Friday, December 12, 2014

Bounce Back Better: Brain-Training Resilience for the Track (and Life)

(cross-posted at Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Michael Jordan has famously said “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Look at the people you know, and you’ll find that there’s a wide spectrum of how people respond to adversity. There are the MJ’s, who get cut from their high school basketball teams and months or years later have actually grown as a result of their failure. There are others who get knocked down and seemingly go into an endless tailspin. And then there’s the rest of us, most of whom fall somewhere in between.

What is it?

Resilience is one’s capacity to respond to adversity – to take bad circumstances and move beyond them, or perhaps even make something productive out of them. Resilience is not the ability to walk through life unscathed – we’re all human here, and $#^& happens. Instead, it’s how you react to those life stressors, big and small. Do you bounce back? How quickly and effectively?

Who’s Using It?

A few years back, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania operationalized a resiliency training program (the Penn Resiliency Program), a cognitive-behavioral training program administered in a group setting. The first wave of studies from some of these participants indicates that resiliency training can significantly reduce depressive symptoms (effects that are maintained through at least 1-year post-intervention). Moreover, the US Army believes in resiliency so much that they’ve sunk nearly $150 million dollars into psychological fitness training for their soldiers and master resiliency training for their drill sergeants (Comprehensive Soldier Fitness). In the sports world, Team USA Volleyball has published guidelines on training resilient athletes, and as elite-level performers seek to gain every possible advantage, Olympic hopefuls are increasingly hiring positive psychology specialists to train their minds.

Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

Alrighty, get ready for some crash-neurobiology. When you work on the mental skills that build resilience, you activate a specific set of regions in your brain. At first, maybe these neurons aren’t used to talking to each other, so the connections between them are weaker – they’re speaking through two paper cups tied together with a piece of string instead of an iPhone 6. So how do we train a neural circuit to make it more efficient? In short, the more frequently those neurons are firing, the stronger the neural pathway between them will become – neurons that fire together, wire together. The key here is repetition. Every time you’re practicing those resilience-building thoughts and behaviors, you’re forcing that circuit to fire, until eventually it becomes automatic – and so do those thoughts and actions.

What brain regions are involved in this circuit? As always, it's more complicated than just sticking resilient (and not-so-resilient) people in the scanner and seeing what lights up. But, a few studies have been done that point us toward candidate brain regions important for resilient brains - in a small study of fire-fighters (n=36), resilience was positively correlated with activity in the right amygdala, insula, and left orbitofrontal cortex when subjects listened to a stressful script (versus a relaxing script). These regions are commonly implicated in emotion regulation and interoception, suggesting that more resilient folks may be able to better recruit appropriate circuitry for emotion regulation. In a second study (n=11) where resilient special forces soldiers completed a monetary reward-anticipation task, soldiers showed less of a difference in nucleus accumbens and subgenual prefrontal cortex activity
(see right) when you look at high- vs no-reward conditions (compared to civilians) - so there may also be differences in how people higher in resilience process and respond to rewards (and presumably, failures).

A key part of creating resiliency is training your response to anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. Acknowledge it and then simultaneously bring up a positive feeling, gratitude, calm, happiness. Go to your happy place. By doing this repeatedly, you wire a positive emotion into a circuit that was previously bringing up distress and helplessness. This process of rehearsal and reconsolidation is a key part of how your brain encodes memories, and it occurs in a network of regions distributed across your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. This technique works well for athletes who maybe having problems performing following a bad race, slump, or injury. When negative memories – your bike crash, the marathon you tanked – come to mind, hold onto that memory for a few minutes while you also bring in a positive experience – that race where you excelled, and all the great feelings that came with it. Essentially, you’re rewiring bad to good.

Build Optimism and Focus on Strengths. Remind yourself of what you’re great at. If you need an objective reminder of this, go fill out the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. Remembering the good things that are a fundamental part of you helps you separate the feelings from a failure from your overall identity.

De-Catastrophizing. Minimize catastrophic thinking by first identifying that “worst-case scenario” you’re afraid of. Then, think about the actual probability of that worst possible outcome playing out. Consider a broader range of possible outcomes, including the best-case scenario. The simple process of thinking about a great outcome can engender positive emotions and thoughts, and behaviors tend to stem from those thoughts! Finally, consider the most likely scenario as a possibility.

The ability to harness techniques such as these it what can separate resilient athletes who bounce back from setbacks from the less resilient, who have a harder time shaking off the bad. Building resilience allows you to regroup and go out to train and compete again.

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