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Resilient leaders can better handle adversity as it arises. We have seen how neglect and stress in childhood can wire the brain a certain way, and we understand that we can rewire the brain because of neuroplasticity. This means we can make changes, particularly if we work at it.
Several genes have been implicated in resilience, and changes in dopamine receptor genes and a dopamine transporter gene have now been linked to sensitivity to stress and susceptibility to depression and PTSD.
Changes in genes that transport or bind serotonin have also been identified as risk factors for depression. Epigenetic differences, or modifications to a genome without direct sequence changes in DNA, can form because of stress and adversity and are also linked to the possible development of psychiatric conditions.
The brain allows us to cope and adapt to stressors, and we can think of resilience as a positive outcome even during particularly trying times. One question posed by scientists is, can we develop flexibility if our growth was stifled due to early life experiences?
We cannot control (for the most part) how we grow up. Some people have a better home experience as children than others, which is a fact of life. Early positive and negative life experiences lay down the architecture in the brain that determines how flexible we will be as we age.
Research has shown structural changes that occur in the brains of healthy young animals during times of stress are reversible. When the stress is over, the brain circuits can be remodelled in those animals. However, the recovered state may not be exactly the same as before the stressor.
For example, the amygdala may become overactive even after the brain architecture is repaired, and amygdala enlargement is linked with mood disorders. Increased reactivity in this part of the brain may also be a sign of cardiovascular disease and PTSD.
Other parts of the brain are also changed during times of stress, including the hippocampus. When the hippocampal volume is reduced, cognitive and mood impairment is often seen. The prefrontal cortex is another target of stress, with a shrinkage of dendrites (part of a neuron), resulting in reduced cognitive flexibility.
Our early life dictates whether or not we lay down the foundation for a healthy or unhealthy brain architecture. Studies with genetically similar individuals (often siblings and twins) have shown differences in the length of dendrites in the prefrontal cortex, with smaller apical dendrites indicating higher anxiety levels. Apical dendrites emerge from the apex of a pyramidal cell, compared to basal dendrites, which emerge from the base of a pyramidal cell. These structural differences may explain why genetically similar people behave differently during stressful times.
Studies that examine adverse childhood experiences found that many factors can increase the risk of chronic disease and premature death. Scientists believe cortisol, the primary stress hormone, could not properly regulate the inflammatory response during stressful times, resulting in these adverse long-term effects.
The answer to the question posed early seems to be ‘somewhat’. While we cannot wholly correct negative changes to the brain architecture, the nature of brain plasticity dictates that we can recover from these events. Epigenetic changes, while sometimes harmful, can also help our brains recover from trauma.
Our brains never stop developing, even as we age, so while we do not see the drastic growth we experience in early childhood, we constantly adapt and change. The good news is that we can become more resilient, even if we are dealt a tough hand in life.
Knowing how incredibly adaptable our brains are, means we can harness this potential. We can increase our resilience and improve how we function, which may increase resistance to conditions like depression. A strong drive can help us do better when facing difficult situations.
Accepting that problems do arise (and often when we least want them to) allows us to face these problems with a more positive attitude. An affirmation, or mantra of sorts, can help us propel forward and not become stuck when facing one of these problems.
Affirmations are a secret tool in the leadership toolbox. They allow us to remember that glitches are inevitable and not permanent. They allow us to stop worrying and focus our energy on the next task. They can help us become more patient, compassionate, and aware of what is happening.
Believe in yourself. You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you imagine.
Roy T. Bennett
We don’t need to limit ourselves to one affirmation. Instead, think of them as a Swiss Army knife--you have one ready for nearly any situation. Becoming more resilient isn’t something that simply happens overnight. Most of us need to work at it each day.
An affirmation is highly personalised, like a perfect pair of socks. Find something meaningful in your life, and then start a list. Need something for a particularly depressing day? Read some quotes by your favourite authors and find a line that resonates. Need something for a busy, hectic day? Keeping a list of affirmations means you can use them anytime you need them.
In today’s social media-driven world, there is a meme for almost anything. Save some you connect with and reread them as a funny, quick pick-me-up. There are memes that poke fun at being resilient or not, support resilience, and everything in between, so no matter what you are looking for, it’s out there.
While affirmations won’t magically solve all your problems, they can help your brain solve problems. Affirmations can give us the drive to continue and to learn and develop constantly. Innovation doesn’t fall from the sky--we work for it.
Being a more agile leader means we can better face different situations quickly and productively. We each have an amazing mind on our shoulders, which is capable of being nimble and adaptable because of the plasticity of the brain.
A basic understanding of how the brain works can help us harness the power of epigenetics, meaning we can be better leaders. While many seemingly have an easier time with life, some people have to overcome adversity and stressors over and over. We may sometimes fall into the ‘easier’ category, but chances are, we will all face moments where we need resilience to move forward.
You can train your brain to become more resilient and better able to face adversity without giving up. Affirmations can help you through the tough times and cheer you on through the good ones. A positive frame of mind is another essential tool for a neuroleader, and we can influence how we think. But--we have to WANT to make changes. Do you?
These Stories on Innovation
Creative Director & Co-Founder
About my Brain Institute
In 2009, Relmi Damiano co-founded the About my Brain Institute alongside scientist and leadership expert Silvia Damiano. Their vision is to democratise leadership & neuroscience by shaking up how we develop the human, the leader and the creative we all carry within.
Relmi is a full-stack designer, brand strategist and entrepreneur. She is interested in the intersection of strategic design, innovation, leadership, coaching and applied neuroscience. Relmi was also the producer for the 8-time international award-winning ‘Make Me A Leader’ Documentary.
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