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Resiliency: A Mental Health Tool For All

By Kristin Anderson

Despite being a neuroscientist who studies depression, a few weeks into the shutdown I found myself facing depression and anorexia diagnosis. I was accustomed to successfully handling a large stress load but suddenly, everything felt too heavy. I knew what was going on in my brain but I could not stop the negative spiral.

Like many, I was not in a position to afford the level of professional care that I needed. Fortunately, I was able to turn to science. I dove into the scientific literature, looking for strategies to build my own resiliency. Luckily, this helped keep me afloat until care became accessible. Not everyone can or should rely on independent study though. Everyone deserves access to resiliency strategies because mental health is a public health issue. A public health approach that incorporates resiliency strategies into daily life holds the potential to help everyone.

What is resiliency? From a neuroscientist’s perspective, resiliency can be defined as an active coping mechanism to stress that gives resistance to stress-induced pathology. Resiliency is not the opposite of susceptibility but a result of different circuit activation in our brains. How can our brains become resilient? We can strengthen our own resiliency circuits similar to how we strengthen our muscles: by exercising them. This is rooted in a concept called neural plasticity wherein our brains can be molded through experience. This requires daily practice of using cognitive tools that work to change our brains.

A few tools that worked for me include awareness, acceptance, and defining my behavioral patterns. I had to become aware that normal stress had become suffering. Stress is normal. There is also no need to medicalize normal stress. But we do want to avoid normal stress from becoming the next level of suffering.

Once aware, I could begin to accept that this time is different and thus I needed to find new ways to move forward. Simply put: pain + non-acceptance = suffering, but pain + acceptance = ordinary pain. As much as we do not like pain, it is a normal emotional state we will be in from time to time as humans.

I also had to define my stressors and reactions. I was by default now seeing the worst in everything. It took effort to realize this new default mode caused my life to move in the direction of these strong negative thoughts. With awareness, I could slowly start to reframe that vision and etch a new narrative, and presumably new circuits into my brain.

Whether the current state of affairs will result in a mental health crisis or just a rough patch woven into the history of the human race is unknown. Emerging evidence shows that children, teenagers, young adults, and adults are all suffering a mental health impact. This is evident in increased calls for support to counseling hotlines. Although these surveys are snapshots in time and may not predict long-term outcomes, we need to listen to the data and do our best to handle the very real changes in mental health. The current safety net for individuals suffering is not robust and we must find ways to fortify the net for everyone.

Reports of high burnout levels across workplaces were already widespread prior to the pandemic. Fortunately, stress-induced pathologies are preventable, so long as individuals are equipped with coping tools before a stressor. This type of prevention before the onset holds enormous potential to reduce collective suffering and treatment costs. If mental health was a public health issue, it would be common knowledge that we can exercise our brains to become more resilient and these exercises would be widely available.

I fully recognize that these tools are not universal and not meant to resolve any diagnosis alone. There are many factors that go into overcoming mental illness. Therapy is still the greatest tool for many. Therapy may be considered an experience that is important to changing neural circuits towards resiliency, and thus eventually achieving a positive outcome.

Privilege and access to resources are real factors that need to be discussed and addressed in an effort to make sure all members of society get needed help, despite area codes or incomes. We can though, work to institutionalize resiliency by teaching and equipping individuals with the coping skills that have the power to develop resiliency throughout society in places like schools or workplaces.

Life does not leave us mark free, but having a normalized and universally accepted first-aid kit stocked with coping tools is a step forward. Ultimately, if we embed resiliency and prevention into the larger framework it could help everyone and prevent undue suffering. It’s time to have the discussion on how we can accomplish this.

Kristin Anderson, Ph.D. is a neuroscience postdoctoral research fellow studying susceptibility and resiliency to depression.

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