Resilience Starts in the Brain: Why Understanding Brain Science Is So Important for “Bouncing Back”

Resilience Starts in the Brain: Why Understanding Brain Science Is So Important for “Bouncing Back”

This month’s e-newsletter is a departure from the usual format of Reflections, Poetry and Quotes to Inspire, Stories to Learn From, Exercises to Practice, and Resources.

The 2014 New Brain Science series from NICABM recently offered six weeks of free webinars from:
* Daniel Amen, M.D – Food, Hormones, and the Brain: Essential Ways to Balance the Brain for Optimal Health

* Rick Hanson, PhD – Happiness and Neuroplasticity: Simple Strategies for Rewiring Your Brain

* Daniel Goleman, PhD – Focus: Why Concentration Can Make Your Brain More Powerful

* Bruce Lipton – Epigenetics: What Really Controls Our Genes and Why We Don’t Have to Be Victims of Our DNA

* Helen Fisher, PhD – The Brain in Love: The Neurobiology of Romance

* Dan Siegel, M.D. – The Neurobiology of the Adolescent Brain: A New Look at Brain Change Between the Ages of 12 and 24

My webinar – Resilience Starts in the Brain: Why Understanding Brain Science Is So Important for “Bouncing Back” –  was aired on March 6, 2014 as a bonus webinar, as were three other bonuses:

* John Arden, PhD – The Aging Brain: Keeping Your Brain Healthy through All Stages of Life

* Kelly McGonigal, PhD – Mindset, Mindfulness,and Brain Change: Why Mindset and Mindfulness Are Key to Brain Change, Stress Response, and Success

* Pat Ogden, PhD – What Neuroscience Can’t Fully Explain:  The Brain-Body Connection for Healing Trauma

With NICABM’s generous permission, I’ve included some key portions of the transcript from my webinar below.  The entire Brain Science series is available for downloading the videos, audios, transcripts, talk-back segments with leading professionals in the field, quick-start guides, etc., for all 10 webinars for – when pro-rated – a truly modest sum.  You can download or view the series forever – a worthy investment in yet another form of Resources for Recovering Resilience.

The Brain and the Importance of Resilience

Dr. Buczynski: Let’s get started and let me ask you: Why did you decide to look at and think about the brain and resilience?Linda Graham: Resilience, meaning the capacities to cope with the ups and downs in life, the challenges and crises that we face with some skill and with some adaptability, the bouncing back from adverse circumstances as well as our adverse conditioning – that is what we, as clinicians, are trying to help our clients with all the time.We’re trying to help them cope better with stress and trauma. So, I was interested in techniques that would strengthen the sense of self to be able to do that. But, at the same time, I am a meditation practitioner, and the freedom from suffering in that tradition is being able to let go of the self or let go of the contraction of the self.

So I was interested in integrating tools from those two paradigms – both relational psychology and mindfulness practice – and it was neuroscience that gave me the clues to do that.

It turns out that both mindfulness and empathy are two of the most powerful agents of brain change known to modern science.

I began to understand what happens in the brain when we are practicing mindfulness or reflection as well as when we are practicing empathy and compassion, and that helped me better teach clients how to change the patterns in their brains, so that they could be more resilient and even rewire patterns from the past.

How the Brain Develops Habits

Dr. Buczynski: Let’s talk about habits for a moment, and again from a brain perspective: how do we develop habits?Linda Graham: Actually, many habits are hardwired in – we don’t have to learn them.Our basic survival responses, which, at this point, we are all familiar with, are fight, flight, freeze, numbing out, and collapsing – we don’t have to learn how to do those. The body/brain will do them to help us survive as an individual as well as a species.

The drive to attach is one of those survival responses that we don’t have to be taught – we know how to do that from the very first moments.

But habits are different. A habit of behavior is simply an encoded pattern in our neural circuitry, and we can develop habits lifelong.

The importance of neuroplasticity or self-directed neuroplasticity is that we are choosing which habits we want to develop. We are choosing the experiences that will develop the habits we want. I love this quote from Richie Davidson, who of course runs the big neuroimaging lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He says, “Once we know that experience changes the brain, we not only have the opportunity, but we have the responsibility to choose the experiences that will rewire the brain in a wise and wholesome direction.”

