Dr Ayman Shenouda
When each of us experience hardship, it changes us - yet not all of us experience lasting harm as a result. Stress affects people differently with many factors influencing the strength of our stress response.
Resilience is our capacity to overcome adversity and our resilience is shaped by our experiences – both good and bad. And it’s really only when you’re faced with extreme stress that your level of resilience can be determined.
‘You only know what you are made of when you are broken.’
This was the moving statement from a father who lost his unborn baby during the recent Grenfell Tower inquiry.
It is said that we can all overcome adversity and choose to be resilient. But how can we increase emotional resilience and cultivate more resilience for ourselves and for others?
Neuroplasticity and resilience
Can neuroplasticity help us to understand resilience?
Mindfulness sites are full of the promise of rewiring your brain through neurally inspired therapies to increase emotional resilience.
Brain researchers reassure us that the brain can change and that brain reorganisation is not limited by age. That it is the brain’s plasticity that can help us to overcome adversity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to grow and change in response to experience. It is supported by chemical, by structural and by functional changes across the whole brain and together they support learning.
What is it that limits and facilitates neuroplasticity?
Dr Lara Boyd Neuroscientist and Physical Therapist at the University of British Columbia explains this well in her work which looks at what can be done to help patients recover from stroke.
In looking at how we learn she states that the best driver of neuroplastic change in your brain is your behaviour. But that it needs practice and you have to do the work with increased difficulty leading to more learning and greater structural change.
Our uniqueness holds the key
Dr Boyd’s research has looked to therapies that prime or prepare the brain to learn – brain stimulation, exercise, and robotics. But she also states that a major limitation is that patterns of neuroplasticity are highly variable from person to person.
It is this variability in studying the brain after stroke that she believes provides some valuable transferable lessons. Learnt neuroplasticity after stroke applies to everyone. It is these individual patterns and variabilities in change that allow us to develop new and effective interventions.
It is partly personalised medicine with each individual requiring their own intervention. However, this concept is then broadened through embracing our uniqueness with personalised learning being key.
This research shows that biomarkers are helpful to match specific therapies with individual patients. More specifically it is a combination of biomarkers that best predicts neuroplastic change and patterns of recovery after stroke.
Applying this learning
Dr Boyd’s advice is to study how and what you learn best. Repeat those behaviours that are healthy for your brain and break those that are not.
In applying this learning, it is clear that resilience can be taught. But it requires supportive relationships and opportunities for personalised learning.
Bringing this back to our own workplace, how can we harness the brain’s innate capacity to change? Not only in our patients and ourselves but applying this knowledge in equipping our trainees with strategies to cope in dealing with stress.
Resilience in the workplace
I think it is important to look at how can we inspire resilience in others. Working through what strategies work for the individual is important but so is providing a workplace free from harm, neglect, and disrespect.
More emphasis on building positive work environments, coping strategies and the importance of self-care is needed. Training in neuroplasticity and how to exploit it should be part of our armoury.
For our trainees, we need to think more about building their stress fitness and coaching and mentoring are helpful in developing this resilience. Trainees would benefit from a buddy and a mentor to improve resilience and this needs to be formalised in our training system.
Funding for formalised training programs to improve resilience in our trainees should also be prioritised. Webinars in workplace wellbeing, resilience, mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal training should all be pursued.
Resilient people are able to see things from others perspectives. They also tend to value others.
Simply conversing in a compassionate way changes the brain.
Coming back to neuroplasticity, if we repeat certain throughs or behaviours often enough the neural pathway can be created. Forming new connections and weakening those patterns that are not working for you being key.
In mastering resilience, we know that much of it has to come down to the individual and effort. Fixing a self-critical neural network is doable but takes practice and training to chart new pathways.
In untapping resilience by harnessing the brain’s innate capacity to change we must prioritise the tools proven to bring about these shifts. This is particularly important in supporting our trainees so that together we can inspire and create a more resilient workforce.