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.

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