The Neuroscience of Resilience: Response Flexibility

(Post 6/9 in a series)

As we learned in The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Empathy, “neuropsychologists see empathy as the integration of body-based information and emotional signals and cognitive thought and beliefs about another’s experience, making sense, making meaning, creating understanding, and then checking out the accuracy of that understanding through a verbal feedback loop.”  As we continue on in this series on resilience, we are exploring the following questions:

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:

Response Flexibility:  pause -> options -> evaluate options – >appropriate decision

We see the integrative function of the pre-frontal cortex operating on steroids in the capacity of response flexibility: the capacity to stop, hold the experience, whatever it is (regulate the body arousal and emotional waves triggered by it), step back (which may require lots of practice dis-entangling from one’s experience in the moment, seeing clearly that this is  one experience in one moment, not the only truth forevermore), engage the capacities of the cortex to consciously think, reflect, evaluate, and then, from unentangled engagement and responsiveness, choose wisely and act.

Response flexibility is the fulcrum of resilience.  (And it’s where most coaching about resilience begins.)  In order to cope with change, we have to be able to change how we cope.  The more flexible someone can be, not chaotic or floundering but no longer embedded in their neural cement, the more options they can identify, the more resilient they can be.

I recently learned an excellent protocol to promote response flexibility, from Alan Marlatt who uses it in recovery programs: S.O.B.E.R:

  • STOP.  It takes 3-5 seconds for the conscious processing of the cortex to come online in response to any experience, so we need the pause to hold the unconscious turbo-charged reactivity of the ANS and the amygdala.  Counting to ten will do, five deep breaths will do, for the cortex to even be available to process the experience.
  • OBSERVE.  Mindfulness practice is so exquisitely excellent here in training the mind to observe what is happening in the mind and body as well as in the external environment without reactivity, judgment, moving to fix or running away. Mindfulness breaks the automaticity of our habitual reactions and allows us to see clearly what is actually happening out there and in our inner landscape of response.
  • BREATHE.  Deep breathing does calm down the nervous system (back to the window of tolerance, always back to the window of tolerance) and creates the pause we need to see clearly.
  • EXPAND PERSPECTIVE.  To be resilient, we must be able to dis-embed from the neural cement of habitual response – detach from the experience for a moment, to see the experience of the moment as only one possible experience out of many moments.  The experience of this moment is here now, but is not the only experience in this moment, and it is not the only moment in a life.  When we can dis-entangle, step back, reflect, we can move form “poor me” to an empowered “I” that can act on its own behalf.  This expanded perspective allows us to see any previous patterns of response as patterns.  There can be new responses, new patterns, and once we see that, even once, the door is open to look for options and choices about anything and everything.
  • RESPOND WISELY.  Role models and proven paths of wise effort (letting go of the unskillful or unwholesome, cultivating the skillful or the wholesome) can be great guides to making resilient choices once we see – from an expanded perspective – that we have choices, even if the most skillful action at the moment is to endure, SOBER, in faith that eventually we can effect change, because it is in the nature of everything to change.

“Between a stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.  The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

            – Viktor Frankl

See the next article in the series, The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Insight and Awareness

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