CorStone’s focus is on promoting resilience in the face of challenge, conflict and crisis. So I geared my presentation toward:
* techniques from body-based trauma therapies to help people stay within their “window of tolerance,” not too hyper-aroused, agitated or panicked, not too hypo-aroused, shut down, depressed.
* techniques from attachment-based, relational therapies to help people activate the release of oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust, of “calm and connect,” to antidote the body-brain’s flood of cortisol, the stress hormone of fight-flight-freeze.
* techniques from mindfulness-based therapies to help people better attune to and reflect on their own experiences and the experiences of others, shifting perspective to keep the big picture and recover resiliency.
* techniques from interpersonal neurobiology to help people use their innate social engagement system to find comfort and support from other people.
All of these techniques (some I’ve presented in previous newsletters) depend on the nine functions of our mature brain’s pre-frontal cortex.. I thank Dan Siegel, M.D., psychiatrist at UCLA, founder of the discipline of inter-personal neurobiology (how the development of the brain is kindled, shaped, conditioned and matured by mindful empathic relationships) and author of The Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and the Mindful Therapist (Dan can write books faster than I can read them) for identifying these nine functions. I’m organizing my thoughts about resilience around the pre-frontal cortex, because the pre-frontal cortex,
considered by neuropsychologists to be an “evolutionary masterpiece,” is far and away the single most integrative structure of the brain for supporting resilience.
The pre-frontal cortex integrates information from the bottom up – from the body and all of our senses – through the limbic system – the emotional engine of brain, with top down processing – signals to and from all the other lobes of the cortex – the “higher” conscious processing functions of our brain that are the neural substrate of memory (conscious and unconscious), attention, motivation, planning, judgment, and behavior. The pre-frontal cortex integrates the different modes of processing of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex integrates experiences from the past, present and future to create a coherent narrative of who we are and how our life makes sense. It is these many modes of neural integration from the pre-frontal cortex that promotes – is, in fact, the neural substrate of – resilience.
So here goes:
1. Regulation of the autonomic nervous system, staying calm and engaged
The first function of the pre-frontal cortex is regulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is the extension of the brain and brainstem throughout the body. The ANS is the part of our nervous system that automatically, without any conscious processing, regulates our heart rate, our breath rate, our digestive processes. We don’t have to be conscious to breathe or to have our heart pump blood or to digest our food, thank goodness. That’s all below the radar.
We can become conscious of our breathing as we do in meditation and yoga when we breathe deeply to calm the body and calm the mind. We can become conscious of our heart center, which many visionary researchers see as an auxiliary brain anyway. There are brain cells – neurons – around the heart that are activated when we experience disappointment or grief or shame. Why there can be a literal feeling of heartache or heart break. Why when we breathe a sense of goodness and safety into the heart, the heart rate slows down. We can intuit what is going on in our gut, whether something feels OK to us or feel “off”.
The ANS is central to resilience because it keeps us in a “window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is a zone where our nervous system is relaxed, calm, alert, engaged. When we are in our window of tolerance, which we hope is most of the time, we feel centered and balanced. Everything is humming along in equilibrium. When we are in our window of tolerance, we can perceive-process-respond to life events with a kind of wise equanimity. We can cope. We can be resilient.
When something new, challenging, alarming comes up, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (SNS) is automatically activated; we unconsciously mobilize to meet whatever the new situation, challenge or threat is. When we are regulated by the social engagement system of our pre-frontal cortex, we turn to people near us to help, for regulation, or we turn to memories of people where we have felt loved, understood, supported, to keep us in the sense of everything is OK, everything is going to be OK.
It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.
– Irish blessing, thanks to Mary Pipher
When we are safely connected with others, in current time or in virtual, and thus stay in our window of tolerance, we mobilize quickly, act skillfully, take care of business and return to normal. So it’s the conscious regulation of the pre-frontal cortex through our social engagement system that keeps us in our window of tolerance – mobilized without fear.
When we are startled or frightened by circumstances, more than our conscious social engagement system can handle, or, from deficits of attachment and bonding, there isn’t an internalized social engagement system to handle it, the SNS is activated to mobilize us but without enough regulation. We rev up out of the window of tolerance into alarm, agitation, anxiety, panic rather than wise resilient action. We need to consciously down-regulate the fear and agitation, we need to re-connect with a safe other(s); we need to activate the calming parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to come back down into the window of tolerance where we can think calmly and respond skillfully. Where we can be resilient.
