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Fostering Resilience: The Neurobiology of Resilience (Part 5)



sharma-obesity-smell-the-flowers-dayConcluding this brief series on the neurobiology of resilience, based on the paper by Bart Rutten and colleagues from Maastricht University, published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, I turn my attention to the relevance of these findings for clinicians working in the area of obesity.

Regular readers of these pages, will no doubt be aware of the considerable influence that our thinking patterns and ability to deal with the stressors and adversities of life have on our eating behaviours.

The greater our susceptibility to these stressors and the more “negative” our emotional and cognitive responses, the greater our risk to reach for “comfort” food. No amount of “education” on “healthy eating” will stop this  – as I say in my talks ,  “You don’t treat alcohol addiction by handing out a drinking plan”.

To summarize the findings from the previous posts:

There is now considerable evidence both from animal and human studies that link resilience to the stress and reward system of the brain.

Early life events, particularly in the area of attachment, trauma (emotional, physical, sexual abuse or even just emotional neglect) or social defeat can result in a sensitized stress system, that leads to an exaggerated stress response in later life. This increased susceptibility appears to be mediated by molecular (i.e. epigenetic) changes in the brain particularly in the genes of the HPA axis and the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system.

Fortunately, these negative influences can be reduced through positive emotional experiences and finding meaning and a purpose in life. Thus, meditation and spirituality can activate the reward systems in a manner that counteracts the impact of traumatic experiences.

With regard to stress sensitivity, the authors make an important point, namely that increased stress-sensitivity does not preclude experiencing rewards or enjoyment in daily life. In fact, the ability to feel such enjoyment and increased stress-sensitivity appear to be largely independent of each other.

Not only does this speak to the fact that enjoyment and stress-response are mediated by different underlying factors, but it also implies that,

“People can be vulnerable in terms of their tendency to be stress reactive, but also protected from this vulnerability trait in the face of strong tendencies to experience positive emotions in daily life (i.e. from pleasant events or sense of meaning) which buffer stress, prevent future psychopathology and increase mental health.”

“Thus, it seems that the experience of positive emotions has a distinct and more central role in resilience defined as the successful adaptation, swift recovery and psychological growth in the face and recovery phase after exposure to severe adversities, while the stress-response systems appears to mainly mediate vulnerability to stressors.”

Based on the finding that positive emotional experiences and purpose in life are important in counteracting the negative impact of trauma and adverse experiences on resilience, practitioners can recommend and perhaps offer interventions that increase the experience of positive emotions.

These can include meditation and mindfulness techniques not unlike those of religious practices, such as praying, counting one’s blessings and finding oneness with God or humankind.

Other factors such as finding work-life balance, cultivating friendships or hobbies, volunteering for community work, and other forms of positive engagement (even just offering to help your neighbour’s kid with his homework or coaching a baseball team) can perhaps help strengthen resilience thereby reducing the susceptibility not just for mental and physical ailments but for tackling maladaptive eating behaviours – a prerequisite for successful weight management.

AMS
Zurich, Switzerland

ResearchBlogging.orgRutten BP, Hammels C, Geschwind N, Menne-Lothmann C, Pishva E, Schruers K, van den Hove D, Kenis G, van Os J, & Wichers M (2013). Resilience in mental health: linking psychological and neurobiological perspectives. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica PMID: 23488807

 

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3 Comments

  1. Last night CBC Ideas had a very interesting program on the topic of depression and meaning, spirituality. The discussion was consistent with the content of this post, e.g. positive effects of finding meaning/purpose, inter-connection, balance.

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  2. A major theme in my book is to find other pursuits, passions, and pastimes to bring into your life. It’s become “un-PC” to steer the focus away from talking about moderation and finding ways to enjoy food. But the reality is, if you deal with a lifelong weight problem, you need LESS emphasis on food in your life, not more!

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  3. “Fortunately, these negative influences can be reduced through positive emotional experiences and finding meaning and a purpose in life. Thus, meditation and spirituality can activate the reward systems in a manner that counteracts the impact of traumatic experiences…positive emotional experiences and purpose in life are important in counteracting the negative impact of trauma and adverse experiences on resilience…These can include meditation and mindfulness techniques not unlike those of religious practices, such as praying, counting one’s blessings and finding oneness with God…”

    This quote nicely summarizes the individualist ideological perspective that provides comfort and “resilience” for the people (the perps) who physically and sexually assaulted me throughout my childhood and adolescence. I know that this sociopolitical ideology accurately represents their deepest (“reassuring”) beliefs because they have told me so, more than once, using astonishingly similar rhetoric.

    Individuals can supposedly learn to overcome darn near all social conditions of oppression and injustice—according to this dominant pedagogy of social control and compliance—IF THEY ARE WILLING to SINCERELY apply themselves, to take personal responsibility for their lives…to focus on the bright side, rely on faith, “trust in God’s great plan for us all”, cultivate gratitude and courage and selflessness, and—for heaven’s sake—avoid negativity (“don’t dwell on the past” and “never build a shrine to your own self-pity and pain”.)

    Religions have been singing variations on this tune of personal (individual) salvation for thousands of years (which probably accounts for Marx’s observation about “…the opiate of the masses”), and, throughout history, political rulers have also legitimated and depended on the enticingly-reliable power of this ideological tool, which frequently provides the perfect rationalization for denying the NEED for those messy political revolutions, and those controversial social justice movements, and those disturbing (not-for-profit) brands of social liberation (e.g. “pedagogy of the oppressed.”)

    And now, apparently (following in the grand tradition of Oprah and so many others) the SCIENCE of neurobiology lends its impressive, professional, and politically unbiased legitimacy to this *great cause*, resilience.

    See, you CAN’T spend a lifetime surviving oppressive (and traumatic) social conditions by becoming a faithful servant to the masters of oppression—by buying into the very same dominant discourses (ideologies) that have legitimated and maintained those oppressive conditions throughout most of human history.

    Well, you CAN, I suppose, but using ACTUAL opiates would you get you to the same (dissociated) state A LOT faster and easier, provided you have the economic means.

    I cannot speak for this thing y’all are calling “resilience”—’cause from here it seems like a sorry substitute for something much more radical and powerful—and I’m damn grateful that it works so much better in theory than in reality. Otherwise, people like me would probably be meditating right now, and praying, and doing good deeds (helping the neighbor kid with her homework) instead of working and organizing and joining together with others, both near and far, to dig up the tangled ROOTS of social oppression—and to plant different seeds for future growth.

    For this kind of work, by the way, it’s best to NOT give up your “negative” emotions. You’ll need them.

    You’ll need all of your rage and despair, you’ll need your dismay, your sorrow, and your horrified recognition of the basic toolkit of social oppression—you’ll need your full, painful awareness of how the social forces of domination (consistently and predictably) attempt to appeal to our most profound human fears (fears of our own strong and painful emotions) and attempt to turn our powerful human needs (to be good, loving and spiritual people) against us, by telling us that the keys to our freedom (to “resilience”) can be found—if we search long and hard enough—deep within our selves, as individuals.

    When you can see more clearly through the distinctive patterns of social oppression and domination, you might even come to realize that “resilience” bears a striking resemblance to “compliance.”

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