Increase Resilience

with Three Key Neuroscience Facts + Strategies from Emotional Intelligence

by Michael Miller

The collective, widespread suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed resilience and mental health from niche topics to urgent priorities, for both people and businesses. The result? Interest in resilience is at an all time high. Organizations of all kinds – from schools to Fortune 500 companies – are increasingly investing in resilience and emotional intelligence as a foundation for wellbeing. Even better news: while its mainstream popularity is new, researchers have been studying resilience for decades. Through robust, longitudinal studies from psychology & neuroscience, we know the key drivers of resilience.

As you develop strategies for your workplace and in supporting your clients, leverage these three evidence-based facts about resilience: 

1. Resilient brains look different: Activate Emotion for Meaning

At first glance, resilient brains and non-resilient brains look exactly the same, per research from Harvard Medical School – a finding that surprised the researchers and ran counter to their expectations. Upon closer examination, however, researchers at Harvard and beyond have been able to identify key differences in the makeup of resilient people’s brains. So, what sets them apart? 

First, resilient brains show higher activity levels in the left prefrontal cortex – a region of the brain known for its role in emotional responses, mood regulation and meaning making. Dr. Richard Davidson, a pioneering resilience researcher, wrote in The Emotional Life of Your Brain that “the amount of activation in the left prefrontal region of a resilient person can be thirty times that in someone who is not resilient.” 

Interestingly, further research at Davidson’s lab found that it wasn’t just the activity in the left prefrontal region that predicted resilience, but the level of connectivity between the left prefrontal region and the amygdala – the threat detection center of the brain that activates the fight, flight or freeze response. Using MRI technology, he found that the strength of this connection determines how quickly people bounce back from an upsetting experience: the more white matter (axons connecting neurons) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient people are. What’s the relationship between them that would create this effect? You may recall that naming emotions has been found to reduce the intensity of feelings, and it appears to be the same phenomenon in play here. Naming emotions activates the left prefrontal cortex, which in turn calms the amygdala. 

As we make meaning of a feeling by naming it, the amygdala calms down, providing space to access the cognitive parts of our brain, process adversity, and see new options moving forward. Framing adverse experiences is crucial to resilience, and naming emotions is the first step.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE STRATEGY

Build your white matter by putting adversity into words.When you name emotions, you strengthen the neural networks that connect the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex. Research suggests you can do this both verbally or in writing.

One helpful habit is doing emotional check ins throughout the day (Simply ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and write down the answer). It not only strengthens those networks between our thoughts and feelings, but can also help you feel in control by learning to recognize your stressful triggers.

This requires the emotional intelligence skills of Enhancing Emotional Literacy and Navigating Emotions.

2 How resilient people think of themselves: See Yourself As a Learner

For over three decades, a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner followed a group of 698 children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life. She wanted to know what set resilient kids apart, what factors helped them overcome difficult circumstances – and she identified several factors that predicted resilience. Some were social, and seemed to have more to do with luck than anything else: Resilient kids, for example, tended to have formed a strong relationship with a teacher, coach, relative or other mentor-like figure. But other factors were more stable psychological traits. One, in particular, had remarkable predictive power, and it was what researchers call “an internal locus of control.” The resilient kids tended to have a disposition in which they viewed themselves as in the driver’s seat of their lives. They believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. On a test that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations higher than non-resilient kids. 

Werner’s research, of course, built on decades of research on the relationship between perception of control and response to adversity. Martin Seligman’s research on learned helplessness with dogs – starting in 1967 – first established this connection. When Seligman’s dogs internalized that nothing they did would have an effect on the outcome of getting shocked, they gave up – while the dogs who had control over their circumstances learned how to adapt. It turns out the same is true for humans when responding to adversity. Perceiving that you’re in control, that your actions will make a difference, makes all the difference. These findings established an essential pillar:

The learnable skills of optimism are central to resilience

When applying Seligman’s research on learned helplessness to humans, an interesting caveat emerged (as it often does when animal experiments become human experiments): Researchers found that people’s reactions to feeling a lack of control differs both between individuals AND between situations, meaning sometimes learned helplessness remains specific to one situation but at other times generalizes across situations – with disastrous consequences. What determines this difference? That leads us to the final fact about resilience: how we explain adversity matters a lot.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE STRATEGY

Internalize that resilience is learnable. The first step to building resilience is believing that you can, as the most common misunderstanding about resilience is that it’s fixed. “Resilience is 100% learnable,” says Dr. Sven Hansen, a medical doctor and founder of The Resilience Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, “Everyone can develop new skills and become more aware of how they respond to experiences.”

Believing you can grow resilience skills that you don’t yet possess requires the emotional intelligence skill of Exercising Optimism, or “knowing there are options even when you can’t see them.”

3 How resilient people explain adversity: Learn to Exercise Optimism

Subsequent research on learned helplessness found that much of the variation in how people respond to adversity depends on their explanatory style – or how they interpret or explain adverse events. An easy way to remember the elements of someone’s explanatory style is the 3 Ps. For someone with a pessimistic explanatory style, adversity is perceived as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s all my fault”), and pervasive (“It impacts everything”). People with a negative explanatory style are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression, and less likely to be resilient. 

An optimistic explanatory style, on the other hand, shifts the explanations from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t all my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed. My effort will make a difference.” This last point, of course, directly relates to Emmy Werner’s research on locus of control). Martin Seligman found that he could train people to adopt an optimistic explanatory style, which he called learned optimism. Further, he found that training people to change their explanatory styles made them more psychologically successful, more resilient and less prone to depression.

How we explain adversity is one of the most, if not the most important, factors in determining your resilience.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE STRATEGY

Recognize your explanatory style patterns – and build new, healthier ones. When facing adversity, pay attention to your explanatory style – and try to keep things in a long-term perspective. Remind yourself: This will not last forever. This is not changing everything. My effort will make a difference. Remember you can control how you interpret and respond to adversity.

In addition to Exercising Optimism, this requires the emotional intelligence skills of Recognizing Patterns

How to build resilience with emotional intelligence

What do these 3 resilience facts have in common? They all come down to combining thinking and feeling in smarter, more intentional ways. In other words: practicing emotional intelligence. To do so, we need to make friends with our feelings. Which brings us to a final strategy:

Instead of suppressing emotions, support them. Most of us have been socialized from a young age to ignore or suppress emotions, especially unpleasant ones. Unfortunately, when you ignore or suppress the challenging feelings that arise in the face of adversity, it actually intensifies those emotions over the long-term. Emotional intelligence is being smarter with feelings – and research suggests that recognizing and framing emotions is smarter and more effective than ignoring or suppressing them, as tempting as it is. This requires the emotional intelligence skill of Applying Consequential Thinking – weighing the pros and cons of your normal ways of responding to emotions.

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