Emotional resilience: how do we get there?

September 15, 2020

The term emotional resilience is used alot these days, particularly in a world of COVID-19, but what does it actually mean?  In this 5 part blog series “Emotional resilience: how do we get there? we talk to Child Psychologist & Neuroscientist Kathryn Berkitt.

In this first blog,  we look at how stress can impact our behaviour and thinking.

In this series we want to share some neuroscientific knowledge that may help you and those around you when it comes to dealing with stress, anxiety, anger and other emotive activations. Increasing your emotional resilience is the key to returning to a state of calm when we feel these emotions.

Many people believe those who are resilient don’t cry and bounce back immediately, so they can appear hard, cold, impenetrable. However, this is not the definition of resilience we are working towards. Yes, resilience is about ‘bouncing back’, and in the case of emotional resilience, it means to return to a state of calm, ensuring your emotions do not create a major interference to life in general. What needs to be explicitly stated though is resilient people still feel. Resilience is about allowing the feeling, validating that we are all emotional human beings, and that being emotionally vulnerable is an important part of connection, reflection and existence. Resilience is the bungee cord at the end of the feeling that becomes strong enough to pull us back.
This series aims to help you understand and support the development of emotional resilience, for ourselves and those we support because if we are resilient, we can be more authentic human beings.

What is emotional resilience?

ENGAGE is an on organisation that trains nationally and internationally around the impact environmental trauma can have on the developing brain. The definition ENGAGE uses to guide the development of emotional resilience is: “multiple moments of tolerable stress, in the presence of a close, meaningful relationship”.

The first element of this definition – ‘multiple moments’ – highlights the importance of our everyday relationships. So if you are someone who experiences multiple moments with the child, adolescent or adult you want to develop resilience for, then you are important. We will explain how it is the small, everyday experiences that build resilience, and this will help you see the importance of your role in this journey.

As you read through this series, you’ll learn things that you already recognise in yourself, and areas you can work on. Remember to always be kind to yourself and simply see this as an opportunity to reflect, learn and consider whether you need to make any changes.

Red brain vs green brain

The second important element in ENGAGE’s definition of emotional resilience is ‘tolerable stress’. You may wonder, what the difference is between tolerable and intolerable stress. This will be explained in later sessions, because of the importance of distinguishing between the two. In this session, we will just look at stress in general. To help us understand stress activation, we use the concept of the red brain and the green brain. The red brain is the lower areas of the brain and the green brain, the upper pre-frontal cortex area. Note, this is a simplified explanation of our highly complex brain, for the purpose of explaining the impact of stress.

The red brain refers to the lower parts of the brain that control survival, co-ordination, language and emotions. This part of the brain is the most essential for keeping us alive. We need it to pump our hearts, operate our bodily functions, communicate and a host of other vital functions . The other part, the upper green brain refers to the prefrontal cortex; the area of our brain that helps us to be logical, rational and empathic. The green brain helps us to be rational, to manage our time, to think about our past and future, plus so many more functions. The green brain feels like it is the most important, and indeed it is incredibly important for learning and for living a connected, full life. However, heartbeat (red brain) trumps empathy (green brain), so when it comes to survival, the red brain will receive the most attention, and the most energy when it requests it.


What happens when you’re stressed

Something you are doing right now, and what we are all doing almost all of the time, is Neuroception. Neurosception is mostly controlled by our red brain, and it is the action of scanning the environment for clues about danger. If the scan comes back clear – no danger in the environment – then our red brain concludes we’re safe, and therefore it requires very little energy. However, if the scan comes back having identified danger (a stressor), it signals to the red brain that there is danger and survival is at risk. This then activates a shift in energy to the red brain. As we have limited energy it must come from somewhere else, so we take it from the green brain.

Consider this scenario: One minute ago, you were calmly walking around the house ready to go out and meet your friends at a café for coffee. Then you reach for your keys to leave. Oh oh! They’re not there. Your neuroception has just scanned and identified a stressor. Your red brain has now essentially computed that your safety is at risk. The red brain now takes a large chunk of energy from the green brain. Lack of energy in the green brain means you are now unable to go back to yesterday to think where you left them. You are also unable to consider the impact you may have on others, so you might just be rude to someone who asks you “where did you see them last?”, or you might just activate the fight/flight response, or the freeze response and physically lash out or shut down. If you have ever lost the plot because you can’t find keys, or forgot your password, or someone asked you what was for dinner after a long day at work…. you will know that when survival red brain requires energy, the logical, empathic green brain is under-resourced. Hence, our change from calm, kind, considered person, to the Incredible Hulk.

Developing awareness and building resilience

We mentioned a stressor indicates to the red brain that there is a threat to our survival. The essential element to remember about stressors, is that they do not have to be life threatening to activate the life preserving activation of the fight/flight, or the freeze response. Any stressor activates our stress response. Losing keys is not likely to result in loss of life, but it activates the same physiological system as we would if we saw a lion approaching. Your child is trying to find their favourite t-shirt but can’t – not a loss of life situation, but they are likely acting like it is. The fact that we respond to any stressor as if it is life-threatening is very important to remember as we continue through this series. This is how we will understand the behaviour of ourselves and those around us, when it feels very different from their usual personality and actions.

The first step is understanding more about this shift in energy to the red brain and how we can start to take back some control. It’s also worth noting, the red brain is essentially two years old, so this explains a lot of the behaviour we exhibit when neuroception identifies a stressor. When you’re stressed, the red brain is activated. This movement of energy in the brain is the reason we can act less empathically, seem more selfish, and not ‘care’ about what we do or say to someone, even if that person is someone we care about. This is difficult enough, but there is more. If we activate the fight/flight response, there is an increased supply of energy to the areas of the body that can help us survive. These energy changes in the body can also result in changes in behaviour. If the freeze response is activated, the body essentially shuts down, meaning we ‘play dead’ to protect ourselves from the stressor we have detected. So when you feel stressed, it is much wiser to walk away, calm down, and come back when you have a bit more of the green brain available.

In other blogs in this series we will unpack why some of us get to that space quicker than others, we will talk about the impact on our body, on health and on our sleep when we are in red brain for too long, and we will look at how to build resilience in yourself and in those around you. Essentially this means staying calm when faced with a difficult situation, so you can move from red brain back to green brain, because in the green brain we can be empathic, we can learn, we can reflect and we can connect. Lets learn more about how to stay in our green brain. We’re glad you can join us for this journey.