How Body Responds To Stress and Can it be Trained?
In facing adversities or stress, researchers found techniques using the science of mindfulness in fostering resilience — a person’s ability to overcome difficult circumstances without incurring long-term psychological damage — during extreme stress.
Photo by Jay Castor on Unsplash
Dennis Charney of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City and Steven Southwick from Yale School of Medicine have conducted research focused on why there are some people who are more resilient than others. They found out that if your body responds quickly to stressful situations and recover quickly, it is more likely that you could cope with extreme circumstances better.
Research also found out that people who are more resilient are better at managing their dopamine, the hormones that play an important role in the reward system of the brain. By better using their dopamine, they can remain positive under stress.
Charney’s team worked with researchers from the National Institute of Health to study a group of US Special Forces soldiers. They examined the activity in the reward systems of each soldiers’ brains. The research revealed that unlike regular civilian participants, the activity in the reward system of the soldiers’ brains remains high when they lost money during an experimental game. This shows that the brains of resilient people are less affected when faced with adversity and stress.
The soldiers’ brains show a healthy large hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories and help manage the release of fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. They also have strong and active prefrontal cortex, which is considered as the seat of rational thinking in the brain.
These factors make the prefrontal cortex create sensible plans to overcome threats and stress by inhibiting the amygdala, the region in the brain that processes your negative emotions such as anger and fear.
Factors That Strengthen Resilience
Charney and Southwick found psychological and social factors that can give you stronger resilience. These are the following:
- Facing fear
- “Realistic” optimism
- Physical fitness
- Having a purposeful life
- Cognitive and emotional flexibility
- Challenging the brain
- Having good role models
- Having good social support
- Stronger moral compass
- Being faithful
Charney and Southwick believe that you can develop these factors and they could bring positive change for people in developing their ability to cope with trauma, stress and other adversities.
Mindfulness Develops Resilience
Mindfulness is the best way to develop resilience, according to Charney and Southwick. It originated in the Zen Buddhist tradition. But its main idea of attention and awareness is universal.
Mindfulness is when you purposely pay attention on the present moment and not being judgemental as you focus on the experience that is happening moment to moment.
Charney and Southwick’s 10 factors are internal strengths that can be developed and cultivated using mindfulness, according to Linda Lantieri, the founder of Inner Resilience Program (IRP). She came up with the program in 2002 as a response to how the September 11 attacks affected the schools in New York City.
Lantieri came up with a set of tools for teachers to help their students develop mindfulness. This aims to help the children cope with the effects of terrorist attacks and now with everyday stressors. The tools involved deep breathing exercises to improve the body’s conscious awareness. This helps calm the body down and face stress and anxiety better and promotes long-term psychological resilience.
Other Programs That Promotes Resilience
University of Oxford’s Mindfulness Centre director Mark Williams is the co-developer of the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This therapy encourages patients to be more aware of their thoughts and accept them without judgement. Research shows it helps keep patients who experience major depression from suffering.
Two teachers from UK developed the Mindfulness in School Project in 2010. They came up with a nine-lesson curriculum that teaches kids mindful meditations to cope with stress better.
Martin Seligman, also known as the father of positive psychology, developed the Penn Resiliency Program along with a team from the University of Pennsylvania. The program teaches late elementary and middle school students become more resilient.
Article Credit: Eva Margo