Coping with Trauma – Lessons from Resilient Individuals

Most individuals at some point of their life experience events that are stressful. While some people seem to crumble to the deleterious effects of stress, others sail through adverse situations. Chronic or acute stress is associated with a wide range of psychosocial disorders. So what are the factors and the possible neurobiological mechanisms associated with resilience?

Scientists have found several factors that maybe responsible for adaptive physical and psychological stress responses in individuals in the face of adversity. These adaptive responses are associated with the degree of behavioral control we have over stress. Resilience to stress is mediated by the changes that alter the functioning of the neural circuits that regulate reward, fear, emotion reactivity and social behavior.

The ability to face one’s fears might be facilitated by stress inoculation (exposure to tolerable levels of stress) during development. This early exposure to manageable stressors might be responsible for adaptations that down regulate negative emotions. Resilient individuals are better at down regulating negative emotions, a process known as ‘cognitive reappraisal’, with a resulting reduction in emotional responses. This is mediated through mechanisms that involve memory suppression, memory consolidation and cognitive control of emotion.

During development, a range of factors can offer potentially protective effects from stress. Research has shown that social competence and openness to social support promote resilience in children and adults. Mutual cooperation can activate the brain reward circuits. The capacity of adaptive systems to resist or recover from marked disturbances is more when they are healthy. Rodent studies have demonstrated that a positive, or more enriched, environment during development makes animals less vulnerable to drug abuse and to stress later in life. In particular, studies have shown that proximity to the primary caregiver is an important modulator of a child’s sense of safety when facing trauma. A close relationship with a caring adult and the capacity for self regulation promote resilience. A sense of purpose and an internal framework of beliefs about right and wrong are characteristics of resilient individuals.

Also, positive emotions might contribute to healthier cognitive responses. Moreover, physical exercise, which can be viewed as a form of active coping, has positive effects on mood, attenuates stress responses and is thought to promote neurogenesis.

So can people be trained to become more resilient? Scientists feel certain forms of psychotherapy to enhance optimism, reappraisal of traumatic events in a more positive light, preserving a person’s sense of purpose in the face of trauma can help maximize resilience. Ongoing research of healthy individuals who have recovered from traumatic experiences may further deepen our understanding of this process.


Feder, A., Nestler, E., & Charney, D. (2009). Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10 (6), 446-457 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2649

Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.
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