Born resilient?

Is bouncing back from adversities and stress a skill you learn or an inherent capability that some of us are lucky enough to possess?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Resilience is a core trait of an individual’s affective style, and refers to the way someone reacts and regulates their emotions as a response to adversity and uncertainty. When faced with a stressful and emotionally significant event, such as an accident or rejection, people who are high in resilience manage, for example, to remain optimistic without losing their enthusiasm. Factors that are linked with the development of resilience, or lack thereof, include early life experiences and environment, such as neglect or abuse that might undermine resilience. A remaining question of major importance is whether or not resilience is an acquired skill that someone can develop later on in their life.

Resilient animal brains

Animal models of stress have contributed significantly to understanding resilience. Most importantly, studies have shown that a resilient brain is not one that simply does not show the negative effects of stress. On the contrary, resilience seems to be an active process – during which additional neurological changes take place to help deal with the effects produced by stress – rather than a passive one, in which case no effects of stress whatsoever would be found in the brain. Novel molecular and cellular adaptations that help to promote normal behavioral function take place only in the resilient brains, and remain absent in those of the animals who are susceptible to stress.

What about humans?

Research on humans has shown that people who are able to shut down negative emotions more quickly, a trait which constitutes in essence the definition of resilience, have higher brain activation in their left prefrontal cortex. This increased prefrontal cortex activity then reduces activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is involved in evoking negative emotions.

Resilience is also related to the structure of the brain: The more resilient someone is, the more white matter (a.k.a. connections) exists between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, providing evidence for some long-lasting effects of resilience on the brain.

Not resilient enough?

Neuroplasticity is the ability to make new connections in the brain by learning and training. We all have the capacity for neuroplasticity and this is exactly what resilience capitalizes on. Due to the adaptations that take place in a resilient brain, neuroscientists characterize resilience as a neuroplastic process and susceptibility to stress, therefore, is considered a failure of plasticity itself.

Resilience plays an important role in mental health. High levels of resilience can help protect us against mental disorders, whereas lower levels of it increase vulnerability for developing them in response to adverse events in our environment.

The question of why people differ in their levels of resilience is a complex one and requires a combination of genetic and environmental factors to be taken into account: Early life experiences and the support system available to a child play an important part, in addition to a genetic predisposition.

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that resilience is modifiable and can be enhanced by interventions, such as visualization techniques, mindfulness and cognitive training. These techniques aim to replace people’s ‘non-adaptive strategies’ with new effective ones by utilizing the brain’s inherent ability to form new connections. In doing so, such techniques can help the individual cope with stress in a better way and, therefore, become more resilient. Such approaches can benefit everyone; not only people affected by mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety, but everyone wanting to become more resilient.

Original language: English

Author: Christina Isakoglou
Buddy: Monica Wagner
Editor: Rebecca Calcott
Translator: Ellen Lommerse
Editor Translation: Felix Klaassen

Header photo credit: Christina Isakoglou

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