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Resiliency – Strategies to Rewire an Adult Brain

Parents have the most important role in building resiliency in children. But how do parents build it in themselves? In this article, we will find out how to rewire an adult’s brain to build resiliency.

The experience of traumatic life events can trigger the development of clinical conditions such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and drug addiction. However, not everyone who encounters traumatic events develops these disorders. 

What is Resiliency

Resiliency is a person’s ability to continuously adapt positively and bounce back from stress, challenges, trauma, tragedy, or adversity.

However, resiliency is not a character trait or or some elusive innate quality. It doesn’t mean smiling all the time or seeing life through rose-colored lenses. Resiliency doesn’t erase stress or all of life’s difficulties.

Resiliency is a process in which people still experience pain and grief that comes with a tragedy, but they work through such feelings, keep functioning, and bounce back in life.

in an empty room, door open to a grass field metaphor for resiliency

What Helps to Build Resiliency

As it turns out, resiliency is related to the perceived control you have over a stressful event’s impact.

What does that mean? Let’s find out from the following experiment.

In a lab study, rats were placed in small boxes with a wheel mounted on the front. These rats, divided into two groups, were given electric shocks on their tails (stressful events). 

In the first group, the rats could turn the wheels to stop the shocks. In the second group, the rats couldn’t stop the shocks by turning the wheels. But each rat in the second group was paired with one in the first group, and they received the same amount of shocks as their partners.

After the stressful experience, the uncontrollable shocks group started showing behavioral changes. When they were put in a different escapable situation, they stayed instead of escaping. They became less aggressive, showed less social dominance, displayed signs of anxiety and generally had worse mental health outcomes. They were scared of new things, developed ulcers, and had exaggerated stress reactions to drugs.

Meanwhile, none of these happened in the controllable-shocks rats. Having an uncontrollable adverse experience early in life seems to set the rats up to be vulnerable later in life.

The more exciting result, though, was that when the controllable-shocks group was later placed in an uncontrollable stressful situation, they did not develop negative behavioral changes. That is, an initial experience with control in an aversive situation seems to “immunize” them. It’s the perceived ability to control, rather than the real control, that seems to have protected this group of rats, i.e. they had built resiliency.

Although this study was conducted with rats, resiliency research in human neurodevelopment corroborates with the results. 

Having control in a fear-inducing situation in early life activates a brain region called the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC can inhibit fear responses in our brains so that our brain can respond logically instead of being reactive to fear​1​.

When the person encounters another fear-inducing situation later, previous success in PFC activation allows the PFC to be activated again.

Even if the person doesn’t have actual control over the atrocity, the resiliency built in their early lives still allow them to endure the stress without crumbling.

mom kisses a smiling baby define resiliency

Resiliency Factors – for Children

Resiliency factors are protective factors that can stack up to counter the effects of adversities. Researchers have found that the single most common resiliency factor in children is having a close, positive relationship with a warm, responsive, and supportive adult. That person can be a parent, mentor, teacher, or another adult caretaker.

Having a positive relationship with a grownup allows a child to develop a secure attachment, which promotes neural integration and the ability to activate the PFC when facing adversities​2​.

Building Resiliency – in Adults

As adults, we cannot change how we were parented, who our teacher was, or whether we had a mentor when we were kids. Although building resiliency in adults is slightly different from building resilience in children, the underlying science is still the same.

Here are what you can focus on to rewire your brain and develop resiliency.

3 women and a man play cards together, good because social support builds resiliency

1. Make Connections & Build Relationships

Social support

Having caring and supportive relationships with others is the primary resiliency factor. Connect with people who are genuinely caring and empathetic to build support social networks. They can be close family members, friends, or others who are compassionate and will validate your feelings.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and make connections. Participate in community activities, faith-based organizations, or interest groups. Volunteering is also an excellent way to connect with others and to provide and receive social support. These social support systems can be the safety nets for you to fall back on during time of difficulties.

Separate toxic connections

While it’s important to build social support, it’s also crucial to avoid toxic relationships and people who dismiss your feelings, invalidate your pain or disrespect your needs. 

Cutting ties with people, especially those you’ve known for a long time like family members or close friends, can be scary and difficult. One of the key ingredients for resiliency is the experience of having control, but being stuck in a disrespectful relationship that causes pain can make even the most resilient feel helpless and not in control.

There are different levels of “cutting ties.” It doesn’t necessarily mean complete rid of contact or ending a relationship. You could simply state your needs to have a more caring and supportive relationship, and keep your distance.

man and woman hold their arms up to do moderate exercise, which is what is resiliency

2. Foster Wellness

Regular moderate exercise

Exercises enhance one’s resiliency to stress. It can increase resistance against stress-related psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression. Regular moderate exercise can also reduce stress-induced damages in the brain​3,4​.

Omega-3 fatty acid

A balanced diet and proper nutrition are crucial to a person’s physical health.

Scientists have found a strong link between omega-3 fatty acids and resiliency. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential components of the membranes that surround each cell in our bodies and brains.

The three main omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA, and DHA. DHA, in particular, is required for optimal brain functions. A resiliency study in the US Military found that low DHA levels were associated with increased risk of past suicide attempts and future suicide attempts​5​.

