Nervous System

Nail the Art of Building Resilience

Journey through the brain mechanisms behind our capacity for resilience and learn practices to unlock this indispensable trait.
Written by Ella T

Life, with all its unpredictable twists and turns, often throws challenges our way. Whether it’s a personal setback or a career obstacle, facing adversity is an intrinsic part of the human experience. However, what differentiates individuals in their capacity to flourish despite such adversity is resilience. Resilience is not a fixed trait; it’s a skill that can be developed and honed, and here’s how…

What is resilience?

Resilience is officially defined as ‘the innate human capacity to skillfully cope with adversity and bounce back from disaster’.

What does that mean in reality? Let us give a real-life example:

Malala Yousafzai is a wonderful figure of resilience. Despite being targeted by the Taliban for her activism and advocacy for female education in Pakistan, which ended with her being shot in the head aged 15, Malala recovered and continued her mission to ensure that all girls have the right to an education. She went on to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.

Malala channelled her pain of disrespect, discrimination and debilitating injury into positive energy to propel her forward and achieve inspirational feats.malala-yousafzai

She captured the essence of resilience when she said – “I think everyone makes a mistake at least once in their life. The important thing is what you learn from it.”

What stops resilience from developing?

Early developmental conditioning is vital in the cultivation of resilience. Over a third of people exposed to traumatic events, whether these be wars, disasters or assaults, are likely to develop significant neuropsychiatric conditions as a result. Those with significant negative early experiences will be over-represented in this group. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder (PD), major depression disorder (MDD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) are some examples of such conditions, and many of their symptoms overlap.

Negative early experiences are very damaging to the nervous system. They disrupt the capacities of the prefrontal cortex to regulate the bodies’ response to stress, danger and life threat. Moreover, the  ability to self-relate from a sense of safety, protection, trust and intra/inter-personal resonance is impaired. So too is the ability to recognise and reflect on implicitly encoded patterns of response to life’s challenges.

The past becomes the present

Steven Porges Polyvagal Theory (first introduced in 1994) demonstrates how someone with PTSD internally perceives present events as the same as an early traumatic event, causing their autonomic nervous system (ANS) to trigger fight, flight or freeze response. Their ANS is faulty.

fMRI scans from a study (2022) found that when exposed to trauma, the brains of people without psychopathologies were compensating for changes in their brain processes by engaging the executive control network – one of the dominant networks of the brain.  Those with PTSD had less signalling between the hippocampus and the salience network, and the amygdala and the default mode network. This means that their emotional capacity, memory, learning, survival instincts and ability to stay present are severely impacted.

PTSD patients have trouble discriminating between safety, danger or reward when there is an emotional component. Their brains overgeneralise towards danger. As a result of these major brain impairments, their behaviours are unconscious. From an outside perspective it appears that someone has completely overreacted to a minor inconvenience, whilst what they are experiencing internally is a replay of their own traumatic event as if it is happening right now.

Therefore, transforming adversity into opportunities for growth and learning, like we watched Malala do so skillfully, becomes impossible. Instead, coping strategies are dysfunctional, as we see in the symptoms of psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, GAD, PD and MDD.

Understanding that the response is not a conscious decision highlights the importance of working with the subconscious and implicit memory in cultivating resilience.

As mental health clinicians, we must help our patients build their own internal sense of safety.

Teaching resilience: breaking it down

Malala had a supportive father Ziauddin Yousafzai, a poet, school owner and educational activist in his own right. He insisted that she received all of the same opportunities as those offered to male children. Her mother, Toor Pakai, would often open her home to those in need  within her community, creating an environment in which Malala could relate to others within the safety of her home. Together, Malala’s parents cultivated a favourable early environment in which their daughter grew up alongside kind and strong figures, who lived as equals.

They provided Malala with the tools of self-awareness, self-compassion and kindness towards others.

To build resilience, there are four key ingredients:

  • Positive emotions
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-compassion
  • Gratitude

These elements lay the sturdy foundations needed for combatting a harsh inner critic; this creates feelings of toxic shame and self-loathing, which completely derail resilience.

Teaching resilience: lifestyle changes

Body-based practices are heralded as one the most effective in creating positive change for trauma clients. Modern neuroscience is only just catching up to the ancient wisdoms of Ayurvedic and Buddhist philosophies, and the combination of the old and new is proving to be very powerful. As these doctrines teach, for positive change to become permanent, practices such as mindfulness must become part of one’s everyday life. After a while, these exercises become automatic, similar to how the flight, fight or freeze responses were previously the bodies’ go to response. The years in which a patient has been in a state of ANS dysfunction can often be reflected in the time it takes to develop their resilience.

We are rewiring the subconscious and implicit memory. This is no easy feat. Identifying the maladaptive processes running ones’ life is the first step, the next is developing the ability to counteract them when the threat response kicks in and crucial parts of the brain shut off. Ancient practices recognise the importance of exercises in gratitude, kindness, compassion and joy to counterbalance the innate negativity bias of the traumatised brain.

The implications of this cannot be overlooked. PTSD, MDD, GAD, PD, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders are only a few of the real-life consequences often as a result of a lack of positive self-treatment.

We must model how to treat ourselves as our own best friend and instil such self-compassion in our patients.

“Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died; strength, fervour, and courage were born.” – Malala Yousafzai, 2013.


Find out how to successfully cultivate resilience:

Linda Graham’s video course teaches the modern neuroscience of the brain processes that are integral to resilience, self-compassion and self-esteem. Understanding these mechanisms is vital to shifting the brain out of contradiction, negativity and reactivity. Enlighten your client with the operations running their brains in these moments and the evidence-based tools they need to transform all aspects of their life. Harnessing the brains’ neuroplasticity is critical for us to help our clients develop more flexible and adaptive coping mechanisms, and to rewire dysfunctional coping patterns that block their learning, recovery and growth – the markers of resilience.

Linda Graham helped pioneer clinical interest in the neuroscience of resilience and has two award-winning books on the topic.

Link to buy

Written by Ella T
October 3, 2023
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