by Cassie Wever
This post is the first in a series exploring the concept of “resilience” in Student Affairs, how to foster resilience through your own wellbeing practices at work and at home, and how to incorporate resilience practices into your work with students and staff. We’ll discuss what resilience means before moving into habits and practices that foster it in future posts.
To understand what resilience is, a basic understanding of the neuroscience behind how our brains function in times of stress is required. In our brains, the amygdala is in charge of our fear response (fight, flight, or freeze) and it’s integral to individual and social emotional sensations and processing (E.g. empathy and social connection). The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is in charge of executive functions such as decision-making, planning, and reflection.
Our bodies and brains are inextricably connected in the way they react to stress. To understand resilience it’s crucial to understand this link. The amygdala’s reaction is very useful. It operates outside of conscious awareness, so you don’t need to wait for your pre-frontal cortex to think through a response. When a dangerous situation or stressor arises, your amygdala triggers fight, flight, or freeze, which in turn causes the release of stress hormones in your body such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones shut down some functions (E.g. digestion) and trigger others (E.g. a burst of glucose for your muscles to use). Thanks to your amygdala, you can run away, hide from an attacker, or lift a car off of someone.
The amygdala can save your life. However, it is a product of evolution, where threats were more prevalent and harmful. This means that our brains and bodies may respond to a perceived threat as if it were life threatening- even when it isn’t. Examples include an exam, a conflict, a dog barking through a fence- anything that causes stress, especially if you have previously engrained responses to these triggers. Our bodies can’t differentiate between these “threats” and how they make you feel. It’s not the amygdala’s job to be discerning- its job is to react and save you!
Thus, our habitual reactions need to be balanced with the work of the PFC. A person who accesses their PFC, in combination with healthy emotional functioning from the amygdala, will make rational decisions informed by their emotions. They’ll be able to reflect on experiences, learn, and adjust themselves accordingly with greater capacity. In other words, they will be more resilient.
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of stress and being able to manage stressors and challenges through the use of positive, effective coping skills. People who are resilient can effectively cope with stress and they “bounce back” from challenges stronger and wiser. An extreme example of this is when someone undergoes significant trauma, and in recovering from that trauma, gains positive coping skills and capacities that allow them to have greater wellbeing than before (known as post traumatic growth).
Resilience involves behaviours, thoughts, and actions (I.e. tools) that can be learned by anyone. Many factors contribute to resilience, and people use varying strategies to build resilience; what works for one person may not work for another.
Many resilience strategies reduce the tendency to react with fight, flight, or freeze, allowing for the capacity to choose responses, rather than react habitually. In a moment of fear, these strategies can create the time for the PFC to kick in and offer rational thought to solve a problem (E.g. write the exam; address the conflict). In instances of chronic stress, they can help the body and brain reset to a more relaxed state. The long term result is that the pathways in the brain that result in a stress response can become smaller! And the pathways that lead to a healthy, reasonable response that balances emotions and rationality will become stronger and quicker.
How do we foster the capacity to pause during times of reactivity, and access the power of our PFCs? There are simple practices that foster resilience on a “micro” scale, increasing one’s capacity for resilience to the daily stresses that knock us off balance, and contributing to greater resilience in the face of life’s larger challenges and traumas.
I’ll be back with part two next month and we’ll explore what some of these practices are and how to incorporate them into your work as a Student Affairs professional.
American Psychological Association. N.D. The road to resilience. Accessed online: [http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx]
Seligman, M., 2011. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.
St. John and Haines, 2017. Micro-resilience: Minor shifts for major boosts in focus, drive, and energy. Hachette Book Group: New York, NY.