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.

Stress Symptoms In Women: How To Stop Running On Empty & Relying On Caffeine To Deal With Stress

One of the biggest issues I have found working with high achieving women that effects their health and happiness is what I call ‘Running on Empty.’ This is one of the biggest signs and symptoms of stress in women.   
Now, modern women have to juggle jobs, home life, usually have the lions share of house keeping responsibilities, and that is even without adding kids into the mix!  And the good thing is that there is so much about women’s empowerment out there now telling us ‘you can do it all, you can have it all,’ that a lot of women feel the pressure to keep it all up and make it look easy!
But when we feel pulled in a million directions, overwhelmed and not having enough hours in the day to get everything done, we start using up our ‘resiliency stores.’ both mentally and in the brain, and physically in our bodies.  One of the main issues that happens in the brain and body is that there is not enough energy being produced in your little energy cell powerhouses called your mitochondria.  And because there just isn’t enough ‘juice’ in the tank, you have to do something to keep going!  
The most common solution is using caffeine every day or most days to get going in the morning, temporarily get rid of ‘fuzzy brain’ so you can get more done in less time, and still have the energy to go to the gym after a hectic work day when all you want to do is ‘zone out.’ The trouble is, if your brain is trying to deal with low grade chronic stress and daily caffeine is onboard, it can really wreak some havoc on your mood, how much patience you have, feeling anxious, and waking up in the middle of the night or having trouble falling asleep, even if you only drink a coffee in the morning!  
If you are a smoker, the half-life of caffeine in the body and brain is cut in half, but if you are a non smoker on a birth control pill, the half life is double—meaning it takes your brain and body twice as long to get rid of the caffeine!!! So you may still have effects at bedtime from your morning cup of coffee—crazy right!?
Caffeine produces a central brain and nervous system stimulant affect by blocking something called adenosine receptors.  Basically, what caffeine does is increases the excitatory brain neurotransmitters and ’speeds everything up’ and also releases more NE and dopamine, which is why caffeine feels so good, because dopamine is your brain’s ‘reward’ peptide.
But this is also why caffeine in an already ‘revved up’ too excited all the time brain on the way to burnout is a really bad idea—because your brain and body can only keep this up for so long before living in a ‘hyper-aroused state’ leads to issues like anxiety, irritability, issues concentrating, mood swings and eventually fatigue that is only relieved by more caffeine!  
In this hyper aroused always ‘on state’ your body also pumps out more stress hormone from your adrenal glands, which makes you crave carbs and also makes your brain really crave quick fuel from carbs AND not burn fats quite as well, leading to you holding onto every ounce of fat for dear life and creating more ‘metabolically active’ fat around your tummy and middle bit.
OK, so we can now see the connection between juggling a hectic busy life, needing caffeine to keep going, and issues leading to anxiety and burnout BUT now what you can do to stop this viscous cycle ?  
Well the first step is weaning off of caffeine, slowly, over 2-4 weeks so you don’t get the energy crash and the headaches!  Decrease by about a 1/4 cup of coffee each day.  To make it even more painless, I use something with my patients called adaptogens, which are special compounds plants make in nature to protect themselves from stress and they can work for us too.  
I use my blend which is a combination of corydceps and reishi mushroom in a tincture taken in the morning for the weeks when you are weaning off to give you energy without the jitteriness and crashes that caffeine gives you and provide stress support your body and adrenal glands.  You can also find adaptogen supplements in pill form at many good quality natural pharmacies and health stores.