Project Indra podcast episode 5: The resilient brain. The Goldilocks zone of stress – not too much, not too little – can be a powerful tool for growth.

Episode 5: The resilient brain

Ryan D Thompson Modern, Neuroscience, Resilience, Skills

Key ideas

The Goldilocks zone of stress — not too much, not too little — can be a powerful tool for growth.

  • Resilience can be defined as the ability to achieve a successful outcome in the face of adversity. While mindset plays a critical role in our capacity for resilience, neuroscience also suggests that we have limits to the amount and kind of adversity — or stress — we can handle.
  • Different kinds of stress affect us differently, influenced also by our unique life histories. “Toxic stress” often leads to some form of illness and is often exacerbated by adverse childhood experiences. “Eustress” refers to “good” stressors that can push us to grow and adapt.
  • Underlying our brains’ responses to stressors is the idea of neuroplasticity: that the brain is always changing. The plasticity of our brains means we can break free of mental limitations.
  • One way to do this is through the cultivation of purpose. As suggested by Viktor Frankl and more recently by modern neuroscientists, having a sense of purpose in life protects our physical and psychological well-being.


We’ve been exploring the theme of resilience over the past four episodes. We’ve heard insights from several traditions that can support and empower us through times of adversity. In this fifth episode, we’ll take a look at resilience through the lens of neuroscience — exploring some thinking on what happens in the brain when we’re faced with adverse circumstances. I hope that we can add a deeper understanding of what resilience really is, what is happening in our brains, and what kinds of techniques are most effective for reacting and adapting in a healthy way to adversity.

One question that comes to mind for resilience is how do different people have such different reactions to the same adversity? I keep thinking back to videos I’ve seen of people having meltdowns in airports or airplanes over the past year. One video, in particular, stuck out to me. A man in his 30s just visibly snapped when the airline staff asked him to wear his mask. He started shouting, getting in the staff’s faces, swearing, and shaking his fists. He repeatedly acted like he was going to hit the airline staff, who somehow managed to stay calm despite his antics.

It’s easy to judge this guy, and many on social media did, in fact, scorn him for his outrageous behavior. Because obviously, most of us don’t act like maniacs when we don’t like the rules, despite how much we all hate wearing face masks and all the rest of the inconvenience of Covid. But surely, there is more to his story that pushed him over the edge. For one, we can assume that he had been fed a steady diet of anger-baiting misinformation for months. I wonder, though, were there other conditions that led up to his breakdown? At what point does an adverse situation push us to a tipping point?

On the one hand, we might believe that having the right mindset makes the difference, whether this mindset comes from a spiritual or philosophical tradition or some other approach. But on the other hand, are there circumstances in which attitude isn’t enough? What conditions or actions do contribute to mental resilience and overall well-being — or impede them? I’m hoping that learning a bit more from the perspective of neuroscience will help shine some light on these questions.

To start at a basic foundation, what is resilience, according to neuroscientists? While there are no doubt many definitions, one good one is that resilience is the ability to achieve a successful outcome in the face of adversity. It involves our capacity to recover after experiencing some form of insult, setback, or trauma.

Integral to this concept is the presence of stress. From the perspective of biology and psychology, stress can be good, bad, or indifferent. To start with the worst: Bad stress, or “toxic stress,” often leads to some form of illness. This could be from the nature of the stress — something like intense traumas from childhood abuse, other forms of sexual abuse, poverty, or physical and verbal violence. The toxicity of this stress increases with repeated exposure. These kinds of pressures during childhood are described as “adverse childhood experiences” in the literature. These adverse childhood experiences wreak havoc on resilience, making people more vulnerable to stresses throughout their lives. 

Next, there are the neutral or “tolerable stressors.” It seems that these are the kinds of stress we can shrug off, causing no significant harm. But likewise, these aren’t the kinds of pressures that help transform us for the better. For most of us, something like being stuck in traffic could be a tolerable stressor. Sure, it’s annoying, but few of us actually blow our lids and go full-on road rage. Likewise, we’re not exactly turned into better humans after surviving a traffic jam.

That’s where the third stress comes in, called “Eustress” (I stress, you stress, we all stress!). Eustress refers to the kinds of stressful events that help us to adapt. They push us to tap into some hidden mental strength and rise to a challenge. An important point is that it is “just the right amount of stress” — not too much, and not too little. The “right amount” no doubt differs for everyone, depending on our experiences. Eustress could be something like taking on a challenging project at work. You’re pushed beyond your capacity, feeling intense pressure, but not too much that it becomes unhealthy. Military boot camp can be a powerful form of eustress: carving out the strongest, most resilient version of the men and women who make it through.

And then neuroplasticity is a crucial concept underlying these forms of stress and the type of reaction we have to them. Contrary to what many of us might have learned growing up, it is now widely accepted that the brain constantly changes throughout our lives. It adapts with our experiences — both those we choose and those that are thrust on us. This idea is encouraging, not just for building resilience but for cultivating well-being in general. The plasticity of our brains means we’re capable of breaking free from whatever mental limitations that might hold us back. It means we can constantly grow, adapt, and build a life of flourishing. 

Your past doesn’t need to define you because your brain can adapt. You can build new, healthier associations and beliefs. You can go through hell; given that you have the right kinds of support, mindset, or training, going through hell can make you stronger.

Richie Davidson, Cortland Dahl, and a team of researchers at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have spent decades studying how to cultivate human flourishing. They’ve created a four-part framework to better understand how to nurture healthy minds and general well-being. The four pillars are awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. Each of these pillars of well-being can be cultivated through mental training and other interventions. 

While the four pillars undoubtedly have some connection to building resilience, the pillar of “purpose” seems to have the greatest impact. Their research suggests that having a sense of purpose in life protects our physical and psychological well-being. Purpose and values provide a cushion to bounce back after traumatic experiences. Check out the Healthy Minds app to get more info on this. This phenomenal app presents the science behind each of the four pillars and practices to cultivate each skill. I’ve added a link in the show notes.

One final insight that comes up for me in thinking about these concepts. I feel a greater sense of understanding for others. I feel less likely to judge the level of resilience of others (or even ourselves). It’s important to consider the kind and intensity of the stress a person is subjected to. The context of a person’s past and present can influence the degree to which a given type of stress might affect them. There reaches a point for any of us that we reach the tipping point, where a kind of stress creates an adaptive and helpful resilience in one person. But for another person, this particular stressor was one straw too many. We can all just hope to have the right kind of stress!

Ok, that’s all for now. I hope this brief tour of the brain electrifies you to learn more and to cherish the plastic brain in your head — it’s our most incredible tool, no doubt! If you found this podcast interesting, be sure to subscribe to check out more episodes. And please share this with a friend if you think it would be helpful to someone. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License