Building a Resilient Brain - Where to Start?

Ah yes... resilience!

Most of the time people think they need to build resilience by avoiding stress. But  no -- this is absolutely the wrong thing to do (unless they find themselves already past a breaking point -- but that's a different story).

More recent research on the brain (and the same kind of “complex systems” that the brain is an example of) shows that we are better to push through the stress instead of pulling back protectively if we want to really build our resilience.

And this makes sense if you think of the brain like the rest of your body...

If you want to strengthen your muscles, what’s the best approach to take?

  1. Rest them as much as possible so they’ll have the energy when you need it

  2. Exercise the same amount in the same intensity each time to keep your muscles in shape and ready to respond

  3. “Stretch” yourself more each time mixed in with rest periods to build new capability and let the muscle rest and integrate the change

I’m pretty sure you know it’s not (1). This couch potato approach is a good way to have your muscles go to mush (aka “atrophy”).

You might regularly do (2), but if you do, you’re just teaching your muscles that they’ll never be required to do more than that level of exertion. If you try to do something more or different, you’ll be sore, unable to do it, or actually hurt yourself.

Answer (3) is the way to go and you probably knew this if you do any kind of cross-training. Why? Because in cross-training, you use a variety of muscles at a variety of speeds and a variety of intensities. And it’s variety that builds the capacity of the muscle to do whatever you need it to do:

  • When you “stretch” beyond your normal capacity, you give the muscle an opportunity to exert itself meet the new challenge in that moment

  • “Stretching” also signals the muscle with information that it may be required to exert itself this much in the future, so it grows and strengthens in order to be able to meet this potential demand

  • Rest (or “resting” during different kinds of activities) takes the strain off the muscle and lets it focus on repair and fortification (because the exercise creates little “damages”, eh? That’s what causes the growth)

So what does this have to do with the brain?

The brain works the same way:

-         Resting it as much as possible leaves you with mushy brain. “Use it or lose it” applies here too.

-          Doing the same thing every time “automates” everything. You’ll have a harder time rising to the challenge when something unexpected or difficult stress. Your brain will tend to stay in "automatic" and just do what it always does (whether it works for you or not)

-         Allowing your brain to “stretch”, including being stressed, actually strengthens the brain networks and its physical resilience.

When researcher’s peered into mouse brains while they stressed them, the stressors led to increased excitation of the brain – it revved into overdrive. Can you imagine feeling that way when you’re stressed and uncertain? I sure can.

But here's the most important piece: If they didn’t stop the stress, if they let it carry on for a bit, the brain started revving up not just the excitation, but something called inhibition – it started putting on the brakes more firmly, bringing the brain’s status back to a stable place.

See the parallels?

Greater demand -> better response to greater demands -> better stability in response to more stress

What does this mean for human brains? Does it mean the usual advice of time management, relaxation, etc. isn’t a good idea?

Not at all. It just means it’s not the whole answer. Here’s the prescription:

  • Don’t avoid stress – work through it, viewing it as good exercise that is just "stretching" your brain's capacity.

  • Activate the positive networks in your brain by using your social connections (who are you mirroring?) and using a growth mindset / re-frame things to see them in the best possible light for your learning and long-term progress

(Eh? What’s a growth mindset? Check here: Mindsets: An Introduction)

  • Build and maintain your brain’s physical resources through sleep, nutrition, physical exercise, and some form of what I’ll call "self-soothing". Many people like some form of meditation for this soothing; my personal favourite is something called heart coherence. Here’s a link to one of my other blogs if you want to know more about heart coherence.


So taking care of your brain doesn't exclude the care and feeling and relaxing and soothing -- this just isn't enough to build a resilient brain.

We’ll take a closer look at the how-to in my next post...

For now,  tell me what makes sense – or not – in what I’ve just shared please....