"…the ability to bounce back from setbacks, learn from failure, be motivated by challenges and believe in your own abilities to deal with the stress and difficulties in life."
Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, authors of The Resilience Factor

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Chief Science Officer of Heyvie

30 Jun 2022


Introduction: a mindful chaos

You are waking up, going to work. Working for a few hours, coming home and throw in some exercising. You are maybe watching some TV or read before going to bed. Time to sleep.

Seems like a normal day? Maybe this is a little more accurate:

You are forcing yourself to wake up and the rushing to work because run late. All the work that needs to be done is stressing you out. After a day that felt never-ending you drive home. Like everyday you are waiting in the traffic jam. Finally home - but completely exhausted, no energy left for exercising. You turn on the TV and watch all the bad news. You turn the TV off. Time to sleep but random thoughts are messing with your mind. You have a hard time winding down and cannot fall asleep.

Maybe you know these days. Days that leave you in a mindful chaos - a feeling of exhaustion. For many people, these days are more common than they should be. Is there anything we can do about that? 

| "It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it." - Hans Selye

Stressful times can put us down. Getting up quickly is the art of resilience. It is a powerful ability within all of us. In this article, we will look at what resilience is, the interaction between resilience and stress, how one can benefit from resilience, and how we build our skill of resilience.

What is resilience?

| “Most of us think of resilience as the ability to bend but not break, bounce back, and perhaps even grow in the face of adverse life experiences.” - Steven Southwick

Resilience is generally the ability to bounce back. We experience adversity and tragedy in life. It puts us down. The ability to get out of this state is called resilience. It is a process and it takes time. Resilience does not mean being immune to negative feelings. It is the ability to bear and bounce back. An ability with many facets. One could adapt to the stress of a job however fail in stress in his relationships. Being resilient in one aspect of life does not necessarily translate to being resilient in another.

Resilience as a global skill

Breaking it down resilience is maintaining homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to a state of balance within the body. Even under ever-changing external circumstances we are able to keep our bodily functions stable and therefore tolerate more stress. The question then becomes how to get there. What needs to happen within all of us so that we can remain in a stable bodily state? Or to put it in another way - how can we attain resilience as a global skill?

Accurate representation of our own body
| “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable” - Seneca

If we do not know where we need to go, it is hard to navigate. Likewise not knowing what homeostasis feels like leaves us with a great challenge. The question really is how are internal bodily states represented within all of us and how can we take that to our advantage?

The key word is interoception. Interoception is the skill to feel the own body - the perception of the state of the body. Bodily temperature, blood glucose, pH-balance and much more. For all of these subconscious states there are receptors. These receptors measure the current state and give this information to our brain. Our brain interprets this information and then knows what is going on.

You can visualize this process like a mosaic. If you stand very close to a mosaic you are most likely not getting the picture. By stepping back you can see clearly what is portrayed. The job of our central nervous system - this includes the brain and the spinal column - is stepping back. It makes sense of all the single information presented by different receptors. Therefore, to feel bodily states, we need much more than accurate receptor activity on a local level. Nerves that connect our peripheral or enteric nervous system to our central nervous system need to work precisely. At the same time our brain needs to interpret this information correctly and in the last step make a good decision on what to do. Feeling our own body - the skill of interoception as a whole then becomes a tremendous job on various levels. There is good knowledge on all of these levels.

Most information regarding bodily states are transducted by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves. The term cranial nerve refers to nerves coming through the skull. Most of these nerves are responsible for various sensitive and motoric functions around the head and neck. The vagus nerve however leaves the skull to wander around the body. It supplies internal organs, blood vessels and is furthermore deeply involved in immunologic responses.

What are we doing with these information? Our brain needs to make sense of what is happening. Like we have a map of all our muscles and areas of our skin over our brain we also have a map of our internal organs. This map is within a brain area called the insula cortex. It encompasses an accurate map of our viscera. This helps our brain understand what is going on in our body.

Why does it all matter?

As described above, if we do not know what homeostasis feels like we will undoubtedly have a hard time achieving it. This is where our brains’ ability to change comes in handy. What researchers now describe as neuroplasticity is truly an amazing skill. Unlike believed in earlier years neuroscientists now agree that our brain is flexible. We can adapt and learn new things regardless of age. This is not only true for languages, sports, or instruments. This is also true for the skill of feeling of our body. By exercising the systems involved in representing homeostasis we therefore have a good chance of first getting a glimpse of what it should feel like. Then - once adversity is experienced - we at least know what to aim for. We can begin the process of getting back to baseline because we know what baseline feels like. We have a clear goal. Even if it is only a subconscious feeling, for our brain that is more than sufficient.

How can we use all this information practically?
| "Every man could, if he were so inlined, be the sculptor of his own brain." - Santiago Ramòn y Cajal

Let’s take your vagus nerve for example. If we lack information from our vagus nerve there are several approaches worthy of trying. One is breathing. It is known that deep breathing changes our autonomic balance. Autonomic is referring to a part of our nervous system that is in charge of preparing us for extreme situations - you might have heard of the term sympathetic nervous system or “fight or flight” system. On the other hand, our autonomic nervous system is responsible to help us with winding down - parasympathetic nervous system or “rest and digest”. Throughout our day we are on the continuum of this spectrum somewhere. However, overshooting responses to stress which puts us far to one end are rarely useful in everyday life. Our vagus nerve plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system. People who have a hard time winding down and getting a good night’s sleep might benefit from the precise activation of this system.

Here is where breathing comes in handy. Deep belly breathing for 5 minutes is enough to elicit changes in the autonomous nervous system, beneficial for winding down, relieving stress, and battling anxiety. A powerful tool we have access to anywhere. Typically we teach deep abdominal breathing by having the subject put one hand on the upper chest and one on the lower abdomen. By breathing in the chest should barely move. The lower abdomen should initiate the breathing motion and ending the motion as well as having the biggest movement amplitude. Breathing in for 4 seconds and out for 6 seconds for a time of 5 minutes significantly changed autonomic function in a study of 70 participants.

We can use movement to target our nervous system where it needs activation. Through movement, we are able to change our internal states. A better understanding of internal states ultimately leads to a higher skill of resilience. This helps us further down the line when experiencing adversity. We know what baseline is and feels like. Therefore getting back is much easier. We instinctively know what to aim for.

Neurocentric training in combination with the Core Values Finder

Neurocentric training puts the brain first. Like the skill of interoception and resilience really are governed by our brain, it is in charge of so much more. The use cases reach from the enhancement of elite athleticism all the way to strategies to incorporate in treatment plans of neurologic disorders.

Based in Karlsruhe, Germany, the quickly growing startup heyvie has the mission to make neurocentric training accessible to the world. The mobile app gives you the option to automatically build your neurocentric toolkit based on your individual needs and goals. Ultimately heyvie empowers personal freedom.

heyvie can help you free bodily resources and by that strengthen your resilience to successfully pursue the values-based goals that you identify and define with the Core Values Finder.

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Haase, L., Stewart, J. L., Youssef, B., May, A. C., Isakovic, S., Simmons, A. N., ... & Paulus, M. P. (2016). When the brain does not adequately feel the body: Links between low resilience and interoception. Biological psychology113, 37-45. 

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Molkov, Y. I., Bacak, B. J., Dick, T. E., & Rybak, I. A. (2013). Control of breathing by interacting pontine and pulmonary feedback loops. Frontiers in neural circuits7, 16. 

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Find Your Values - 30 Jun 2022