We are seeing incredible advances in medical science in recent years: portable MRI machines, cancer treatments (radioligand therapy), sickle cell gene-editing treatment, an Alzheimer blood test, and vaccines. Is a resilience pill next?
Imagine: a simple pill that can increase our resilience. No more struggle with set-backs from uncertainty, mistakes, or failure. Stress would be something we could choose: the how, what, where, when, and why. After all, we know that some stress—eustress—is good for us.
According to The American Institute of Stress, eustress is the experience of a challenging event; it is a mindset that accompanies a challenge. And it helps us develop resilience.
Typically, we become more resilient through life struggles. We adapt and grow. But neuroscience reveals that some of us are a bit more lucky: we’re born with a bit more resilience at the start. For the less fortunate, a pill might just level the playing field.
Scientists have been digging in to the study of resilience and stress over the past two decades. One leader is Mount Sinai Health Systems. According to their research, the most resilient people have the ability to defend, bounce back, and find ways to create “a sense of safety, control, and social connection.”
When examining seemingly adaptive behavior, the researchers were surprised to find that genetics and neurochemistry played a role. They found differences in the molecular biology of resilient brains (as compared to less resilient). When stressed, specific genes in the nervous system become more active. But in the more resilient brain, the genes are more regulated.
This has led to pilot clinical trials with specific epilepsy and/or anti-depressant drugs to boost resiliency at the cellular level. Of course, at this early stage it is too early to predict the outcome. In the meantime, we’ll need to develop and cultivate our resilience in the more traditional ways.
Over the past two years, this word has been tossed about everywhere: in headlines, podcasts, blogs, articles, talks, etc. I’ve noticed that there is a wide array of definitions, and subsequently, understanding. For example, from 2015-2020, 18 different approach processes were published in adult health research.
In the June 2021 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, researchers point to three challenges when it comes of understanding resilience: definition of positive outcomes, process descriptions, and identification of mechanisms that result in resilience. The authors suggest we need to reconsider some of the attributes of resilience.
Resilience research has been conducted in four primary scientific fields/waves:
- Developmental psychology: This resulted in an acceptance and usage of resilient scales to identify and/or predict protective factors and resilient personality types, including environmental experiences that may occur at various developmental stages.
- Developmental and ecological systems: This resulted in an understanding of resilience as a natural phenomenon resulting from many processes. For example: a sense of safety, positive social connections, feelings of competence and control, and positive outlooks.
- Intervention and training: the technological advances in neuroimaging suggest the possibility to recover functioning after extreme stress.
- Neurobiology: Studies on mechanisms, including neural plasticity and the interrelations between biological and psychological processes, reveal additional insights.
Researchers explain that our understanding of resilience has evolved from a trait-oriented approach to a process-oriented/outcome-oriented approach. However, there is no universal outcome measure for resilience. At best, there are three core qualifiers: adversity, positive adaptation, and positive outcome.
The researchers define adversity as an exposure to significant adverse events or the risk thereof. The events may be acute and chronically stressful and range from daily life challenges to bereavement, job loss, or chronic events.
- Immunity, stability, or resistance: while this outcome may apply for acute crisis, no one is invulnerable when it comes to chronic adversity and/or significant trauma.
- Bouncing back, or recovery: this implies that adversity is experienced in a specific trajectory for a specified period with a return to homeostasis.
- Growth: unlike recovery, growth implies new, or the strengthening of functions and/or abilities.
Mechanisms of Positive Adaptation
- Cognitive Reappraisal: positive (re)appraisal and attention control
- Cognitive or regulatory flexibility: an ability to modify cognitive and behavioral strategies to respond accurately to changing environments
- Attachment: secure attachment with family, teachers, therapists, or others
- Hardiness: sense of purpose, agency/self-efficacy, growth-mindset
- Neurobiology: functioning brain circuitries
- Genetics: allele type may affect resilience to adversity.
At its core, resilience is a dynamic, multi-dimensional construct, and there is much more to learn. Today, we must rely on three systems, or sources, to build our resilience.
Build Resilience Today
- Intra-individual sources: gender, sex, biology, physiology, health behavior
- Interpersonal sources: education, family, competence and knowledge, interpersonal relationships and social groups, skills, and experience
- Socio-ecological sources: access, formal, and informal institutions, geography, socio-economic status
Of course, access to resources varies greatly across the globe, and even within a community. We see signs of this more and more frequently as situations and behavior indicate persons are experiencing a lack of agency. How can we create a sense of safety (for self and others), a sense of control, and social connections?
An effective strategy that helps build resilience is cognitive reappraisal. This helps us lessen negative emotions and increase positive emotions. Cognitive reappraisal is changing how we think about the situation.
Sometimes, it’s simply using a mantra, such as the Serenity Prayer: “Help me to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This can help us slow down, breathe, and connect with what we can change: our own thinking.
Researchers have found there are many psychological benefits when we experience positive emotions, without necessarily altering negative feelings. After all, it is unrealistic to avoid all negative emotions, such as loss or grief. But we can grow through these experiences when we change how we respond to the situation, including our thoughts and feelings about the situation.
You see, cognitive reappraisal can change the intensity and duration of our feelings. Neuroimaging reveals that when we practice this strategy over a period of time it actual changes our brains; cognitive reappraisal increases our overall sense of well-being and resilience. And when we build our own resilience, we can help others, too.