The Neuroscience of Resilience: Nervous System Regulation

(Post 1/9 in a series.)

There is much discussion about the power of resilience in how it impacts vulnerablity to stressors, regulatory processes, why some seem more resilient than others and how to foster resilience if it is lacking.  Think of the “cup half empty” vs “cup half full” analogy.  Those with a more positive outlook and general belief that life will be ok tend to be able to withstand life’s hardships better than those who are expecting the worst.  In the article, Resiliency on the Battlefield   (ScienceDaily.com), recent research demonstrated that “soldiers with a positive outlook in the most traumatic situations were less likely to suffer health problems such as anxiety and depression.”

Can we build up our own resilience?  How?  What does the brain and neuroscience have to do with it?

The techniques to promote resilience (body-based trauma therapies, attachment based relational therapies, minfulness based therapies, interpersonal neurobiology) depend on the nine functions of our brain’s pre-frontal cortex, considered by neuropsychologists to be an “evolutionary masterpiece” and the single most integrative structure of the brain for supporting resilience.

It 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

See the next in the series, The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Quelling the Fear Response

(This is a permission granted adaptation of the June 2010 newsletter by Linda Graham, MFT).