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 Naturemay 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:
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
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.
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.
One of the things I get on a regular basis is my patients and clients telling me about their experience with brain fog. And often, they have gone to see a ND and been told that this symptom is caused by adrenal fatigue and they need to take supplements and possibly adrenal hormones to get rid of it. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, But the adrenal fatigue theory isn’t totally off the mark either. Let me explain….
Studies have now proven that our brains are super sensitive to stress hormones. And that we have different sensitivity levels to stress on a brain level at different points in our lifespan. Chronic low grade stress is almost universal in hectic modern lives these days, and no one wants to admit they are suffering, because it’s so common that ‘stressed and overwhelmed’ is the new ‘normal.’ especially if you want to keep up with your peers and do it all.
Stress over a lifetime can really add up by the time we are in in are late 20s and early 30s and many of my clients who are young and ‘quote’ ‘healthy’ come to me feeling like they live in a ‘brain fog’ most of the time, they need caffeine to get going and be productive during the workweek, and they have trouble shutting off their brains before bed.
And this doesn’t just start when we get a job or become adults, this stress starts young for many of us. Research has shown that in pregnant women who had stress, anxiety or depression, their babies had increased baseline activity of something called the HPA axis—which stands for the hypothalamic adrenal axis—the main pathway connecting your stress hormones and adrenals to your bRAIN.
This increase in HPA axis activity lasted 10 years later when they did a follow up with those kids. The reason this matters is that we know that changes in the HPA axis and too much stress hormone can actually affect brain development. This doesn’t mean you should start panicking if your mum was stressed or you are pregnant and constantly stressed because luckily our brains are very resilient or neuroplastic.
In fact, we can change the brain profoundly as adults to recover from these early setbacks, but only if we make a few small daily changes to our habits now. What this really tells us is that chronic stress is now an epidemic for our entire generation.
Even if you had an awesome start in life, but you have a stressful job, work long hours and feel like you are juggling lots of different things at once, chances are your brain is feeling the effects of chronic stress. And we now know that low grade chronic stress or even just subjective ow self esteem causes your hippocampus to get smaller.
The hippocampal neurons are the most sensitive to low grade stress, and these sensitive little guys are what help you to learn and remember things. This is why if you are chronically stressed and at risk for burning out, like many of my clients by the time they get to me, you feel like you have ‘brain fog’ or ‘foggy brain’ or have difficulty retaining information and forgetting things often, especially mundane but important things!
What this actually means in plain english is that chronic stress is TOXIC to parts of our brain involved in learning and memory. Chronic stress also activates areas of the brian involved in fear—like the amgyldala. So not only do you have ‘foggy brain’ but you may feel overwhelmed and ‘on edge’ a lot of the time.