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 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.