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4 brain facts that will help you build resilience

Resilience is critically important in helping you staying present and positive in challenging situations.

One of the most important aspects of building and maintaining your resilience is in understanding how you respond to what is happening around you. In this excellent Fast Company article below, tech entrepreneur Leo Widrich uses the latest neuroscience research to help you develop your emotional resilience.

1) 80 per cent of your body’s signals are sent to the brain from the body and only 20 per cent the other way around 

Many of us see the brain as a central command center. The latest research suggests that it’s more of a logistics warehouse. In our bodies, the largest nerve that we have is called the vagus nerve. It goes from our gut (sometimes called the “gut brain”) through our heart and lungs, up to our face and ear canal into our brain.

Any time you feel any feelings or sensations in your body, chances are it’s the vagus nerve – whether it’s a broken heart, anger or happiness. You know that you feel like this because your body has sent signals to your brain. The vagus nerves’ cells are 80-90 per cent afferent, which means they send signals from the body to the brain and only 10-20 per cent are efferent, which means the brain sends messages to your body.

So instead of asking, “How can I control my body?” you could experiment with saying, “What is my body trying to tell me with that tight stomach, sunken heart, clenched shoulders?” and then hold space for that experience.

2) When your amygdala is active, you can’t have empathy for others 

You might have learned about the amygdala, an almond-sized part of your limbic system, sometimes called the emotion center of our brains. When you feel relaxed and alert after a good night’s sleep, for example, your amygdala’s activity may be balanced and linked with your neocortex, the “thinking” part of your brain.

If you go to work and hear your boss say, “Your presentation last night sucked,” this statement may trigger your amygdala to become active and fire signals through your brain – from anger, to hurt, fear and anxiety. If this reaches a threshold, the amygdala may “take over” your brain activity. This means it disconnects from your neocortex saying, “I’m in charge now.” There’s now very little possibility for you to be compassionate to others until you’ve found a way to calm your amygdala and for your thinking brain to reconnect.

Neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel, whose recent book Aware goes into great detail on this, calls this “flipping your lid”. Your “lid” (the neocortex) is no longer keeping your “boiling pot” (amygdala) connected. It’s bubbling and spewing about. Many of our most unfortunate experiences happen when we do things with a “flipped lid”.

3) The emotional content of our voices is an important signal of safety to our brains 

You might have heard the common saying, “Only 7 per cent of our words are what matters, the rest is how we say it and body language”. That insight initially derived from a limited social sciences study from the 1970s. Many of those popularized findings don’t seem to hold up to our current standards of scientific knowledge.

Despite that, there is some strong evidence today that the brain does rely on the emotional content of the words we say.

When we were living in the wild thousands of years ago, without language, the way we communicated to each other was not with words, but with sounds. A high-pitched sound in our voice signaled fear, threat and danger to others. A low-pitched sound did the same.

The safety signal was a medium to slightly high frequency pitched voice. This is often the voice we make when talking to babies, where we naturally raise our voices and speak making cooing sounds. It calms and soothes them, as it does for us.

4) Elevated stress changes our brain chemistry and shrinks the area connected to making goals 

You might have heard before that stress is “bad” for you. And you might have felt depleted and exhausted after a stressful day and noticed how hard it is on you. From a brain perspective, there’s evidence that being in a prolonged stressful environment changes the chemistry of your brain. And by doing so, it shifts the brain’s resources. To keep the body running, the brain removes and even shrinks areas of your mind that you used for goal setting, being creative, and making decisions.

Cultivating emotional resilience doesn’t come overnight, but you can get there if you start by understanding your brain. Next time you feel stressed, anxious or worried, think about it in the context of these four facts. You might find that it helps you deal with it better.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain