Resiliency And The Brain Protein That Helps You Bounce Back From Stress

I often get asked why some people are more resilient and handle stress more easily and readily than other people do.  Many people know that one friend that seems to be able to take on the world, scrimp on sleep and seems to bounce back instantly from a stressful event like my favorite character in Empire Records who was sickening perfect until you find out that she’s actually a speed freak!
While most of us struggle with keeping stress at bay and maintaining balance even when we are ‘doing everything right’, many people also ask if there is a way to become more resilient and better at coping with stress on a brain level? The answer (thankfully) is Yes!

What is Resiliency?

Before we can understand why some people are more resilient than others, we have to know what ‘resiliency’ actually means.  Resilience is how well you can properly adapt or change in the face of stress and adversity. It is how well your brain and body are able to bounce back from difficulties, everyday stresses and annoyances that build up over time and start to ‘bog us down.’  
Because modern life is filled with these constant low grade stresses and our brains are constantly ‘on’ and connected to email, social media and work, it is more important than ever to be able to adapt to stress.
Good resiliency is protective against major depression and burnout syndrome which is a growing problem in all western countries and affects not just job performance but also overall life satisfaction and health.  Burnout Syndrome is the number one issue I see my corporate clients facing that can threaten their careers, health and happiness.

New Research on the Resiliency Brain Protein

Luckily, research has proven than we all have a resiliency factor built into our brains and we all have the ability to adapt to life’s stresses.  Being resilient doesn’t mean that you never get sad or experience life’s ups and downs but resilience does give you the capacity to recover from the lows and reclaim your zest for life without falling prey to depression, fatigue, insomnia and constantly feeling overwhelmed.  Some of us are naturally more resilient while others have to ‘work harder’ at bouncing back from stress.

The Brain Protein That Protects Against Stress

A new study published in the journal Nature may explain why and it has to do with a single protein called beta catenin in the brain that determines how well your brain copes with stress.   It may be the protein in the brain behind the ‘bounce back’ factor and it is called B-catenin. Researchers have now shown that levels of this protein in the brains’ reward centre called the Nucleus Accumbens, can predict how resilient a person is to stress.  

Beta Catenin and Resliency to Stress and Depression

The researchers are working on the beta catenin protein in mice at the moment.  They found that the mice with lots of active Beta catenin in the Nucleus Accumbens were protected from stress but that those with low levels of beta catenin not only got stressed more but started to show signs of depression after exposure to chronic stress.  
What’s more, they found that by blocking the beta catenin protein, perfecty well adapted happy mice became depressed and when they turned this protein on in mice who were lacking it, they went from depressed to normal and able to handle stress and adapt properly.
We now need more studies in humans so we can see what this means for us and whether this protein can be used to treat and even prevent depression and poor ‘resiliency’ to stress in humans, so depression never  ’takes hold’ in the brain to begin with in those people who are high risk.  

How to Make Your Brain More Resilient

While more research is still needed on how much beta catenin will play a role in helping humans become more resilient, there are 3 simple ways you can become more resilient to stress by building ‘resiliency’ neural networks or positive ‘brain patterns’ by using these 3 simple steps:
  1. Get 30 minutes more sleep before midnight.  Lack of sleep is one of the biggest factors that affects your brain’s ability to adapt to stress and therefore your resiliency levels and just catching up on sleep debt by sleeping in on the weekends doesn’t work to restore the brains ‘sleep debt’ effectively
  2. Practice activating your Brain’s Relaxation Response for 10 minutes each day.  Your brain’s inbuilt resiliency mechanism is called the relaxation response, discovered by harvard doctor and researcher Dr. Herbert Benson (link to benson tech).  The easiest ways to activate it are with simple relaxation techniques or breathing exercises.
  3. Start meditating for just 10 minutes a day.  It changes your brain profoundly on an MRI in only 8 weeks for total beginners, especially the frontal brain regions (like the prefrontal cortex or pfc) key for improving resiliency, and emotional regulation called the prefrontal cortex. References here and here.
Just committing to even one of these steps will lead to a happier, calmer and more resilient you.

Why Giving Less Of A F*ck Is Good For Your Brain

We all know that the list of things that can give us cancer, make us sad and cause every medical symptom you can think of is growing all the time. And sometimes it’s just not possible or healthy to worry about all of it. In fact, sometimes the healthiest thing to do is try to give less of a F**k.
I heard this line on HBO’s Girls which really resonated with me. Recently in Bali a friend asked me what I do about water for our house, what filtration system, if we sourced mineral dense or alkaline water etc. My answer was that we didn’t, we just got a normal water cooler with big (shock!) plastic refillable containers because I had just ‘let that one go.’
This was pretty shocking to her considering I am a specialist in integrative & mind body medicine and understand the importance more than most of drinking good quality water and the hormone affecting properties of xenoestogens from plastic.
When I lived full time in Canada I only drank high mineral alkaline water and refusd to drink tap water because who KNOWS what’s in those pipes! But living part of the year in Bali has taught me the beauty of letting things go. Are those strawberries I buy at my local Balinese market REALLY organic? Should I be running on a treadmill to make up for the fact that I barely jog faster than a snail on the beach because it’s so hot in Bali?

The Effect Of Worry On My Patients

A decade ago, the majority of chronic disease patients in the family medicine clinic were in their 50’s and 60’s and suffering from illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. In the past 10 years this has changed dramatically: now a very large percentage of my patients with chronic health issues are in their 20’s and 30’s and are suffering from a host of stress related diseases such as chronic insomnia, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, depression,and heart palpitations.
Most of the time these patients have had a full work up with blood tests and investigations that cannot find ‘anything wrong,’ yet these people are suffering and are feeling anything but ok.
These patients often spend a fortune on supplements, organic foods and cosmetic products because they are sure their symptoms are connected to the toxic urban environment. Although this may not be far from the truth, the bigger unaddressed issue is the direct connection between these symptoms and high base-line stress levels that most people now consider ‘just normal.’
There seems to be so much more in life to worry about than even a decade ago. If you admit you feel overwhelmed, you risk feeling judged or being criticized for being weak, unsuccessful or lacking in some way.
When I started to practice the art of ‘giving less of a f*ck,’ this was a fear I had to confront about how other people would take it: would they be offended, would they approve?

Giving Less of a F**k is Good for Your Brain

So why is letting ‘stuff go’ good for our brains? It all has to do with how we are able to do something called mental time travel to plan for the future and pass on our genes.

The Problem with Mental Time Travel: Worrying

Humans are capable of ‘mental time travel’ meaning using our imagination to think about the past, anticipate possible futures (and threats!) and plan for them. This is an amazing evolutionary skill that makes us great problem solvers. Besides humans, only crows, parrots and apes and possibly the veined octopus have this ability. Because we are planners and thinking about future possible threats, deadlines etc, we also have developed the capacity to worry.
When we worry, specific brain areas and neural networks light up in the left frontal lobe and increased amygdala activation is seen when we have a negative emotional response to something. In people who suffer with anxiety, a recent study showed that they had more grey matter (i.e. more brain mass) in the amygdala (centre for fear and emotional memory) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) related to chronic worrying.
We are wired to worry about the past (to learn from it) and the future (so we can plan). Worry has been adaptive for us as cavemen and can still be adaptive in corporate culture because it leads to conscientiousness in our work: anticipating clients needs, the next project etc. But it can also lead to overwhelm, feeling ‘burned out’ and not being able to shut off our minds so we can rest and sleep effectively.

How I Give less of a F**k

I have found that the more things I can just ‘let go’ of the less trouble I have with worry caused by mental time travel. The stress from worrying about every potential health concern wasn’t worth the potential benefits.
I still do my weekly shopping at the organic farmers market but I always run out of something midweek and have to buy non organic at the local corner. I used to avoid the sun like a vampire if I didn’t remember to apply my highest UVA SPF sunscreen/moisturizer. I used to obsessively exercise and run 10 km a day no matter what because I was afraid of getting fat.
I have started to verbalize my ‘give less of a f’**k” mantra to help remind me of when my desire to control my surroundings is getting out of hand. I even have a few extra sunspots and pounds to prove that so far it’s going well.
So if you find that the number of things that you are supposed to care about is outstripping your capacity for living a stress free life, sometimes the healthiest and happiest thing to do is to try to give less of f**k and enjoy the view.

Why Yoga At Home Is Better For Your Health Than Studio Yoga

If you think that you have to spend years doing yoga or go to a led yoga class 5 days a week to get all the benefits of yoga think again!  The latest research tells us that developing a simple home yoga routine is the biggest yoga-related predictor of better health and all of these benefits are FREE.  
In a seminal study of over 100 yoga practitioners in the US, it was found that home practice not only predicted how good people felt but also if made them more likely to practice mindfulness, have lower BMIs (smaller waistlines), eat more fruits and veggies, have better sleep and less fatigue than those without a regular home yoga routine.  They looked at home yoga as including asanas or physical postures, breath work, meditation and yoga philosophy or ways of living, like eating a healthy mostly vegetarian yogic diet. The really interesting part is that having a home yoga practice predicted all these health outcomes better than how many years they had been practicing or how many studio classes per week they went to. This means that to get all the health benefits of yoga, it is most important to practice yoga at home and you don’t have to be a yoga expert.
I know for myself that when I started doing yoga at home as part of my daily routine, it really did start to have a way bigger impact on how I felt, how I looked, my food cravings, energy levels etc because suddenly I was in control of it and could always find at least 20 minutes to do a short practice, even if I couldn’t fit in an hour and half every day.  I also found that my monkey mind found less excuses over time do not do it, because I couldn’t use the old ‘there is no class that I can make today.’ line with myself.   Yoga became part of my daily habit rather than this activity that I ‘went to classes for’ only when I could fit it in.  I also use yogic breathing practices in my everyday life, like when I need an energy boost or when I start to get a cold, I do 5 minutes of kapilabhati in the morning. I wasn’t doing this until I really developed a home practice regularly. 
So, at home, My yoga mat is always waiting for me, and after it became a habit, which takes our brain 30 days to solidify, the amount of mental resistance for whipping out my mat really faded away.  I still have days where it’s hard to get moving but I get over the resistance my reminding myself that I have never ONCE regretted making time to practice, but the days where I didn’t do it, I do regret lots of those because I just FEEL so much better afterwards and it’s always worth the time and effort spent.  
The best way to make sure your home practice is a success is to try to set aside 20 minutes at the same time each day to practice, at a time where you are most likely to be able to stick to it.  So if you are a terrible morning person, getting up 30 minutes or more early to do yoga before work isn’t likely going to stick, if your circadian rhythm is just not set up for 6 am starts!  If that’s the case and you are going to do your yoga after work, I recommend starting with a gentle hatha or yin series to wind down the nervous system and have your yoga time do ‘double duty’ to help bust problems falling asleep too. I find that doing too many backbends in the evening tends to really wake me up, so I try to avoid lots of those if I practice after 4pm.
So, even though I have a daily home routine, I still LOVE going to classes and being a student and having the community of practicing with other people.  I try to get to one studio class each week with a great teacher and I find I always learn something new to take back to my home practice.

The Brain Benefits of Holotropic Breathwork

Breathwork and something called pranayama, or yogic control over the prana or energy in the breath, is a key part of the traditional system of yoga and even if you don’t do yoga, breath work by itself is one of the most practical and quickest ways to tap into parts of your brain nervous system that are normally out of your control, or not under conscious control.
And as it turns out, it’s not fluffy stuff, it has tons of research for proof of how it can bust stress, aid in recovery from buried trauma, help recover from chronic anxiety and panic attacks. 
If you don’t have any of those issues it is also one of my favourite ways to hit the ‘reset’ button, and re-energize after a stressful day or week and release tension that you don’t even realize you are holding onto until it’s gone! 
Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, and leading brain researcher, sums up why breath work is so powerful.  It is the one physical thing in our bodies that we can access easily that links what he refers to as our ‘bottom up’ processes in the brain or  autonomic processes and those processes in the brain that are under our voluntary control called “top-down” processes.  The breath is the link between the ‘bottom up and top down’ uncounnsouc and conscious processes in the brain.
Various styles of breath work span an entire spectrum of uses and effects on the nervous system, on one end of the spectrum you have breathing to relieve stress and induce calm (such as the healing breath) and on the other end, you have specific breathing to produce a catharsis and intense emotional release, such as something called Holotropic breath work also known as rebirthing therapy and transformational breathing.
Holotropic Breathwork also uses music as a catalyst to access deep emotion and unconscious thoughts, feelings and emotions and tensions along with deep circular breathing.  This practice was coined and studied by Dr. Stansilov Groff in the 1960’s as a powerful therapeutic tool and this is the practice I am going to focus on in this video.

Hyperventilation Syndrome

A question I have had from my doctor colleges in the past about some forms of circular breathing or holotropic breath work, is about something called hyperventilation syndrome.  This is where the carbon dioxide levels decrease in the blood and can cause constriction of blood vessels, including those in the brain and the heart in extreme very rare cases.  In milder forms of hyperventilation, feelings of dizziness, agitation and strong emotions, tingling in the hands and feet, and muscle spasms can happen, which are harmless in most people.  If you have severe asthma or any heart issues you should always do breath work under the coaching a qualified practitioner to be on the safe side.  But the good news is that there are no reported cases of heart attacks, stroke or other serious ill effects from breathwork reported in the research literature, so appears to be quite safe in general for most healthy people.

