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Are some of us wired to be more resilient?

These days, there is much talk of resilience. This is not surprising, as there are ample stressors in our daily lives and in our world, and some people seem to fare better in the face of stressors than others. But what is it that makes some people more resilient than others in the face of stress?

We’ve learned that there are many things that people can do to help build resilience in themselves or others. Some people do seem to know this instinctively, and much of what we can do to promote resilience includes activities that we already know promotes overall psychological health. Fortunately there is a growing literature base on resilience training, and therapists and workshops focused on building resilience skills are becoming more commonplace.

But what about those who, without any special training, seem to just be more resilient?  Recently, researchers have looked to see whether there are neural underpinnings in resilience. That is to say, some people’s brains may just be more adept at facilitating resilience. In research just published, researchers have found that some people’s brains are in fact naturally more resilient.

Researchers at Yale University led a study looking at neural activity using fMRI in participants exposed to either stressful or neutral stimuli. Imaging revealed three patterns of neural activity. The first two patterns were characterized by activation (and then decreased activation) in regions which process threat. The third pattern that was observed was something that suggested a a pattern in a particular region of the brain that is associated with emotional regulation. In the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VmPFC), when there was evidence of flexible activity in the brain during exposure to stress, there were notable behavioral predictors for after exposure. Those who exhibited flexible activity in this region were better able to regulate their emotions. Furthermore, those who did not exhibit this flexibility were found (in subsequent interviews) to report greater difficulty regulating emotion or more frequently engaged in behaviors fueled by emotion (e.g. emotional eating, binge drinking).

This research adds to the growing literature about what constitutes resilience and why some people seem naturally more resilient by providing insights into coping responses based on neural activity. How an individual copes with stress is multi-determined, and neural activity is another piece of the puzzle. A better understanding of all the factors contributing to resilience will yield the most effective methods of promoting resilience.

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