Building Resilience: Brains!

Cathy MacLellan

Our new Prime Minister is promoting “sunny ways,” and this is exactly the right approach to many of the challenges we face individually and collectively. So, resolve to be positive in 2016.
Despite Mr. Trudeau’s attitude, research indicates that it’s much easier for us to think negatively about our lives. Why? According to the social psychology professor Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, our evolutionary past required attention to many possibly life threatening dangers. We don’t face those threats today, but our brains still prioritize negative stimuli. The fight-or-flight response that kept us safe while berry picking is not necessary to deal with the threat of job loss, or severe illness or lost love.
Since our brains naturally think the worst, first, research shows that it takes more brain activity and more effort to overcome our tendency to be negative, and to see threats everywhere. We succumb to and express negative thoughts because that is our brain’s default position. This must be the reason we need five positives for every negative in our lives. In this respect the old adage “put on a happy face” beats “keep calm and carry on” to build our resilience and not be overwhelmed by life’s stressors.
How can we do this? In their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney suggest different strategies to stimulate brain change and to build resiliency. For example, be actively optimistic. This doesn’t mean being goofy happy about everything, and it will take some work to find the positive. Another suggestion they make is to stay connected by giving and receiving support from others, and to resist the urge to avoid people and to hibernate. No mention was made of the power of laughter, but I’ll add it. I recommend episodes of the very entertaining mid 90s television show Pinky and the Brain.
No doubt 2016 will require us all to face periods of disorganization and disruption. But, by adopting strategies to build our brain resiliency, we will more quickly adapt and return to living well again, and find ourselves more resilient and able to enjoy more “sunny ways.”