The Neurobiology of Resilience

February 6, 2018

The neurobiology of resilience is an area of research that explains from a biological point of view one of the most fascinating processes of human beigns. 

We’re talking about the process by which people manage to successfully deal with stressors in adverse situations. How they adapt to this complex world while also caring for their emotional health and reducing the impact of trauma.

The word “resilience” represents a concept that has become quite prominent in recent decades. It’s inspiring, we like it, and many of us even read about it and try to work on it. However, there is one specific aspect that especially interests us neuropsychologists…

Why is it that some people handle complex, adverse situations effectively while others get trapped in a permanent state of helplessness?

“The world breaks everyone and, afterwards, some are strong at the broken places”

-Ernest Hemingway-

We see it all the time, in all shapes and sizes. For example, say there are three siblings, three children who went through the traumatic loss of a parent. 

Under the same circumstances and in the same environment, these children might grow up with very different behavioral patterns.

Some of them will drag this traumatic wound with them, showing up in problematic behavior, low self-esteem, anxiety, learning difficulties, etc.

But another might develop a more adaptable attitude, keeping psychological balance despite the trauma. It begs the question… What neurobiological mechanisms make people more or less resilient?

resilience: a tree growing alone in a lake

The neurobiology of resilience, or our capacity to tolerate stress

Speaking of resilience means speaking of our ability to handle stress and even using it in our favor. One idea stands out: our brain, first and foremost, is a danger detector.

One of our priorities is to survive, and so, in our day-to-day lives, without even really realizing it, we process worries, anticipating negative things and filtering all kinds of risks in our environment that may affect us in some way: physical, social, emotional…

Experts in the neurobiology of resilience tell us that moderate stress or “eustress” is the best kind. Why? It prepares us for action.

However, when our worries, fears, memories of the past or anxiety about the future torment us, this “distress” becomes chronic and alters the brain genetically and neurologically. 

It is then that we begin to suffer from mental problems, unhappiness and the inability to adapt to our environments, which are already complex themselves.

We all know we can train ourselves to manage stress and be resilient. But some people are born with this ability naturally. Meanwhile, others have serious trouble dealing with much smaller, everyday difficulties.

The reason? Neurobiology indicates that our brains have a certain degree of  “resistance”.

the inner workings of a brain

The role of hormones and neurotransmitters in resilience

Early in 2016, the magazine “Nature” published an interesting study about the neurobiology of resilience. This article explains that this ability is related to very specific areas of the brain. The neocortex and, at the subcortical level, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the locus coeruleus.

The most fascinating and striking thing about it all is the activity of hormones and neurotransmitters, which promote or hinder our ability to be resilient.

  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) has the ability to regulate the impact of cortisol on our brain. People who suffer from a deficit of this hormone will therefore be less resilient.
  • The human brain has two types of stress receptors. One activates first, with small amounts of cortisol. It simultaneously stimulates the hippocampus to strengthen the imprint of memories.
  • The other activates later, when there is a higher level of cortisol in the blood. This occurrence, which stimulates the second receptor more, affects the quality of our memory. Less resilient people have higher levels of cortisol in their bodies and so these receptors react.

Orchid children and dandelion children

One thing less resilient people often have in common is their childhood. A childhood marked by insecure attachment, emotional neglect, abuse or a specific trauma generates toxic stress in the child which then affects their subsequent brain development.

Also, the neurobiology of resilience sometimes categorizes children as either orchid children or dandelion children.

  • Orchid children are those we described above, those who had a traumatic childhood. However, there are epigenetics on top of the environment. For example, something we’re seeing is that mothers are suffering from more and more emotional stress. Whether we like it or not, cortisol reaches the baby. It affects the neuronal connections in the amygdala of the baby.
  • On the other hand, dandelion children are those who, for a range of reasons, are much more resistant to stress. The genetic inheritance from the father or mother, the fact of being brought up with safe attachment bonds and with a healthy social circle, without a doubt create a more resilient attitude to life and its difficulties.
the neurobiology of resilience

In conclusion, as the neurobiology of resilience shows us, our abilities in this area initially depend on a series of hormones and neurotransmitters, epigenetics and the quality of our childhood.

Maybe it seems “deterministic.” However, as we’ve explained in this article, resilience can also be learned, developed and applied.

For example, there are studies on brain neuroplasticity and how starting new behaviors and taking on new thought patterns and attitudes can make our brain a much more resistant organ. 

Let’s not forget, it’s always a good time to invest more in ourselves and learn to face the troubles of life with more energy, strength and optimism.