How Do Our Brains React to Failure?

The science behind the changes our brain endures when we feel like we are failing, and how to fight back.

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One year into graduate school at DePaul University in 2015, I knew I didn’t want to be a mental health counselor. Not because I wasn’t passionate about helping people or that I didn’t believe in the value of therapy, but I loved research and writing so much more than the actual practice. I dreaded our “mock therapy” sessions with our peers and I awkwardly asked (not joke), “how does that make you feel?” That summer I packed up all of my stuff, rented a late model Prius, and drove back home to North Carolina feeling like an absolute loser. 

Failure, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. How it is defined varies greatly from one person to the next. Getting fired from a dream job, moving across the country for a job you hate, breaking up, being rejected, or maybe even simply missing a car payment. The constant that holds true is that failure feels awful, and believe it or not, our brains react and even change as we experience this awful feeling. 

But I have good news! We are not alone. That girl on Instagram that appears to have every little thing figured out ALSO sometimes feels like a failure. I take comfort, and I hope you can too, in the fact that we can use scientific research to put a name to our perceptions and combat their harmful effects. 

The Winner Effect

When an animal (including humans) experiences multiple successes or “wins” they experience a high from dopamine and testosterone. This is called the “winner effect”, which has been explored in detail in Ian H. Robertson’s latest book. This high is truly as strong as any drug, which can make winning physically addictive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, losing (or failing) causes stress that kills brain cells and impedes confidence. 

When we feel like we are failing, that feeling alone can cause permanent damage to our brain  AND cause us to fail more in the future when enduring more difficult hardship. What’s worse is that when we feel like we have failed, we tend to do incredibly unhealthy things like avoiding the issue altogether or punishing ourselves for our failure. 

How to Fight Back

When we arm ourselves with self-awareness and self-love, we are equipped with the best assets to become resilient. Here are a few steps you can take next time you feel the effects of failure:


This is one of my #1 favorite super-psychology, go-to strategies for when I am ruminating on a failure. Re-framing is when you very simply take your ideas about an event and twist them into something more positive. For example, let’s say you get fired from your job. You are consumed by thoughts of not being good enough. Now think of ways to twist this event. You are grateful for being fired because now it has opened you up to doing something you’re really passionate about. 


Find healthy ways to relax and take your mind off of the failure. Do not dwell, ruminate, or become consumed by the event. Instead of sitting with unhealthy thoughts, take a walk, read a book, or get lunch with a friend. 


Set specific, reachable goals and reward yourself for the steps you take to get there. Rewarding yourself for the little “wins” in your life will build back up the confidence that a failure can diminish. 

Failure is inevitable and a catalyst for change. Instead of allowing failure to cause physical and mental damage, we can proactively become more resilient, and be better for it! 

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