Resilience and the Brain: Managing Emotions and Overcoming Trauma

Emotional and psychological resilience determines how well a person can handle stress and adversity.  Aside from genetics, there are numerous factors that contribute to the development of resilience including nurturingResilience and the Brain:  Managing Emotions and Overcoming Trauma early relationships and a positive self concept.

According to Linda Graham, MFT, there are a number of research-based ways to “promote resilience in the face of challenge, conflict and crisis.”  Each provides a unique route to not only to better manage previously difficult to control emotional reactions but ultimately heal from trauma and other painful emotional and psychological experiences.

They are 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • interpersonal neurobiology to help people use their innate social engagement system to find comfort and support from other people.

All of these techniques depend on the nine functions of our mature brain’s pre-frontal cortex, identified by Daniel Siegel, M.D., psychiatrist at UCLA, founder of the discipline of inter-personal neurobiology and author of The Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and The Mindful Therapist.  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.

If the “brain-speak” is a bit overwhelming, let me bottom-line-it for you.

What this means is that there people wanting to overcome trauma, get a handle on their emotions and build their own resilience have different options, all of which are valid and work.  One avenue for change might resonate with one person and not the next.  More and more therapists and other practitioners are combining these modalities in their approach as well.

Do any of the above speak to you?  Go with your gut, build your resilience and find the emotional and relationship health you want – and deserve.

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(This has been an adaptation of the June 2010 newsletter by Linda Graham, MFT, with permission.)