The Neuroscience of Resilience: Quelling the Fear Response

(Post 2/9 in a series)

As previously discussed in The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Nervous System Regulation, much has been learned about the the power of resilience in how it impacts vulnerability to stressors, regulatory processes, why some seem more resilient than others and how to foster resilience if it is lacking.

For the purpose of this article series, we are looking at the following question:

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

Before moving on, I highly recommend you look at the first article in this series where we looked at how regulation of the autonomic nervous system helps us to stay calm and engaged.  It will be useful for you to have the background information so you can more easily follow where we are going.  Now let’s at another aspect of the neuroscience of resilience:

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 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.

See the next in the series, The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Emotional Regulation

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