Life is full of challenging and sometimes traumatic circumstances that arise whether you are young or old, rich or poor, urban or rural. The psychological strength that gives a person the ability to experience the death of a loved one, loss of a job, violence, serious illness, divorce or financial ruin and bounce back is called ‘resilience.’
Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.
Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives, according to the American Psychological Association. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
The promising finding about resilience is that it is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
New research suggests that some level of resilience might be affected by what is called the brain’s ‘central executive network.’ Those are the connections in the brain that help regulate emotions, thinking and behavior.
A study by Northwestern University psychologist Gregory Miller used Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or M.R.I., to study the brains of a racially diverse group of 218 people, ages 12 to 14, living in violent neighborhoods in Chicago.
The study found that youths who had higher levels of functioning in this ‘central executive network’ had healthier hearts and metabolism than the young people with lower levels of this type of connectivity in the brain.
Youth with higher levels of executive functioning in the brain showed more more self-control during times when there was violence in the community. That active brain network also appeared to have a positive impact on health, because young people with those higher levels of connectivity showed more resilience and lower stress levels. The secondary positive impact is that this brain network helped the youth reduce some unhealthy behaviors that people often use to cope with stress, like eating junk food or smoking.
“We know, for example, that not everyone gets PTSD after exposure to extreme trauma, while some people get disabling depression with minimal or no stress,” said psychologist Robert Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College,
“Likewise, we know that chronic stress can contribute to physical conditions like heart disease and stroke in some people, while others emerge unscathed,” said Friedman. These differences are the basis for much research on what makes people resilient, and whether it’s something they are born with or if it can be acquired later in life.
In a New York Times article, “How to Be More Resilient,” Friedman said the study at Northwestern University, and other studies, have found that we can change the activity in this self-control network of the brain and increase behaviors that have a positive effect on physical and mental health.
One of the strategies found to be effective is mindfulness training, which involves focusing on the moment and not ruminating about the past or worrying about what the future might bring.
Mindfulness has been found to increase connectivity in the brain network, said Friedman, who points to another study. Using data from Magnetic Resonance Imaging, that research project found that after mindfulness training, people showed increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex, key brain areas in the executive self-control network.
“Active resilience happens when people who are vulnerable find resources to cope with stress and bounce back, and do so in a way that leaves them stronger, ready to handle additional stress, in more adaptive ways,” said neuroscientist Huda Akil, who studies the biology of stress and resilience at the University of Michigan.
Akil discovered that there are brain molecules that endow us with resilience.She and colleagues studied the brains of depressed patients who died. They found that the most disrupted genes were those for growth factors, proteins that act like a kind of brain fertilizer.
“We came to realize that depressed people have lost their power to remodel their brains,” Akil said. “And that is in fact devastating because brain remodeling is something we need to do all the time. We are constantly rewiring our brains based on past experience and the expectation of how we need to use them in the future.”
There is continuing research on how these growth factors affect animals, but more immediately important are findings that humans can increase these types of proteins. One of those is brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein that promotes the survival of nerve cells, which has been found to increase resilience.
The promising factor in this research is that simple and low-cost or no-cost lifestyle choices like physical exercise and social support have been proven to increase these proteins, and therefore, to improve resilience.
There are many choices in lifestyle and perspective we can make to improve resilience. Here are some important suggestions from the American Psychological Association:
The key is to identify behaviors and routines that work well for you as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience.
Friedman, Richard A., “How to Be More Resilient,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 2018
American Psychological Association, “The Road to Resilience,” 2019