resilience and the brain

Resilience and the brain

When you train your brain to work for you it is possible to increase resilience. Where resilience is the ability to adapt and overcome adverse events in life. Resilience requires optimal use of thought, emotional intelligence and communication if you are to stay in the race. The key skills described in this article are attentional control, emotional read-outs, self-regulation, empathy, calmness, decision-making and communication with others.

First, a little bit of brain science:

The emotional centres in the brain lie within the limbic system. Information is sourced from the outside world through the senses and used to make fast-acting decisions that are conveyed to you through the nervous system in the form of emotions, feelings, moods and gut instincts. When you are attuned to your emotions you are guided by the deeper wisdom of your body. When you are not you will have to rely just on thought – which is slower and less efficient at reading the actions of people around you.

The core of your thinking mind lies in the frontal cortex which lies mostly in your forehead. Its job is to process information coming in from other parts of the brain such as the limbic system, from the nervous system, from the external environment and from other people. To do this it utilises thoughts, words, images and ideas. When it is doing the job effectively you achieve emotional and factual intelligence. When it is doing the job badly you may get stuck, anxious, depressed.

The right side of the frontal lobe (the ‘left brain’) is mostly intuitive and develops big picture thinking. The left frontal lobe (‘right brain’) is analytical, factual and logical. When the left brain is too dominant you may get carried away in fantasy and global judgments. When the right brain is too dominant you may become an unimaginative stick-in-the-mud. You need both if you are to develop resilience.

The key skill to learn is to entrain the thinking centres (frontal lobes) to work with each other, and for both to collaborate with the emotional centres (limbic system).

5 ways to develop resilience

Attentional control

Attentional control is the acquired ability to stay in present moment awareness. This enabling you to to monitor and act selectively on thought and emotion. You develop it as you practice mindfulness. If you don’t have much attentional control then you are basically unconscious and asleep. When you have awareness you respond effectively to your own thoughts, emotions and drives and to what is happening around you. But in a state of sleep you are at the mercy of whatever chance influences are blown your way, including random, negative thoughts that come up from elsewhere in the brain.

When you are in present moment awareness you are better positioned to act on emotional imperatives and defuse from unwanted thoughts.

Intrapersonal intelligence

Intrapersonal intelligence is a sub-set of emotional intelligence. It refers to skill in recognising, labelling and responding to your emerging emotions. As you will know your body produces strong emotions, desires, moods and gut reactions. When the thinking mind is working effectively it is able to recognise these states and take action to satisfy the needs embedded in the emotion. When it is not working properly it ignores the emotions, leaving them to fester. The result might be missed desires, unsatisfied emotions, moodiness and unresolved conflict.

Here is a simplified guide to what your body is showing you when it produces any of the feeling states:

  • Emotions call you to take action in various ways
  • Desires show you what is of value to you, and to motivate you towards them
  • Moods reveal to you your general state of mind (whether a good mood or a bad)
  • Gut reactions are your sub-conscious guide to what you should do next

Left/right brain integration

The left side of the frontal cortex processes detail; the right side uses intuition, and keeps in mind the bigger picture. If we over-use the left brain we become over-analytical, stuck in routine and rigid. If we over-use the right brain we can become lost in fantasy and lose the capacity for clear thinking. It is important that we practice using both sides of the brain: intuition and logical thinking.

When both sides are working together you have the inspirational power of the left brain allied to the solution-finding power of the right.

You can develop the left brain by engaging in creative/imaginative activity; the right through solving problems that require logical analysis (crosswords and codewords are good exercises). To develop both sides together there are a variety of cognitive exercises you can do, such as the Stroop Test.


The brain makes decisions through a link between the frontal cortex and the limbic system (the seat of emotions). Good decisions are used when the left brain collects the relevant facts, the right brain checks for the likely consequences, and the limbic system delivers a powerful ‘yes’ or ‘no’ through our gut reactions. Bad decisions are based on poor information-gathering, ignoring how others are going to react, and without reference to how we feel about things.

For more information on making emotionally intelligent decisions in the work-place see this article here.


Empathy is the ability to read the thoughts, feeling and concerns of other people. One key way the brain achieves this is through mirror neurons located in the mid-brain, which mimic the observable behaviour of others. However, both the limbic system and the left brain are involved in generating feeling states and intuitions relating to the people we are engaged with. Human beings are equipped from childhood with powerful tools for understanding other people at a deep level. As the skill of empathy is harnessed and utilised it enables us to develop compassion, as well as deep communication.

Keys to resilience:

  • Mindfulness
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Clear, focused, thinking
  • Intuitive thinking
  • Staying grounded in the present
  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Empathy and deep communication
  • Building emotional bonds with other people

A more detailed analysis of the relationship between the brain, thought processes and emotional intelligence is given in my book on Reverse Therapy.


Photo by David Matos on Unsplash


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