Oh no! What a morning! The alarm didn’t go off. I stubbed my toe rushing to the shower, which was cold because that rotten kid used up all the hot water. Again. The coffee machine boiled over, leaving a scorched mess all over the heating plate and me without caffeine. I’m late for my meeting, and last time the boss gave me the hairy eyeball. Now the stupid car won’t start! It told Frank it was giving me trouble, but did he get it checked out? No! Aaaagghg. And it’s only 7:30! I give up. I might as well just go back to bed.
We all have those days once in a while. Most of the time we can shrug them off, mentally reboot, and get on with it. But some of us seem to have them all day, every day.
Those who can brush off and re-frame setbacks quickly are what Richard Davidson calls “Fast to Recover” on the Resilience Dimension in his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Those at the “Slow to Recover” end have difficulty shaking off anger, sadness or any other negative emotional event, loss or hassle.
Interestingly, it’s not the magnitude of the event that influences our Emotional Style. Our capacity for resilience tends to be consistent across the spectrum, from trivial to major. If we obsess over big things, we are unlikely to deal with little things with equanimity, either.
Our degree of Resilience is a function of a couple of discrete brain activities. High resilience is marked by a greater degree of activity in the left pre-frontal cortex (PFC). A resilient person can have up to 30 times the activity in the left PFC than a non-resilient person. As well, large bundles of neurons run between certain regions of the PFC and the amygdala (the brain’s panic button), and can inhibit the amygdala from over-reacting. Those who are Fast to Recover have both strong connections between the PFC and the amygdala, and have strong activation of the left PFC itself.
Our left PFC is more “ivory tower”, emphasizing rational thought. Home of the “L’s”, it’s linear, linguistic, logical and literal; it’s a list maker, and loves to label. It’s also more involved with “approach” state, in which we seek out new experiences.
Our right PFC is more directly connected to the older, or subcortical areas of brain, giving us a more direct sense of our emotions and our whole body. More passive, the right brain favours “withdrawal”, and turns away from novelty. People with excessive activity in their right PFC can be highly aware of bodily sensations, awash in emotions, but unable to describe or articulate them. Slow to Recover, we can get trapped in a morass, making relationships difficult and preventing us from achieving what we want, leaving us to neglect family, friends and work.
What to do? As we have described earlier in the series, we can rewire our brains to emphasize more desirable brain activity through changing our thoughts and actions.
To move us towards Fast to Recover:
• In the brain: increase activity in the left PFC and/or strengthen the neural highways between it and the amygdala
• Meditation – particularly Mindfulness Meditation
• Cognitive Reappraisal – Re-frame the adversity through a perspective shift
o Make it less Personal, Pervasive and Permanent, by changing our explanatory style.
• Take action. Even if you don’t feel like it. The left PFC can be kick-started through a process called behavioural activation, or “Approach” motivation. Doing something constructive can shut down feelings of overwhelm, which is the purview of the right PFC.
o Make a list of activities you enjoy, and schedule them into your planner, like going to a movie, having a coffee with a friend, or taking a hike. Then keep the commitment, even if your motivation has waned by the time the event rolls around.
o Identify just one thing, no matter how small, that you can do to make your situation a little more bearable. Then do it.
• Name it to tame it. Your left PFC is the home of language, so merely naming exactly what you’re feeling immediately engages it. No need to go into a long song and dance as to why you feel that way or what exactly lead up to it. How are you feeling, right now, in a few words? Frustrated? Abandoned? Invisible?
To move us toward Slow to Recover. Yes, it’s possible to be too resilient, too quick off the mark to put something behind us. When we are uber-resilient, others may find us unfeeling and emotionally walled off: Hey, sorry I’m late. I had to stop by the hospital. My mother just died. Yeah, life sucks but time to move on. Do you know anyone who can help me list her house?
• In the brain: decrease activity in the PFC (especially the left side) and/or weaken the neural highways between it and the amygdala
• Focus intently on whatever negative emotion or pain you might be feeling as a result of a setback. This helps sustain the emotion, increasing the activity in the amygdala.
• Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. In other words, focus on the pain and suffering of someone else, perhaps describing it in writing.
• Practice Tonglen, which is “Taking and Receiving” meditation, which cultivates compassion
Check out our blog from last week, on meditation and how to re-wire your emotional brain.