Developing resilience: begin with the brain

If you read my last contribution to #teacher5aday you will know that my mission is to support leaders to look after themselves in order to increase their capacity so that they have more energy for leadership and indeed for life.  If you think you’re making your best decisions after your 6th cup of coffee and with only 5 hours sleep, you’re kidding yourself.  Actions intended to ensure your organisation fulfils its core purpose may actually be undermining it, if you’re not also taking care of yourself.

As a leader, you never finish the job.  Sometimes events overtake you, and you need to work into the small hours.  The point of growing resilience is that you have something in reserve for those times.  But getting insufficient sleep can become a habit.  If you work in a culture that demands you always put others first, you can add to ‘leaving things undone’ a sense of guilt which will also diminish your energy.

We understand about having our cars serviced regularly.  How many of us take the same approach to taking care of our bodies?  The importance of paying attention to our own wellbeing has never been more evident. Growing neuroscience is helping us to understand the connection between wellbeing and resilience. Reading Neuroscience for Coaches* has proved to be a great start for me:

The brain is an incredibly complex web of inter-related structures and systems, some of which are responsible for our automatic functions (like breathing, sleeping, etc), some responsible for functions which we learn, but then become automatic, and some (notably those located in the pre-frontal cortex) responsible for higher-order skills of thinking, decision-making, planning, etc.  Knowing more about the way the brain functions can help us to make decisions about our behaviour which support its effective functioning.

The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for executive functions: our ability to plan, to make appropriate decisions, to align thoughts and actions with internal goals and for expressing personality. The PFC doesn’t perform well under stress. Stress can have a dramatic negative effect on our ability to function, e.g. problem solving, being creative and holding things in our short-term memory. The PFC is energy-hungry and gets drained quickly. A bit like the rechargeable battery in your camera when the flash is used, a burst of energy demands recovery time. Stress impairs its ability to use energy.  How much time do you take to recharge your batteries?

When the PFC isn’t working normally, it can lead to us feeling lethargic, uninspired, and overly emotional. We become easily distracted, don’t finish things, become forgetful and may fixate on negative thoughts. It’s easy to see how we can get into a downward spiral when the PFC isn’t working optimally.  When working well, it functions to allow us to focus and pay attention, to plan, and carry things through. The PFC functions best when it is focusing on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking reduces its effectiveness. For optimal achievement, intersperse difficult tasks with easier ones, to help your sense of achievement and allow the PFC to ‘re-charge’.


Neurons are part of the brain’s wiring system. Messages are carried from one neuron to another by neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) which communicate across ‘synaptic gaps’. A bit like two people passing a ball between them, they might start slowly, and occasionally drop it, but as they practise, they get faster and faster. In the same way, neural pathways are built by repeating patterns of behaviour.

Cortisol is probably one of the best known chemicals in the brain, because of its association with stress. It is actually a hormone, which is secreted by the adrenal glands and its level increases when we perceive ourselves to be under threat. Its function includes blood pressure regulation, blood sugar level regulation, and it affects the immune function and glucose metabolism. It is implicated in eustress (short-term stress which give us the edge and gets us ready to take action) and distress, which comes from prolonged heightened levels of cortisol, leading to lower immunity, higher blood pressure and increased abdominal fat. Caffeine and sleep deprivation both increase cortisol levels; so if you drink coffee to keep yourself awake, you’re helping to increase cortisol levels twice over.   Physical activity can lower cortisol levels as can social connectivity, laughter, and listening to music.

Oxytocin might be seen as the ‘antidote’ to cortisol in that it reduces blood pressure and cortisol. It is released from the pituitary gland. It has an anti-anxiety affect and has been associated with stimulating positive social interaction, and increasing trust. It suppresses the activity of the amygdala (the brain’s alarm system). It is released through connecting with other people (in the virtual or real world). It is believed that oxytocin helps the processes of learning and memory specifically for social information. Release oxytocin by shaking hands for 6 seconds, or giving someone a hug! It’ll improve your own oxytocin and that of the other person, (as long as you have their permission!)

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in how we think, feelings of motivation, reward, attention and our behaviour. When we get a pleasant surprise dopamine neurons in one part of the brain are activated. When something bad happens dopamine neurons in another part of the brain are activated. Increased dopamine leads to prioritising instant gratification rather than longer-term benefits. ‘Treats’ as a reward, for example, for hard work or a goal achieved, can lead to increased dopamine.  A glass of wine as a reward for getting through a stressful week?  Well, just the one, then.  As we become more used to the pleasure these treats provide, we need more to get the same level of dopamine release. Exercise increases blood calcium levels, which stimulates dopamine production and uptake.

Adrenaline is a neurotransmitter and is activated as part of our emotional response to things. It is most readily observed in response to fear. It acts on nearly every tissue in the body. It regulates heart rate, blood vessel and air passage diameters and in the liver breaking down glycogen to make more glucose to release a burst of energy. It features in fixing of long-term memory of stressful events.  In evolutionary terms, you can see how that might be helpful in keeping us safe.  Being chased by a wild animal is pretty stressful, and if you remember it, you’re unlikely to put yourself in that position again.  If we never ‘come down’ from the adrenaline high, our health may suffer.  While memories of negative events stick like velcro, memories of pleasurable act like teflon.  They don’t fix themselves in our memories in the same way (why should they?  They don’t keep us safe).  Focus on pleasurable events or their memory for 20 seconds in order to store and come back to them and to increase seratonin levels.

Serotonin – a neurotransmitter which links to feelings of happiness. It’s important in mood regulation, appetite, sleep regulation and circadian rhythms, memory and learning. It is made from tryptophan (found in the diet in bananas, dates, yoghurt, milk, chocolate, sesame, sunflower & pumpkins seeds and poultry). Alcohol decreases levels of tryptophan. An average amount of alcohol leads to a decrease in tryptophan of about 25%, which leads to similar reduction in serotonin. Serotonin levels can be raised by getting enough sleep; calling to mind a happy event (similarly, calling to mind a negative event can reduce serotonin levels). Being conscious of your thoughts, such as in the practice of mindfulness meditation, can help you to systematise them and get your biochemistry to a place where you have a greater sense of wellbeing. Exercise has been shown to be important in serotonin production and release. Low serotonin levels make it harder to achieve goals or delay gratification. If you focus on times when goals have been achieved, that in itself will raise levels of serotonin.

There are many experiments which reveal the impact that human beings can have on changing the way their own brains are wired.   However often you have your car serviced, you’ll never turn it from a Lada to a BMW.  You can improve your model of leadership by servicing your brain regularly.


*Most of this information comes from Neuroscience for Coaches, Brann A, 2015, London, Kogan Page.  I have summarised it here primarily for the Chrysalis Developing Emotional Resilience for Leadership programme.  It is intended to raise awareness and prompt discussion and thus simplifies some of the detail of the scientific facts.