You must have heard of her. She was born in 1954 to a single mother and left to be raised by her strict grandmother in Mississippi who inflicted harsh punishments on her if she ever misbehaved or disobeyed her. When she was six, her mother brought her to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to live with her. Being a housemaid, her mother did not make much money, so they shared a room inside another woman’s house. During this time, she was sexually abused by her cousin from ages nine to thirteen. Eventually, she was sent to Tennessee to live with her father, who was a strict disciplinarian, but gave her a secure home where she flourished. This girl, Oprah Winfrey, later on went on to form her own talk show which became hugely successful. She even became the richest African American of the twentieth Century. Like Oprah, over 70% of people worldwide are exposed to traumatic events or stressors. But, have you ever wondered why some of us can not only survive, but prosper in the face of adversity/trauma, while others are unable to punch back when life throws a left hook?
Resilience is the capacity to recover or cope with crises. A more formal definition provided by the American Psychological Association describes resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or other significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.
Over forty years of research on resilience has found that it is most likely the product of internal disposition and external experience. It is something that an individual can develop, and it is also something that an individual can already have the capacity for. Researchers looking at it from a ‘nature’ perspective have identified one particular biomarker called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) that plays a vital role in diminishing stress responses and anxiety. Studies on rodents and humans have found that NPY is associated with resilience and reduces the likelihood of developing PTSD-like symptoms to stress. In 2018, a review of the influence of genes on resilience identified 6 genes, apart from NPY, to be associated with resilience.
While it appears that genetic predisposition plays an important role in resilience, researchers often argue about how much of resilience is genetics. As it happens, the good news is that even if you are not a naturally resilient person, resilience can be cultivated. According to various studies, learning to cope with manageable stress in early life can be growth-promoting in terms of resilience. A study conducted on primates has shown that being exposed to a moderate amount of stress and hardship can shore up resilience later in life. A more recent study conducted on breast cancer survivors found that individuals who experienced moderately acute stress exhibited higher levels of positive affect. In other words, moderate stress was found to be associated with well-being and resilience to subsequent adversities. The study even went on to explain how early exposure contributed to resilience by adding that manageable level of stress gives rise to the development of mental resources that help the participants cope with future stressors. To put it briefly, this is stress inoculation, which can be thought of in terms of immunisation, where early exposure to bacteria or virus can inoculate you later in life. That could explain how having to master some pretty big challenges while growing up could have prepared Oprah for struggles in the future.
Other critical variables that contribute to resilience are parenting and social support. Research indicates that warm and supportive environment at home and higher social support is associated with reduced anxiety; a supportive relationship with at least one adult can foster resilience. Also, the presence of social support during stressful situations boosts levels of the hormone oxytocin which reduces stress responsivity. Along with this, researchers have investigated the relationship between resilience and personality. A study on paramedics found that those with lower scores of neuroticism had higher resilience. A similar study on doctors found resilience to be associated with personality traits of optimism, perseverance, maturity, and responsibility.
Whether you are going through a difficult time right now, or want to be prepared for the future, when it comes to building resilience there are certain things that you can incorporate in your life; one of them being exercise. Research suggests that long-term physical exercise can prove to be anxiolytic for rodents and humans due to the effect it has on the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for anxiety regulation. Research also suggests that resilience can be cultivated through humor. It seems that although tickling your funny bone may not make the stress go away, it provides a much needed break and relief to the mind, even in the midst of stress. Another thing that has been found to be associated with resilience is having an internal locus of control. When people believe that they are primarily in control of their lives, it can make them feel more empowered making it easier for them to deal with stressful situations. And last, according to various studies, the practice of mindfulness and meditation has been found to have well-established and wide-ranging benefits with regard to cultivating resilience and well-being.
Of course, these are only some of the many possible factors associated with resilience, and how one acquires resilience is not a one-size-fits-all process. You may not be like Oprah, but you probably have room to grow and become a more resilient person. Ultimately, irrespective of whether resilience is innate or learned, it is important to understand that although adversity is a fact of life, being less resilient does not make you less of a person, and neither does it mean that you do not have the ability to rise from the ashes like a phoenix.