Optima-life specialises in optimising health, wellbeing and performance in work, sport and everyday life.

The neuroscience of resilience: driving sustainable performance

How does constant flux affect your body and mind? And what can you do to take control? The everywoman team uncover the neuroscience of resilience with help from Dr. Tara Swart and Optima-life CEO, Simon Shepard in the latest thinking from their bi-monthly publication, UPDATE.

Almost a quarter of UK workers called in sick with stress in the last year, at a daily cost of almost £690m in wasted wages, according to a November 2014 survey by life insurance and pension company, Friends Life. With 74 per cent of organisations (93 per cent in the public sector) having undergone restructuring in the last five years, leaders and employees are being forced to deal with the resulting pressures and stresses of constant flux – with many becoming exhausted and inefficient.

‘We see many leaders who are suffering constant long-term stress,’ says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. Stress can be measured by monitoring levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal gland. After a sharp spike just before we wake, cortisol settles at low levels – unless the brain detects danger, which triggers a cortisol surge.

Constant stress leads to persistently high levels of cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and affects behaviour. When cortisol levels are high for extended periods, blood supply to the brain areas essential to survival are prioritised, thus starving the cortex and pre-frontal cortex of precious resources such as oxygen and glucose. These are involved in higher functions such as solving complex problems, multi-tasking and creative thinking — that are all essential to leaders.

Simon Shepard, Chief Executive of Optima-life, works with organisations to reduce stress and improve employee performance. He says: ‘Patterns of variation in the heart rate show stress levels. A regular, metronome-like heart beat indicates the stress hormones  adrenaline and cortisol are high. When the heart rate speeds up and slows down, called a sinusoidal rhythm, it indicates lower stress and recovery, which mainly occurs during sleep, or while engaged in activities in which we are competent, confident about and  enjoy.’

Managing this recovery can be achieved through physical exercise, sleep, relaxation (perhaps involving meditation), healthy diet and ensuring that the brain and body are sufficiently hydrated by drinking water.

Dr Swart says: ‘Factors such as sleep, hydration, exercise and nutrition are typically viewed as hygiene factors but what we know now from neuroscience is so compelling that it really makes it more frightening not to do those things properly. I am passionate that physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are key to peak performance in the workplace’.

Sleep well
On the subject of sleep, Dr Swart says: ‘Most people need six to eight hours sleep and anything less can impact your IQ. Sleep disturbance can lead to a five to eight point loss in IQ. Most people can still function in that situation but an entire night’s sleep lost on, for instance, a red eye flight, can lead to a drop in operating IQ that means they are unable to function normally and may show symptoms such as irritability, confusion and memory loss’.

If executives have disturbed sleep, napping is a good solution. Dr Swart says: ‘A 20 minute nap gives you a power boost, a 30 minute nap improves learning and memory and a 90 minute nap improves learning, memory and new connections which can unleash creativity.’

Stay hydrated
Hydration is important because it impacts on the brain. Researchers at the Universities of East London and Westminster found that study participants who drank 775ml of water just before competing tests had a 14 per cent increased reaction time compared with those who drank none. It also showed that when dehydrated, participants were more tense, sad and confused. Dr Swart recommends drinking half a litre of water per 15kg of our own weight daily.

Take aerobic exercise
Researchers have found that the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is associated with memory and learning, is stimulated through exercise.

Continuous aerobic exercise such as running, cycling or swimming stimulates the production of the protein FNDC5 that stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). That in turn stimulates neurogenesis (the growth of new nerves and synapses — the connection points between nerves) and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.[ii] Factors that increase neurogenesis include improved oxygenation and nutrient delivery.[iii]

Clear your mind
On meditation Dr Swart says: ‘Science has legitimised meditation. Meditation creates both a short-term state change and a longer-term trait change with sustained and regular practice. Meditation three times a week, for three months, changes the structure of your brain.’

Scientific American reports[iv] that research at several universities has shown that meditation results in structural changes in brain tissue. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed experienced practitioners of one type of Buddhist meditation had greater volumes of brain tissue in the pre-frontal cortex and the insula than the control groups. These regions are involved in processing attention, sensory information and internal bodily sensations. More work is needed to confirm the findings.[v]

This article has been adapted from everywoman’s bi-monthly publication, UPDATE, in which they share their Partners’ views and activity, the latest thinking around gender diversity, what’s happening at everywoman and thought-provoking articles. Read the full article and download the whole issue here.

Right Management’s Flux Report

[ii] Exercise Induces Hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 Pathway, Wrann, White et al, Cell Metabolism, Vol 18, issue 5, Nov 5, 2013.

[iii] Cotman, C, Berchtold, N (2002), Exercise: a behavioural intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends in Neuroscience. 295–301.

[iv] Scientific American, November 2014

[v] Mental training enhances attentional stability: neural and behavioural evidence, Lutz et al, Journal of Neuroscience, vol 29, no 42 pp13, 414-13,427; Oct 21 2009.