In the nervous system, low resilience can be the result of several things, including an overreactive amygdala, weakened hippocampus (which helps regulate the amygdala), poor connectivity between the PFC and the amygdala, and low activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). On the other hand, high resilience can be the result of these parts of the brain operating in opposite ways, such as having high activity in the PNS. Positive changes in these four brain regions or systems can be produced by sustained mental/psychological practices such as those explored in my book Resilient.
Much research shows that we can definitely change the brain for the better. As the “hardware” of the brain improves in key regions such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) behind your forehead, that part of the brain becomes more effective. For example, if a person is being challenged by stressors, improved regulation of the amygdala – sort of the alarm bell of the brain – by the PFC can help a person feel calmer under pressure. Just because there is a stressor does not mean we need to feel stressed, and improved brain function is like a shock absorber between us and the world.
My hyper succinct two-word answer is: “You bet!”
And to expand a bit: any kind of learning – including emotional, social, motivational, and character learning – must involve changes in the brain. This means that grit – resilience, determination, persistence, hardiness, courage – gets developed through changes in neural structure and function.
We develop more grit through having repeated experiences of determination, endurance, resolve, perseverance, and sheer survival that get woven into the fabric of the brain – and thus one’s life.
The issue you raise is at the white-hot center of socially engaged life these days and always. I sure don’t have the answer, though I do have some personal answers. I try to explore some of them in my book, Resilient, including in the sections on “Agency, Make Your Offering”, and “Aspire Without Attachment”. As to the essence of the matter, my personal approach is to sustain wise action with as little “friction” as possible: the damage to oneself and others of getting stressed, anxious, and angry. The art of course is to tap into healthy outrage, fieriness, fierce compassion, moral disgust, etc. without getting sucked into the “poisons” (Buddhist reference) of ill will, hatred, contempt, us-against-them tribablism, etc.
It can be helpful to bring to mind admired models of this sweet spot – badass but not pissed off, alarmed but not immobilized, compassionate toward them but also toward oneself – and then imagine “channeling” them or tuning into some aspect of how in the world they stay in that sweet spot.
Meanwhile, we fight the good fight and do what we can. And stay happy meanwhile; they may have our White House, but they never need to have our minds.
The key is to bring up a rich experience – in this case of a nurturing being – whether it is someone today or someone from the past when the trauma occurred. Just remembering that someone was helpful in the past (you didn’t say this, I am just mentioning this here for clarity) would not have the same impact in implicit memory as bringing up the experience of that soothing in the past, or an experience of soothing here and now.
So I don’t think there is an inherent distinction in the power of experiences of past or present soothing/resilience: past or present could be more or less powerful depending on other details. For example, when I bring up the felt sense of people in my childhood who were really for me, even though that emotional memory is less intense than that of my wife’s support for me these days, in some ways it (the childhood memory) goes deeper since it happened when I was a kid.
My own process is to feel the pain for sure, held in a big open space of awareness when I can, but also really focus on internalizing positive resources (mainly from positive experiences); check out the material on my website on taking in the good. In other words, be with the weeds in spacious mindful awareness while also diligently planting flowers in the garden of your mind/brain. Over time, the flowers will gradually crowd out the weeds.
Check out the Aspiration chapter in my book, Resilient.
In brief, healthy aspirations take into account our duties to others…and to ourselves. To simplify, duties are “have to” while aspirations are “want to.” Also check out Mother Nurture and my writings about sharing the load fairly when kids come along.
This said, in many people’s lives (though sadly and often unjustly, there are many exceptions), after handling duties there is still attention and time and often other resources available for personal aspirations – especially when we consider the power of many little moments of practice, and the power of relatively small amounts of time each day – 15 minutes? an hour? – that really add up over months and years.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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