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Neuroscience and Therapy Build Resilience and Leadership

Profile photograph of Lynn Hynes
Lynn Hynes, PhD

The mandorla is the almond-shape between two intersecting circles. As a researcher, I often wonder what lies at the edges or what lies beneath a problem or persistent issue. The two circles---if you will---that I am referring to are the emerging field of neuroscience in one circle and psychotherapy in the other circle. Fascinating things happen in the mandorla or at the intersection of two (or more) disciplines.

My practice as a psychotherapist has taught me about psychological strength and the resilience of the human spirit. I have seen countless people bounce back from major adversity and beat the odds.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned about psychological strong people was that their resilience had less to do with what they did and was more dependent on what they didn’t do. We will address that after we briefly explore the notion of resilience and neuroscience.

People who resisted unhealthy mental habits had an incredible advantage in life. They also had advantages in the workplace. No matter what hardships, challenges, or setbacks they encountered, these individuals had a superior ability to reach their greatest potential.

Leaders, in particular, need mental muscle to lead their teams through good times and bad. In order to make their good habits effective, they need to give up the bad habits that could rob them of mental strength. This phenomenon of resilience and psychological strength got me thinking about the neuroscience of resilience and what might underpin the success of individuals who exhibit strong leadership potential.

Neuroscience and Therapy in Building Resilience

So, what happens when we are triggered by difficult situations, tough work challenges, and the stressors of daily life? When stress sets off the usual ferocious communication between the hypothalamus and the pituitary, the buck stops at the adrenal glands. They manufacture and release the true stress hormones—dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and especially cortisol.

The neurobiological underpinnings of resilience are dynamic and complex. In one of the most comprehensive and thorough neuroscientific reviews of how individuals adapt to stress, researchers at King’s College London (KCL) recently compiled a meta-analysis of dozens of studies that help us better understand the neurobiology of resilience.

In this review, the researchers examine the interplay between various hormones, neuropeptides, neurotransmitters, and neural circuits associated with resilience versus vulnerability to stress-related disorders. The researchers' goal was to catalog how various mechanisms in our bodies—and specifically our brains—work in concert to make someone more or less “stress-resilient” across his or her lifespan.

Because the neural mechanisms that underlie our resilience to stress are so multifaceted, the team decided to focus solely on the biological stress responses known to be linked with resilient phenotypes and how their enhanced neurobiological response to stress is processed.

While not part of this review, multiple studies have identified that factors such as social support, temperament, personality, and physical fitness play a pivotal role in levels of resilience. Although this particular review didn’t include studies concerning psychological factors, character traits, and lifestyle choices related to resilience, the authors emphasize:

“It should be noted that active coping strategies, humor, and hardiness can promote resilience through fostering feelings of mastery, commitment, and competence as well as the ability to help others through bonding. Importantly, the propensity of resilient individuals to express positive emotions, in relation to negative events, enables them to control their anxiety and fears.”

Yes, it is in therapy that individuals express their deepest fears, but then learn to accept and manage their anxiety and depression. I work from a psychodynamic and interactive perspective to assist individuals to become more conscious of how their past experiences have shaped current relationships. Many clients are experiencing difficulties, challenges, psychological pain, and life transitions and wish to move into a more joyful, meaningful, and peaceful life. We work together to discover patterns and connections that can help lead to greater self-understanding so that we can understand ourselves in relationship to others.

I believe in an integrative approach as no one approach works universally. My training is rooted in depth psychology (making the unconscious conscious); attachment theory (exploring how early emotional bonds affect emotional development and relationships throughout life); and object relations (looking at how we developed in relation to others). My theoretical orientation supports that if we understand what the psychological underpinnings of our symptoms are, the healing is deeper and more long-lasting.

A wide range of studies have found that therapy, physical exercise, spending time in nature, positive social support, and a strong face-to-face social network are key to psychological well-being. Strong positive social bonds can also have a boosting effect with PTSD, stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. Dealing with anxiety, depression, and stress are essential to becoming a successful leader

The Don’ts of a Successful Leader

One of the biggest lessons I have learned about psychological strong people was that their resilience had less to do with what they did and was more dependent on what they didn't do. Having resilience also means knowing how to regulate and modulate our feelings of anger, disappointment, fear, disgust, and sadness. Although it is normative to have all of these feelings, we can build mental muscle as a way to not react in a way that is destructive and perhaps robs us of our essential energy to run a business. The following are ten things that strong and resilient leaders do NOT do:

1. They Don't Make Their Self-Worth Dependent Upon Other's Opinions

If your self-worth plummets each time you hear something critical--or skyrockets every time you receive praise--you'll become a people-pleaser who can't successfully lead. Mentally strong leaders don't depend on others to validate their self-worth.

2. They Don't Let Their Emotions Control Them

Mentally strong leaders don't suppress their emotions--they are acutely aware of how their feelings influence their behavior. Rather than blow up every time they're angry or bow out every time they're nervous, they're able to regulate their emotions so they can behave productively.

3. They Don't Dismiss Criticism

Ineffective leaders dismiss criticism at all costs because it's too damaging to their egos. But mentally strong leaders are able to consider whether there is any truth to unfavorable feedback. They're willing to make changes if someone else has an idea that could make things better.

4. They Don't Seek Revenge

Saying things like, "He'll pay for making me look stupid in that meeting," or "I'll make sure he never gets another job again," doesn't exemplify strength. Mentally strong leaders don't waste time and energy hurting others. Instead, they invest their valuable resources into bettering themselves and supporting the people who matter most.

5. They Don't Deny Responsibility for Their Behavior

Offering weak apologies like, "Sorry if you were offended," instead of, "Sorry I was insensitive," places blame on others. But you can't grow stronger and become better unless you accept full responsibility for your choices. Mentally strong leaders admit when they messed up and they accept full responsibility for the fallout.

6. They Don't Avoid Confrontation

Confrontation doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, holding direct, upfront conversations is the key to helping everyone work together as a team. Mentally strong leaders are willing to hold tough conversations even when it feels uncomfortable to address the issue.

7. They Don't Silence Other People

It can be hard to hear opinions that run contrary to your own. But mentally strong leaders aren't threatened by people who speak up. In fact, they encourage people to offer ideas because they aren't threatened by people who can develop solutions.

8. They Don't Confuse Confidence with Arrogance

You won't catch a mentally strong leader saying things like, "This place can't survive without me," or "I'm the only one who knows what they're doing in this whole place." Mentally strong leaders are confident in who they are and what they can do but they don't exaggerate their importance.

9. They Don't Fear Other People's Success

Mentally strong leaders aren't intimidated by employees, other leaders, or other companies who are doing great things. They know someone else's achievements don't diminish their own accomplishments. Rather than waste time worrying about people who might outshine them, they stay focused on their own path to success.

10. They Don't Mistake Kindness for Weakness

Whether you're delivering a cup of coffee to an employee or offering extended bereavement leave, being kind doesn't mean you're weak. Mentally strong leaders show compassion and don't worry that they'll be taken advantage of for being weak.

Build Your Mental Muscle

Understanding the mandora between psychotherapy and neuroscience adds to our understanding of what it is to be human in Western modernity. We can also begin to construct a model that helps people become more successful and more satisfied leaders, parents, partners, and friends.

No one is born with mental strength--but everyone has the ability to become mentally strong. Building mental muscle will help leaders to reach their greatest potential--on a personal and a professional level. And the good news is, developing mental strength can have a trickle-down effect. When you become psychologically stronger, you'll inspire others to become the best versions of themselves.

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