Conversely, if we are very calm, very relaxed, if the calming PNS is operating without fear, we can become blissfully immobilized as in meditation, sleep, the afterglow of making love. But if there is not enough activation of the SNS, if there is not enough conscious social engagement to help us feel connected and safe and there is fear, we can withdraw into an unconscious immobilization of lethargy, numbness, depression, dissociation. Too much PNS without enough connection and engagement. We need the pre-frontal cortex to consciously mobilize the system a bit, reconnect the social engagement system, have a little more gas of the SNS rather than so much brakes of the PNS. So we can engage and respond to the challenge of the moment with resilient coping, not a numbed out withdrawal.
(See Exercise #1 below for a very simple exercise to activate the social engagement system of the pre-frontal cortex and stay in the window of tolerance.)
The neuroscience is: the amygdala in our mid-brain operates unconsciously 24/7 as our alarm center, and our most primitive emotional processing center. It constantly assesses for threat or danger and when it perceives threat or danger, it signals the HPA axis to release cortisol – which is the body-brain’s response to stress. Cortisol floods our body-brain and mobilizes us to act, to move, to protect, to defend, to change the situation, to cope.
When we don’t have enough conscious social engagement of the pre-frontal cortex to keep us regulated in the window of tolerance, the arousal of the SNS and the amygdala’s release of the cortisol revs us up right out of the window of tolerance into the stress response of fight-flight. Of, if the arousal bumps us into previously learned patterns of coping through passivity, submission, confusion, withdrawal, or isolation, , the body can drop precipitously into collapse-freeze, shutting down and immobilizing the system to be safe.
Either way, the antidote to the stress response of fight-flight-freeze and the antidote to dis-connection, withdrawal, shutting down, is the regulation of the ANS through oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the natural occurring hormone of safety and trust, of bonding and attachment. It is released through warmth, touch, movement. Common catalysts for the release of oxytocin are orgasm and breastfeeding. Neuroscientists are discovering any time we feel safe, warm, loved, and cherished, we activate the release of small does of oxytocin in the brain. They are discovering even thinking about, imagining, remembering being loved and cherished is enough to release the oxytocin.
And oxytocin is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to cortisol. It down regulates the flood of cortisol through our system immediately. It is the hormone of calm and connect that antidotes fight-flight-freeze. Have you seen a child or a friend in the throes of an upset, and a gentle hug and a “there, there” and the child-person calms down and re-groups almost instantaneously. That’s the regulating effect of the oxytocin. We come back into the window of tolerance where life can be coped with again because our higher thinking brain can stay online. We can choose how to respond. The reaching out with a hug, a hand on the back, a hand on the heart, can release the oxytocin. It also re-activates the social engagement system of the pre-frontal cortex. The oxytocin and the re-engagement creates a felt sense in the body of safety and trust, of connection and belonging. This is a neurochemical transformation to calm us down and re-engage with a safe other. It is the neurochemical foundation of resilience, lifelong.
2. Quelling the fear response
Not only can the pre-frontal cortex calm down the stress response and bring someone back into calm and connection through the release of oxytocin. The pre-frontal cortex can also use the social engagement system to pre-emptively quell the fear response of the amygdala in the first place. Numerous research studies at U.C. Davis and the University of Wisconsin are now showing that when someone is “primed” to feel safe, connected, loved before they experience a stressor, their body-brains have less reaction to the stressor, sometimes no reaction at all. Stressing events simply roll off them more easily, like water off a duck’s back. This is a fundamental feature of resilience, to simple be less reactive to stressful events when they occur.
Neuroscientists now know the pre-frontal cortex does this pre-empting by growing neuronal fibers down to the amygdala; it’s only a few cell layers away, that carry GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) which quells the fear response in the amygdala. You can buy GABA in health food stores as a stress reducer. You can also do exercise #2 in Exercises to Practice below.
3. Regulate emotions; resilience is not blocked by fear or shame
The third function of the pre-frontal cortex is to regulate emotions. Emotions are waves of body sensations that signal us to “pay attention, this is important!” and that mobilize us to act. Every emotion has signature physiological markers and adaptive action tendencies. If we’re angry, we contract, tense up, ready to fight; anger mobilizes us to take action against injustice or a boundary violation. If we’re afraid, we stop, we go on alert, we become hyper-vigilant, we scan, ready to flee, to run. In sadness and grief, we feel waves of sensations welling up, tears welling up. We fold in and become smaller, more childlike; the action tendency is to pull for comfort and support. If we’re feeling ashamed, we feel an inner drop like the rug is pulled out, we collapse, we withdraw, disconnect, hide to become invisible, to not draw attention.
