Is there a connection between the happiness of caregivers and their resilience? Resilience is “the ability to cope with life’s frustrations without falling apart.” If you are content serving as a caregiver despite the stress of the role, maybe you have a brain that’s better wired for the job.
Recent research suggests that a specific part of our brain seems to be responsible for successful stress management. If you are relatively happy serving as a caregiver, perhaps you possess this positive brain attribute. Some people have told me that I’m “earning my wings to heaven.” They say I “must be terribly strong” to look after my mother with dementia. Others appear to believe that I’m a masochist or a nut. But now I see there’s another possibility: I may have a flexible Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex. Who knew?
Caregivers and Resilience + Science
Scientists from Yale have been conducting studies that identify how people respond to sustained stress.They have located a region in our brain called the Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex which seems to govern our response to stress. In some people, this area shows high flexibility during sustained stress. Others, however, do not display this type of neural flexibility. Low flexibility participants were more prone to binge drinking and angry outbursts.
During the ten years that my mom’s been sick, I’ve met many caregivers from professional and family settings. Clearly there are some people who enjoy the role. They are kind and caring in the most difficult situations. These caregivers go out of their way to make dementia patients feel safe and valued. On the other hand, there are those who seem to despise the job. These people yell at patients, abandon them in their chair, and neglect their needs. I’ve had a hard time watching this type of caregiver, wondering about the harm they might be doing. Now I believe their behavior may show more than a lack of compassion. Perhaps their wiring doesn’t give them the resilience they need for the job.
Resilience does more than help you survive stress. It also helps us experience happiness. I discovered the Yale study through a Tweet from Emma Seppala. She does research on the links between happiness, compassion and success. If caregiving expands your sense of compassion, perhaps you can use this quality to increase your overall success in life. Next week’s post will offer ideas that are especially relevant to this theme.