves homeostatic resilience. Science, 344(6181), 313–319.

Hunter, R. G., Gray, J. D., & McEwen, B. S. (2018). The neuroscience of resilience. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 9(2), 305–339.

Russo, S. J., Murrough, J. W., Han, M. H., Charney, D. S., & Nestler, E. J. (2012). Neurobiology of resilience. Nature Neuroscience, 15(11), 1475–1484.

Wu, G., Feder, A., Cohen, H., Kim, J. J., Calderon, S., Charney, D. S., & Mathé, A. A. (2013). Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 7, 10.

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org on February 15, 2021.

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.