When we want to change neural circuits, we’re talking about new conditioning. We’re choosing new experiences that will cause the brain to fire in a different way. We are actually creating neural circuitry in the brain. New conditioning is simply creating a new pathway.

We can also talk about being able to rewire or recondition old patterns, old habits – reconditioning.

Now, neural scientists can see in their scanners that the neurons holding a network of a memory together can be caused to fall apart, and they will rewire again a fraction of a second later. What causes them to fall apart and rewire is the juxtaposition of an opposing, contradictory, disconfirming experience or memory.

If we are working with criticism and compassion – if I can actually evoke a sense of being critical, and I have the feeling in my body – I have my visual image, and I have my feelings and my thoughts on being critical, and if I can also evoke for real a sense of being compassionate and I can feel that in my body and I know the visual image of it and the emotions and thoughts of being compassionate, then if I can hold those in my awareness, in simultaneous dual awareness at the same time (that takes practice and sometimes people can travel back and forth), then that juxtaposition will cause the neurons to fall apart.

They will rewire, and when the experience of compassion is stronger, it will rewire the old experience of the old memory. Now, that is the basis of all trauma therapy, and we have been doing trauma therapy for a while – but now the neuroscientists are able to explain to us what is happening in the brain when we do that.

The Prefrontal Cortex: The Brain’s Resilience Center

Dr. Buczynski: Now, I had meant to talk about this a little bit earlier but let’s talk about the prefrontal cortex because you refer to that as, “The brain’s resilience center.” Why do you see it that way?Linda Graham: Most neuroscientists will see the prefrontal cortex as the center of our executive functioning. It is the most recent structure of the brain to evolve and it is the latest to develop in the individual human brain. It takes the longest – it is not fully mature until we are about twenty-five years of age.Because it is the center of executive functioning, it does many of the things that we need for resilience: it manages the body and our autonomic nervous system; it quells the fear response of the amygdala, the lower brain; it manages all of our emotions as signals to take wise action; it is what we use for attunement and empathy and insight or self-awareness. The prefrontal cortex is also the structure of response flexibility; it is the structure of the brain that allows us to stop, shift gears, and respond in a different way, not out of habit.

A big function of the higher brain or the prefrontal cortex is to regulate the survival responses of the lower brain. Survival responses are unconscious; we can change our conscious responses to our survival responses. That is why we want to stay calm and within equilibrium, so that the higher brain can stay online – functioning – and we can reflect on what we could do differently.

Dr. Buczynski: All of these processes and strategies can help us stay calm, cool, and even collected when we feel ourselves moving into a stress or reactive kind of state.

Linda Graham: Right.

Recovering Our Calm through the Calm of Others

Dr. Buczynski: Why does being around a person who is calm help other people be more relaxed?Linda Graham: The brain does that in several different ways. The most basic way, again, is from the brain stem which is right at the base of the skull, where the spinal column comes into the skull. The brain stem picks up the vibe of other people: if we are around someone who is calm and if their calm is stronger than our upset, their nervous system is actually regulating our nervous system, and we don’t even have to be consciously aware of that happening.We can use our conscious practice if we make eye contact with someone who is calm and regulated. The fusiform gyrus, which is the small fold of tissue in the visual cortex, is what we use to recognize faces and read emotional expressions. If we are having eye contact with someone who is calm and we see that in their eyes and in their facial expression, there is a correlation between activation of the fusiform gyrus and the deactivation of the amygdala. Simply by making eye contact with someone who is calm, we can regulate our own body and nervous system to be calm.


The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine is a pioneer and leader in the field of mind-body-spirit medicine. As a provider of continuing education for health and mental health care professionals for over 20 years, NICABM is at the forefront of developing and delivering programs with “take home” ideas, immediately adaptable for practitioners to use with their patients. Previous webinar series have focused on Mindfulness, Trauma Therapy, and Spirituality and Healing.

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