All of these emotions trigger active protective responses, sometimes resilient, sometimes not. There are also emotions of delight, joy, interest, curiosity, play. We’re activated and regulated. These emotions mobilize us to move in approach toward an event, experience, person. And emotions of peacefulness and contentment that allow us to remain quietly alert in our window of tolerance.
The pre-frontal cortex is what allows us to consciously feel, recognize and hold the waves of emotions as they move through our body, and they do move through our body as long as we stay regulated, as long as we’re not hijacked by the amygdala revving up or shutting down the system.
We can feel hijacked by our emotions, we all have been, when we get into a state and we can’t come back out of it for a few moments, or hours, or days, or weeks, or months. (People do get stuck in anxiety, rage, depression for very long periods of time.) So the key to being resilient around emotions is to stay regulated, so the body sensations of the emotions can move through; to become regulated by someone else like a therapist or a friend so waves of emotion can move through, and then to let them move through.
One skillful way to hold and process an emotion is to allow the emotion, feel it fully, compassionately, and then to skillfully allow a very positive pro-social emotion like gratitude, kindness, compassion, to arise also and allow the two emotions to be present at the same time. When the positive emotion is felt in the body strongly enough, the neural circuitry of the two emotions will begin to pair together, fire together and wire together. The positive emotion will literally re-wire the neural firing pattern of the negative emotion. (See Exercise #3 for a simple exercise to learn to do this.)
The neuroscience behind this: a mechanism of neural de-consolidation – re-consolidation discovered in the last 10 years. When we remember an event, especially if we can evoke a body memory of the event, when we bring that body memory to consciousness, we light up the synaptic connections that hold that memory in long-term storage, even implicit memory, outside of everyday awareness. The memory network is lit up, the neurons are firing. If we bring up a negative memory, and then bring up, simultaneously, a memory that contradicts or disconfirms the first memory, the two memories are now lit up together, firing at the same time. Neurons that fire together wire together, the memory networks, the synaptic connections, de-consolidate for a fraction of a second, and re-consolidate a fraction of a second later, changed. The neurons of the two memories have wired together. When the second, more positive or more wholesome memory is stronger than the first, more negative memory, the second memory trumps the first memory and changes it in a more positive direction. This change, researchers are discovering, can be immediate, and it can be permanent. The process of deconsolidation-re-consolidation is how trauma memories can resolve, more like dissolve, and no longer hijack us. (See The Brain’s Rules for Change in Books and Website’s below.)
This process of D & R is very important for resilience, because once we experience this resolving happen even once, we know we can do it again and again. Even knowing that strengthens our capacities for resilience.
4. Attunement: the felt sense of another’s experience, someone else “getting” ours
Our pre-frontal cortex learns the first three functions – regulating the ANS, quelling the fear response, and regulating emotions – by being in relationship with caregivers who can do that for us. The capacity of caregivers to regulate their own ANS and quell their own fear response and regulate their own emotions is what matures the pre-frontal cortex of the developing brain of the growing child, or de-rails it. The empathic attunement of a parent to the child’s needs, moods, fears, joys, internalizes in the child a felt sense of a safe haven in the parent, and internal secure base within the child. When the child experiences fear, it runs to the parent for protection and comfort. We are neurobiologically hardwired that way. The drive to seek physical proximity to a caregiver in times of perceived threat and danger is more primary than the drive for food, and operates lifelong. And when the parent protects-comforts the child, the fear response is quelled and the exploration, play motivational systems open up and the child goes off to learn. When a growing child experiences fear when they are away from their parent, but can remember or imagine the protection and comfort of the parent, they can regulate and soothe and comfort themselves, re-group and go out to play or deal again. They are becoming resilient.
