The Neuroscience of Resilience: Emotional Regulation

(Post 3/9 in a series)

As previously discussed in The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Quelling the Fear Response, much has been learned about the the power of resilience.  The last post in this series looked at the importance of  being less reactive to stressful events when they occur.  We are continuing to look 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:

Emotional Regulation

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.

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.

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.

See the next in the series, The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Attunement

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