The Difference Between Circular Breathing And Hyperventilation Syndrome

THere is one theory about the difference between circular or holotropic breathwork and hyperventilation syndrome, in the extreme medical sense, where very low levels of CO2 in the blood and brain lead to a deceased drive to breath in again.  This could be because in the technique of circular breathing, you inhale consciously right at the end of the exhale, without waiting for your carbon dioxide levels to rise above a certain level first, avoiding some of the negative effects of hyperventilation syndrome. 
Another theory is in clinical hyperventilation syndrome (HVS), there is lots of Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activation or fight or flight mode activation vs. much less sympathetic activation in breath work if its done right and with a qualified coach.
Based on preliminary research, both HVS and breath work may actually activate similar regions of brain and lead to mild decreases in CO2 and increases in O2 and activation of parasympathetic dominance to reach altered states without ingesting any substances— pretty cool stuff!  
Studies have now shown that Holotropic breath work actually improves hRV or heart rate variability and state anxiety level, which both are known to significantly decrease the chance of ever having a heart attack or stroke! 
Speaking of substance induced trance like states, Dr. Stanislof Groff,  one of the modern pioneers of breath work actually started to experiment with breath work after working with LSD became illegal in the 1960s. He started off using LSD in his research to help people to process trauma and help the brain integrate painful or really emotional memories, buried memories and also to gain access to intuition and creativity in altered states of consciousness.   What he found was that he could help people reach similar states without any drugs using specific breath work.  
In fact, if I look at a brain EEG recording of brainwaves when someone is doing holotropic breath work, the delta and theta patterns are similar to the shamanic state of consciousness, in other words, the trance-like state where slow waves dominate the brain wave patterns.  One study also found that when someone was in this breathwork induced trance state and they had an emotional experience, flashback or accessing emotional past memories or working through strong emotions, their brain EEG pattern changed to show ‘bursts’ of higher voltage, related to emotionally intense subjective experiences they report. 
Another question I get about this type of stimulating breath work is can it cause a panic attack?  In most cases, even in people who have had a panic attack in the past, the answer is no.  If you start to feel breathless or like you can’t catch your breath during a circular breath work session, it means that you need to relax the breath more and not force it, and you can simply stop anytime it becomes too overwhelming. But feeling breathless is not a usual experience with this type of breath work even for people who suffer with physical symptoms of anxiety in daily life.
I can tell you from personal experience with this practice as well as the research evidence that it can be extremely powerful and it is one of my favourite mind body practices, especially when it is done with a skilled facilitator to coach you properly throughout a session and provide support if you need it.  I was recently at Bali Spirit Festival and was able to take part in an amazing breathwork workshop with our friend Christabel Zamor, founder of Breath of Bliss, and for anyone new to breath work I highly recommend checking out her retreats.  

Karma Yoga: The Brain Science of Yoga for Happiness

So when most people think about yoga, they think about sweating it out in short shorts in an urban yoga studio. But the traditional system of yoga that was created in Ancient India was an entire system of living designed to keep people mentally and physically fit and prevent illness of the brain and the body because this was the best way to live a long healthy life, before there were things like emergency medicine, antibiotics and anti-depressant pills!  
Karma yoga is the term yogi’s developed for selfless service.  Of course you don’t have to be a yogi to get the benefits: helping a friend, caring for your pet, making soup for your loved one when they are sick, giving a massage or just lending an ear to a friend in need, all count—you don’t have to volunteer in a formal setting hours each week to get the benefits.
The reason Karma yoga works to help bust anxiety, blue moods and stop worry loops in the brain is that it actually changes what areas of your brain are turned on when you are helping others. When we have time to ruminate about our own problems and worries, specific brain areas get turned on, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. These brain areas are part of the Anterior Default mode network of the brain. The job of these parts of your brain is self-referential and emotional processing related to yourself and thinking about yourself. These parts of the brain are lit up more than normal in people who have high anxiety and depression traits. Because modern city life is quite self focused and “individual-achievement” focused, it can predispose your brain to overusing these self-referential networks in the brain, leading to more unhappiness.  
I find that sometimes when I feel stressed and really busy, it can be easy to think that I don’t have time to help out a friend or spend the extra mental effort to do something thoughtful and spontaneous for my hubby or my mum… BUT the amazing thing is that when I push myself to carve out a few extra minutes to do something nice for them, it always makes me feel happier and able to put my own worries into perspective, especially after a bad day or when I’ve just got disappointing news. It’s something I am constantly working on because it really makes a difference to how I feel day to day.