How Your Brain Helps You Bounce Back
By Steven M. Southwick, MD, and Dennis S. Charney, MD

We all respond to stress, trauma and tragedy in our own unique ways. Some people become immobilized by stress and lose their ability to function effectively in their personal and work lives. They may develop symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress; others continue to live their lives without any noticeable decline in their everyday functioning even though they feel psychologically distressed; still others adjust to stress rapidly and in some cases grow stronger as a result of adversity.

But what explains the differences? Could it be in one’s genes, or in how people are raised, or in the coping mechanisms they have learned to use? What about how they think during stress, or how they behave, or how their nervous systems and stress-hormone systems respond? The answer is complex and depends on numerous risk and protective factors: genetic, developmental, psychological, cognitive, spiritual and neurobiological.

In our attempt to address these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews with three groups of highly resilient individuals: US Army Special Forces instructors, former prisoners of war in Vietnam, and civilian men and women who had endured and even thrived after surviving severe traumas.

Resilience is typically understood as the ability to bounce back from adversity. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of threat.”

In our two decades of work with trauma survivors, we have identified 10 common resilience factors: realistic optimism; facing fear; moral compass; religion and spirituality; social support; resilient role models; physical fitness; brain fitness; cognitive and emotional flexibility; and meaning and purpose.

We chose to describe these particular factors in our new book because they were the ones most commonly identified as being critical for managing stress and trauma by the resilient individuals we interviewed. Below we briefly describe five of the 10 factors, with a focus on potential neurobiological underpinnings.

Steven M. Southwick, MD, is Glenn H. Greenberg Professor of Psychiatry, PTSD and Resilience at Yale Medical School; Dennis S. Charney, MD, is Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean and Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Their new book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, was published in September 2012 by Cambridge University Press.


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