Resilience: How Your Brain Helps You Bounce Back

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

We all respond to stress, trauma, and tragedy in our own unique ways. Some people become immobilized by stress and lose their ability to function effectively in their personal and work lives. They may develop symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress; others continue to live their lives without any noticeable decline in their everyday functioning even though they feel psychologically distressed; still others adjust to stress rapidly and in some cases grow stronger as a result of adversity.

But what explains the differences? Could it be in one’s genes, or in how people are raised, or in the coping mechanisms they have learned to use? What about how they think during stress, or how they behave, or how their nervous systems and stress-hormone systems respond? The answer is complex and depends on numerous risk and protective factors: genetic, developmental, psychological, cognitive, spiritual, and neurobiological.

In our attempt to address these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews with three groups of highly resilient individuals: US Army Special Forces instructors, former prisoners of war in Vietnam, and civilian men and women who had endured and even thrived after surviving severe traumas.

Resilience is typically understood as the ability to bounce back from adversity. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of threat.”

In our two decades of work with trauma survivors, we have identified 10 common resilience factors: realistic optimism; facing fear; moral compass; religion and spirituality; social support; resilient role models; physical fitness; brain fitness; cognitive and emotional flexibility; and meaning and purpose.

We chose to describe these particular factors in our new book because they were the ones most commonly identified as being critical for managing stress and trauma by the resilient individuals we interviewed. Below we briefly describe five of the 10 factors, with a focus on potential neurobiological underpinnings.

Positive emotions/optimism

A large body of research has shown that optimism and positive emotions have a robust association with positive physical and mental health. Nearly all of the resilient people we interviewed were optimists, but not “rose-colored” optimists. Instead, they were realistic optimists who paid close attention to both positive and relevant negative information but rapidly filtered out or disengaged from irrelevant negative information. Realistic optimists use relevant negative stimuli to inform their decisions, but they do not dwell on it.

The neuroscience of optimism is complex and only partially understood. Research by Richard Davidson and others has shown that low activity in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with symptoms of depression, compromised ability to sustain positive emotions and activation of the nucleus accumbens reward system, and slow recovery from laboratory-induced negative emotion and amygdala activation. On the other hand, high activity in the left prefrontal cortex is associated with positive emotion, increased ability to sustain positive emotions and nucleus accumbens activation, and more rapid reduction of laboratory-induced negative emotion and amygdala activation.

There is also preliminary evidence from a study that we conducted with Special Forces soldiers that resilience may be associated with a dopamine-mediated reward system that functions well during conditions of both winning and losing. Taken together, these findings suggest that optimism and positive emotion in individuals who are resilient is related, in part, to prefrontal cortical/nucleus accumbens circuitry that functions well under both baseline and stressful conditions.

Moral compass

Many resilient people embrace a core set of moral and ethical principles that help to build character and guide them during times of high stress. These principles focus on self-control, discipline, perseverance, endurance, the moral courage to stand up for what one believes to be right, and altruism. Researcher Michael Shermer believes that moral sentiments have evolved in social primates as a way to reward reciprocity and cooperation, which enhances group cohesion, the likelihood for survival and resilience. Recent brain-imaging studies have found that mutual cooperation, but not selfishness, tends to activate dopamine reward systems in the nucleus accumbens.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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