The attunement of early attachment builds a healthy resonance circuit in our brains. Very briefly – mirror neurons fire in our brains when we “read” another’s facial expressions, eye gaze, the body language of their posture and gestures, hear the emotional meaning of their tone of voice. Signals travel from mirror neurons (or bridge neurons as Louise Cozolino calls them because their neural firing bridges the comprehension of intention from one brain to another) through the insula (structure of interoception – knowing what’s going on in our bodies) up through the emotional processing center of the limbic system to the pre-frontal cortex where we “know” what the other person is feeling, the foundation of the next function of the pre-frontal cortex – empathy.
The pre-frontal cortex takes about 25 years to fully mature, well into adulthood. So there are many opportunities for others brains to help the pre-frontal cortex of the child’s brain mature the resonance circuit that supports the capacities of resilience, other relatives, teachers, coaches, peers, partners. And even after the child becomes an adult and the pre-frontal cortex becomes stable in its functioning and the neural circuits of response to life become somewhat fixed and automatic, predictable, (sometimes seemingly intractable) the brain retains the capacity to grow new neurons and re-wire its circuitry lifelong. It’s the neural plasticity of the brain and ongoing experiences of “feeling felt” that help us continue to mature, or recover in the first place, these functions of the pre-frontal cortex well after adulthood.
The roots of resilience are to be found in the felt sense of existing in the heart and mind of an empathic, attuned, self-possessed other.
– Diana Fosha
Step 5. Empathy: You know what I know, and I know that you know
Neuropsychologists see empathy as the integration of body-based information and emotional signals and cognitive thought and beliefs about another’s experience, making sense, making meaning, creating understanding, and then checking out the accuracy of that understanding through a verbal feedback loop. I experienced the difference between attunement and empathy when my mother died. Many, many good people could attune to the grief and disorientation I was feeling. And I found it was the people who had lost someone to death themselves who could deeply understand, and convey that empathic understanding of, what I was going through, oftentimes more than I could grasp myself at the moment.
Neuropsychologists now posit it was the need for empathy – the need among our ancestors on the savannah to understand quickly what other members of the tribe needed to communicate about potential danger to the tribe, and the need to nurture a growing child and developing brain through such a long period of dependence and maturation, that drove the evolutionary development of the “higher” human brain, the complex frontal lobes of the cortex that eventually developed language and all the capacities of thinking evaluating, planning that are where we usually focus our interest in resilience. The pre-frontal cortex is considered the evolutionary masterpiece of that cortex.
The title of “evolutionary masterpiece” is not just for the importance of the PFC’s nine functions individually, but for the integration of all nine functions that allow us to be fully resilient.
The pre-frontal cortex integrates bottom up processing of body based sensations and emotions, with the top down processing of conscious reflection and awareness.
The pre-frontal cortex integrates the approach bias of the LH with the avoid bias of the RH so we can wisely engage and have good boundaries.
The pre-frontal cortex integrates the logical, linear, language based mode of processing of the LH with the holistic, imagistic emotional-relational mode of processing of the RH, vastly increasing our options through greatly expanding our perspective of choices.
The pre-frontal cortex also integrates memories, explicit and implicit, of experiences of the past with experiences of the present and projections into the future so we can develop a coherent conscious narrative about all of who we are, how we came to be where we are in life, and what we can do next about the unknown.
The pre-frontal cortex, through self attunement and self empathy, allows us to integrate all parts of who we are, all split off, exiled parts of our selves, so we have all of our innate wisdom from all of our experience and use up less energy managing those split off parts through denial, dissociation. That integration frees so much energy for resilience.
The pre-frontal cortex, through attunement and social engagement with others, integrates our experience of self and others with other people’s experience of self and others, including us. Brains develop in interactions with other brains, and the pre-frontal cortex allows us to learn how to live life resiliently from people close to us as well as from mentors, role models, literary and historical figures. We can take in their resilience and use it to inform and expand ours.
The pre-frontal cortex allows us to integrate various levels of consciousness, from clear spacious awareness in the moment, not hooked anywhere, to moments of awareness of being with experience in the moment, often many at a time, to moments of recognition of being embedded in an experience, caught in the moment, believing this moment, this state, is the only state that’s true.
It is those many modes of neural integration from the pre-frontal cortex that promotes – is, in fact, the neural substrate of – resilience.
6. Response Flexibility: pause, options, evaluate options, appropriate decision
We see the integrative function of the pre-frontal cortex operating on steroids in the capacity of response flexibility: the capacity to stop, hold the experience, whatever it is (regulate the body arousal and emotional waves triggered by it), step back (which may require lots of practice dis-entangling from one’s experience in the moment, seeing clearly that this is one experience in one moment, not the only truth forevermore), engage the capacities of the cortex to consciously think, reflect, evaluate, and then, from unentangled engagement and responsiveness, choose wisely and act.
