Emotional resilience is a powerful tool in life. It can help you stay present under challenging circumstances and remain positive during stressful days.
But to cultivate it, we need to understand how our brain works. I recently dug into the latest neuroscience research in an attempt to understand it all, and how we can train our minds to be more resilient. Here are five facts that I found helpful.
1) 80% of your body’s signals are sent to the brain from the body, and only 20% the other way around
Many of us see the brain as a central command center. The latest research suggests that it’s more of a logistics warehouse. In our bodies, the largest nerve that we have is called the vagus nerve. It goes from our gut (sometimes called the “gut brain”) through our heart and lungs, up to our face and ear canal into our brain.
Any time you feel any feelings or sensations in your body, chances are it’s the vagus nerve–whether it’s a broken heart, anger, or happiness. You know that you feel like this because your body has sent signals to your brain. The vagus nerves cells are 80%-90% afferent, which means they send signals from the body to the brain and only 10%-20% are efferent, which means the brain sends messages to your body.
So instead of asking, “How can I control my body?” you could experiment with saying, “What is my body trying to tell me with that tight stomach, sunken heart, clenched shoulders?” and then hold space for that experience.
2.) When your amygdala is active, you can’t have empathy for others
You might have learned about the amygdala, an almond-sized part of your limbic system, sometimes called the emotion center of our brains. When you feel relaxed and alert after a good nights sleep, for example, your amygdala’s activity may be balanced and linked with your neocortex, the “thinking” part of your brain.
If you go to work and hear your boss say “Your presentation last night sucked,” this statement may trigger your amygdala to become active and fire signals through your brain from anger, to hurt, fear, and anxiety. If this reaches a threshold, the amygdala may “take over” your brain activity. This means it disconnects from your neocortex saying, “I’m in charge now.” There’s now very little possibility for you to be compassionate to others until you’ve found a way to calm your amygdala and for your thinking brain to reconnect.
Neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel, who’s recent book Aware goes into great detail on this, calls this “flipping your lid.” Your “lid,” being the neocortex is no longer keeping the amygdala–your “boiling pot”–connected. It’s bubbling and spewing about. Many of our most unfortunate experiences happen when we do things with a “flipped lid.”
3) The emotional content of our voices is an important signal of safety to our brains
You might have heard the common saying, “Only 7% of our words are what matters, the rest is how we say it and body language.” That insight initially derived from a limited social sciences study from the 1970s. Many of those popularized findings don’t seem to hold up to our current standards of scientific knowledge. Despite that, there is some strong evidence today, that the brain does rely mostly on the emotional content of the words we say.
When we were living in the wild thousands of years ago, without language, the way we communicated to each other was not with words, but with sounds. A high-pitched sound in our voice signaled fear, threat, and danger to others. A low-pitched sound did the same.
The safety signal was a medium to slightly high frequency pitched voice. This is often the voice we make when talking to babies, where we naturally raise our voices and speak making cooing sounds. It calms and soothes them, as it does for us.
4) Elevated stress changes our brain chemistry and shrinks the area connected to making goals
You might have heard before that stress is “bad” for you. And you might have felt depleted and exhausted after a stressful day and noticed how hard it is on you. From a brain perspective, there’s evidence that being in a prolonged stressful environment changes the chemistry of your brain. And by doing so, it shifts the brain’s resources. To keep the body running, the brain removes and even shrinks areas of your mind that you used for goal setting, being creative, and making decisions.
Cultivating emotional resilience doesn’t come overnight, but you can get there if you start by understanding your brain. Next time you feel stressed, anxious, or worried, think about it in the context of these four facts. You might find that it helps you deal with it better.