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Editorial: Developing brain resilience in a pandemic

Personal health · Jun 8, 2021

The year of 2020 was the perfect breeding ground for the development of resiliency, and for the creation of a collective consciousness to come together for the betterment of society. But this is not what occurred in most communities.  

In many cases, computer algorithms and social media distorted realities, and important decisions became politicized instead of rooted in science. Mental health deteriorated nationwide, and few leaders seemed to be sharing the secrets of neuroplasticity: the ability that we all have to develop a higher, more resilient brain that could help us weather these challenging times.

Building a better brain

For many of us, the world remains chaotic, suffering continues and “COVID fatigue” is widespread. But I hope to share a few insights on the development of resilience, and some strategies that you can implement in your daily life to build a better brain: a brain that will not only help you deal with your stress, but can also enable you to help others cope with theirs.

What is resilience?

Resilience is defined as the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It is the ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences, like a global pandemic and its fallout.

Many of us know people who, when confronted with stress, “circle the drain” and cannot see a way up. We also know people who have been hit with the harshest of realities, like the death of a loved one or a cancer diagnosis, yet are able to go forward with an optimism that seems impossible. The difference between these reactions to stress is the ability to move beyond the emotions centred in the amygdala of the brain (the reptilian fight or flight centre) and communicate with the prefrontal cortex of the brain to develop context and perspective.

When someone is able to react the second way, they harness the power of their brain to see crisis as opportunity and use their higher cognitive faculties to see beyond the current stressor. In other words, they are able to understand that “this too shall pass.”

The good news is, we can all work toward this.  

The science of resilience

Neuroimaging has given us some insight into what the difference between these people might be. It turns out that those with depression often have decreased connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex regions, while subjects with higher resilience often have increased prefrontal cortex activity.1 As positive resilient learned behaviours become more ingrained, MRIs can actually show the development of more white matter in the prefrontal cortex of resident humans.

Resilience is a skill

Resiliency is not a fixed trait but rather a complex process that includes behaviours, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed through practice. It is a “neuroplastic” process, which describes the ability of the brain to change itself and to create new axonal connections to favour certain pathways over others.

This is where the hope lies. 

Here are some strategies for rewiring your brain for stress resilience:

1) Make connections. Nurturing your relationships with friends and family, even virtually, is very important. We are social creatures and we are not meant to be alone.

2) Turn off the addictive news feed, TV, radio or other forms of “doom and gloom”. Instead, stay informed and educated through well-respected websites. Don’t scroll or stream mindlessly, as this invariably brings our attention to content that is not in our best interest.

3) Accept that change is part of living. Embrace impermanence.

4) Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Realize that you cannot control external stressors, but you can choose how you physiologically react to that stress.

5) Meditate. Adopt any mindfulness technique that helps you connect with the present moment, outside of the raw emotions.

6) Set realistic goals. And small, actionable steps to help you move towards them.

7) Eat well. Neuroscientists have discovered a very complex relationship between the digestion of the food we eat, the kinds of bacteria we find in our gut (the microbiome), the inflammation signals used by the immune system and our brain health. Avoid processed food, white flour and sugar, and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.

8) Exercise.

9) Nurture a positive view of yourself.

10) Spend time in nature. Never underestimate the healing power of nature, especially when many of our usual places of refuge are closed.

11) Get 6-8 hours of restful, restorative sleep. Your brain needs it to recharge.

Learn more about stress resilience through a personalized health consultation.

[1] Fani, N. et all. 2013. "Genotype and Structural Integrity of the Posterior Cingulum." Neuropsychopharmacology

Authored by:
Dr. Tracy Thomson
physician and brain health specialist

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