4 Steps to Build a More Resilient BrainYour brain is wired to avoid discomfort — emotional or physical — in an effort to ensure your safety. Throughout evolution, this strong instinct helped our species survive. A part of our brain, the amygdala, learns from past painful and fearful experiences and steers us clear of anything it thinks might be a danger in the future. While this does help keep you safe, it can also make you anxious, fearful, and afraid of taking risks that could be beneficial.

If we let our amygdalas run the show, no one would ever take a chance on a new love after having been hurt in a previous relationship. We would never trust again after being betrayed. We wouldn’t try to achieve our goals or dreams if we had failed at something earlier in life. Our amygdalas can keep us living small, fear-based, unfulfilling lives — if we let them. Resilience is about not letting your instinctual, emotional brain overpower your intelligent, higher-functioning brain.

In order to build a more resilient brain, you have to consciously learn to overrule your amygdala’s fear conditioning. Because your brain is actually designed to thwart any conscious effort to override the fear response, changing your relationship to fear isn’t easy, but it can be done. There are many ways you can turn down your brain’s fear alarm to help it learn new ways of responding.

What Exactly Is Resilience?

Resilience is the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress, such as family or relationship problems, serious health challenges, or workplace and financial issues. Essentially, it’s “bouncing back” from life’s difficult experiences.

Being resilient doesn’t mean that you don’t experience fear and challenges. In fact, intense emotional pain, extreme trauma, and severe adversity are common in people who are considered resilient. The road to resilience most often involves considerable hardship. That’s how these people get resilient. Their brains learn it. A resilient brain even functions differently.

Resilience Is a Skill You Can Learn

Resilience is one of the necessary skills Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske cite in their book The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success needed to develop a winner’s brain and live a happy life. The authors explain that resilient brains understand and accept pain and failure and realize that they don’t predict the future. The ability to get up, come back, and try again determines the future. They depict a resilient brain as one that:

…recovers from life’s challenges by dealing with shortcomings, misfires and failures whether they are self generated or brought on by circumstances beyond one’s control. Winner’s reframe failures so that they work to their advantage and recognize that when things don’t go according to plan, the journey isn’t necessarily over – and, in fact, failure is often a new opportunity in disguise.”

4 Steps to Build a More Resilient Brain

Teaching My Brain to Be Resilient

Resilience is not a trait that you are either born with or without. It’s a skill that you can learn. You can develop resiliency by intentionally changing your thoughts and behaviors. And over time, through the process of neuroplasticity, your physical brain will adapt to reinforce the skill. I am described as a resilient person these days, but I sure didn’t use to be. I’m one of those people who learned it through hardship and adversity. Here’s my advice for learning to be resilient:

Focus on the possibilities – not just the problems

When a problem or challenge shows up in your life, it’s your brain’s natural instinct to mull it over and over to try to come up with a solution. Your brain is just doing its job protecting you and looking out for your survival. Sometimes this can be productive and help you problem-solve. All too often, it is just worrying and ruminating – which is not helpful. In fact, the only difference between worrying and planning is the amount of emotional involvement and self-oriented processing.

These days, I remind myself to think of and put my energy into the possibilities, not just the problems. That includes the past, present, and future. This doesn’t mean that I ignore reality and live in a “just think positive” world filled with rainbows and butterflies. It means that I acknowledge and accept what is — both good and bad, consider my options and the possible consequences and outcomes, and choose to focus my energy on creating positive progress while being prepared to respond to whatever arises and work with it for my highest good. Do what you need to take care of your problems, but don’t invest any more energy into them than you have to.

Be persistent and patient

You are making your future today. Your life is a reflection of the thoughts you think, the choices you make, your actions, and your words. Those seemingly insignificant, small, in-the-moment, decisions that you make every day, all day about how you spend your time, the company you keep, what you put into your mouth, and what comes out of your mouth add up to make your future.

When I tried to end my life in 2007, I created the huge mess that followed, including a serious brain injury and having my kids taken away. I created that life for myself with the choices I made that led up to it. I did it to myself! When I realized this, I was shocked. Then, I got determined to create a different life for myself going forward. With determination, hard work, and discipline every day, for years, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, doing things differently, and the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the chaos, like a phoenix.

It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. It took persistent effort — literally for years. But think about how many years it took me to get to the place in my life where I did not want to be. I’m not saying you have to be “on it” every single day. That’s not realistic. I’m saying that when you slip (and you will — we all do), you get back on track as soon as you are able.

Get OK with Uncertainty

I’m not even going to say “embrace uncertainty.” It annoys me when people say that. I don’t like that cheerleaderish kind of talk. Who can do that? I applaud whoever can if they exist. I still can’t. However, I have gotten much more OK with uncertainty when it shows up in my life – which is all the time. Uncertainty is one of the few constants in life.

Just like your brain is wired to avoid pain, it is also wired to fear uncertainty. Your brain doesn’t just prefer certainty, it craves it. It will pursue the feeling of being right, known as “certainty bias,” every time. When you feel right, your brain is happy — even if it’s just an illusion. In the book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark writes:

The more certainty and control we think we have about a potentially threatening situation, the less stress we will feel. Interestingly enough, perception is all that counts with this. You don’t actually need to have perfect certainty or total control over how things will pan out; you just need to believe that you have them.”

I’ve learned to work with my perception of an uncertain situation to calm my mind. Think about it. Your mind is creating the fear. It can also lessen it. I focus on what I can control, reframe my anxious thoughts, visualize, and say affirmations to help myself. I have even found that when I let life surprise me, and mindfully respond to what does arise, situations often turn out better than I could have planned. Uncertainty doesn’t just bring bad things. I’ve learned that uncertainty is also the way many good things come into my life.

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  1. Debbie,

    I think it’s so important to know that resiliency is a skill we can build. Your own story is certainly a testimony to that. These three steps you’ve outlined are powerful ways to keep moving forward whatever happens. I think I do have some resiliency because I’ve weathered a lot of adversity and keep going. But I found your examples interesting, for example the one about not trusting again because I would find that hard at this point in my life. As you point out, that only means I’m cutting myself off from new and potentially positive experiences. Food for thought! Thank you!

  2. I was once interviewed by a researcher on resilience and stroke. She was trying to find out where resilience came from. I couldn’t tell her where mine came from, it just seemed to be there.

  3. It is amazing how much self-work we can do on ourselves when we know what to do. I am sharing this post with my son – I think it will help him learn that the tools we need to be stronger mentally are within us. These are tough times and for students, the social distancing and online only classes are taking a toll on their mental health, I think. Thank you for an excellent read, Debbie. My favorite tip here is getting okay with uncertainty because that more or less prepares us to tackle things in a much better frame of mind.

  4. We must be on similar brain waves Debbie regarding resilience! Your thoughts on uncertainty really hit the mark and staying on board with it has become easier over the years, but it still isn’t the place I’d choose to live in a lot of the time! Now I have to read the book you mentioned: Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, – it sounds right up my alley.

  5. Interesting, Debbie, that a resilient brain even functions differently. Being resilient has helped me in a number of challenges in my life. Having a positive attitude and telling yourself that you can get through a hardship helps. Your suggestion to be okay with uncertainty is exactly right. The answers are not always right there, but staying resilient and working through the problem can often lead to the solution with less stress and turmoil. Thanks!

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