Another resiliency study also found that increasing EPA-DHA intake led to a 45% reduction in suicidal thinking and a 30% reduction in depression among patients with recurrent self-harm​6​.

Adequate amounts of omega-3s can be obtained by eating a variety of foods:

  • Fish and seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed and walnuts)
  • Plant oils (such as flaxseed oil and soybean oil)
  • Fortified foods (such as yogurt and soy beverages)
Man is asleep in cozy white bed, good mental health is resiliency definition

Sleep

Sleep is a grossly underrated well-being component and is vital in resiliency building. Short sleep duration or insufficient sleep is one of the risk factors for medical and mental health issues. 

A study conducted with U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq revealed that soldiers who had very short sleep duration, as defined by less than 5 hours of sleep, was at a significantly higher risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic disorder​7​.

To build resiliency, start with good sleep hygiene:

  • Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature
  • Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime
  • Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can also help you fall asleep more easily at night.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness is an awareness that develops from intentional, non-judgmental attention toward experience in the present moment. Being mindful through meditation can rewire our brains and build resiliency​8​.

Neuroimaging studies have found that practicing mindfulness increases gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the brain region that regulates emotions, and hence improves emotional regulation and resiliency​9​.

group of volunteers picking up garbage in the forest, community builds resiliency skills

3. Find Purpose in life

Volunteering – Many studies have found that having a purpose in life increases resiliency​10​. Volunteering can help you foster a sense of purpose and empowerment besides being an excellent way to connect with others.

Problem-solving – Be proactive in addressing problems in life. You may not be able to erase a problem or turn back time, but you can find alternative solutions that help you feel in control. If a problem feels too big, break it down into manageable pieces. Take one step at a time to solve it. Science tells us that feeling in control empowers us and grows resiliency.

For example, losing a relationship can feel devastating. You may not be able to convince your ex-lover to get back together, but you can identify what caused the problems in your relationship and work on self-improvement. Experiencing loss can often help us grow in some aspect, and lead to a better relationship later.

Set a goal and keep moving towards it – Coming up with realistic goals and developing plans to move towards them is another way to be in control of your life.

4. Nurture Healthy Thoughts

Avoid catastrophic thinking and reframing – When we’re sad or struggling, it is hard to keep things in perspective. Try to catch irrational catastrophic thinking and reframe the situation to adopt a more realistic view.

For instance, you have lost in a race today, but it doesn’t mean you will always lose. With practice, you can improve and compete again next time. The important thing to remember is that you are not helpless. You may not change what’s already happened, but you can change how you interpret the event and how to react to it. How you think can significantly affect your feeling and resiliency.

Acceptance – It is the willingness to acknowledge adversity as part of the life experience without attempts to control or avoid them. Acceptance is associated with better psychological adjustment following trauma, while avoidance and coping strategies involving emotional disengagement are associated with more psychological issues​8​.

Stay hopeful – There are ups and downs in life. It’s hard to be optimistic when life isn’t going your way, but staying hopeful is empowering. It allows you to expect that good things will eventually happen to you.

Ask For Help – Sometimes, it’s hard to build resiliency by yourself, especially if you have a history of early life traumas. Multiple risk factors, such as abuse and poverty, can add up and make it difficult to follow the kinds of strategies listed above by yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking for assistance can be scary, but it can also make a world of difference. An experienced licensed professional such as a psychologist can help you figure out the obstacles and come up with a proper strategy together with you. Remember, you’re not alone on the journey to resiliency.


References

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    Maier S, Amat J, Baratta M, Paul E, Watkins L. Behavioral control, the medial prefrontal cortex, and resilience. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(4):397-406. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17290798.
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    Jordan JV. Relational Resilience in Girls. In: Handbook of Resilience in Children. Springer US; 2012:73-86. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-3661-4_5
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    Childs E, de Wit H. Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Front Physiol. May 2014. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00161
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    Greenwood BN, Spence KG, Crevling DM, Clark PJ, Craig WC, Fleshner M. Exercise-induced stress resistance is independent of exercise controllability and the medial prefrontal cortex. Eur J Neurosci. November 2012:469-478. doi:10.1111/ejn.12044
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    Lewis MD, Hibbeln JR, Johnson JE, Lin YH, Hyun DY, Loewke JD. Suicide Deaths of Active-Duty US Military and Omega-3 Fatty-Acid Status. J Clin Psychiatry. August 2011:1585-1590. doi:10.4088/jcp.11m06879
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    Hallahan B, Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Garland MR. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in patients with recurrent                        self-harm. Br J                        Psychiatry. February 2007:118-122. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.106.022707
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    Swinkels CM, Ulmer CS, Beckham JC, Buse N, Calhoun PS. The Association of Sleep Duration, Mental Health, and Health Risk Behaviors among U.S. Afghanistan/Iraq Era Veterans. Sleep. July 2013:1019-1025. doi:10.5665/sleep.2800
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    Thompson RW, Arnkoff DB, Glass CR. Conceptualizing Mindfulness and Acceptance as Components of Psychological Resilience to Trauma. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. September 2011:220-235. doi:10.1177/1524838011416375
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    Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. January 2011:36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
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    Alim TN MD, Feder A MD, Graves RE PhD, et al. Trauma, Resilience, and Recovery in a High-Risk African-American Population. AJP. December 2008:1566-1575. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.07121939