Response flexibility is the fulcrum of resilience. (And it’s where most coaching about resilience begins.) In order to cope with change, we have to be able to change how we cope. The more flexible someone can be, not chaotic or floundering but no longer embedded in their neural cement, the more options they can identify, the more resilient they can be.
I recently learned an excellent protocol to promote response flexibility, from Alan Marlatt who uses it in recovery programs: S.O.B.E.R:
STOP it takes 3-5 seconds for the conscious processing of the cortex to come online in response to any experience, so we need the pause to hold the unconscious turbo-charged reactivity of the ANS and the amygdala. Counting to ten will do, five deep breaths will do, for the cortex to even be available to process the experience.
OBSERVE Mindfulness practice is so exquisitely excellent here in training the mind to observe what is happening in the mind and body as well as in the external environment without reactivity, judgment, moving to fix or running away. Mindfulness breaks the automaticity of our habitual reactions and allows us to see clearly what is actually happening out there and in our inner landscape of response.
BREATHE deep breathing does calm down the nervous system (back to the window of tolerance, always back to the window of tolerance) and creates the pause we need to see clearly.
EXPAND PERSPECTIVE To be resilient, we must be able to dis-embed from the neural cement of habitual response – detach from the experience for a moment, to see the experience of the moment as only one possible experience our of many moments. The experience of this moment is here now, but is not the only experience in this moment, and it is not the only moment in a life. When we can dis-entangle, step back, reflect, we can move form “poor me” to an empowered “I” that can act on its own behalf. This expanded perspective allows us to see any previous patterns of response as patterns. There can be new responses, new patterns, and once we see that, even once, the door is open to look for options and choices about anything and everything.
RESPOND WISELY Role models and proven paths of wise effort (letting go of the unskillful or unwholesome, cultivating the skillful or the wholesome) can be great guides to making resilient choices once we see – from an expanded perspective – that we have choices, even if the most skillful action at the moment is to endure, SOBER, in faith that eventually we can effect change, because it is in the nature of everything to change.
Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
– Viktor Frankl
7. Insight – self-awareness
The integrative capacity of the pre-frontal cortex is also essential to be able to take in the difficult truth of trauma or tragedy – that “bad things happen to good people.” To cope with the mysterious and precarious unpredictability of life, we have to be able to expand our perspective from “why me?” to “why not me?” To realize my pain is part of the pain of the human condition, and get on with the work of coping.
The pre-frontal cortex is what creates the coherent narrative of a life – making sense, making meaning of everything that is happening to us as it happens (or later in wise retrospect). To make sense of everything that has ever happened to us in one coherent whole. We must be able to integrate “here’s what happened; here’s what I did or didn’t do; here’s how well that worked, or not; here’s what I’ve learned; here’s what I would do differently now or who I am differently now.”
There are no mistakes when there is learning.
– Julia Butterfly Hill, environmental activist
The pre-frontal cortex creates the neural integration of the “story” – how we relate to our experience that becomes the platform for Dan Siegel’s acronym for mental health: FACES – to be flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, stable – and that is the platform for the next step into the unfolding unknown.
8. Intuition: the “gut” feeling
Besides a more clear and conscious knowing of what’s what and what choices we can make to cope most resiliently, the pre-frontal cortex allows a person to sense into their own core values, to know at a deeply intuitive level, what’s right for them to do or not. We call this a gut feeling because the ANS – breath, heart and gut – are involved. But intuition is a deep and profound knowing often below the level of conscious processing of what makes the most sense. The pre-frontal cortex integrates that “felt” knowing with conscious knowing and allows our intuition to guide our choices. (See Exercises to Practice below for simple way to tune in to your own intuition.)
The words integration and integrity have the same Latin root meaning whole or entire. This last function of the pre-frontal cortex – morality – is not about right or wrong in the sense of following the rules. It’s more based on empathy, and an understanding of the inter-connectedness of all beings, and therefore we can make choices not just for personal survival (which the amygdala does full-time) but for the common good. And when we can let ourselves care about the common good and receive from the common good, we can be much more connected and much more resilient.
(See stories to learn from)