There’s an old saying that adversity makes you stronger. Real life shows that’s not always true, but the saying underscores an evolving debate among scientists about resilience.
What explains why some people bounce back from traumatic events and crises like child abuse, gun violence, or a pandemic, while others struggle to cope? Is it nature – genes and other innate traits? Or maintain – life experiences and social interactions?
Decades of research suggests that both play a role, but that neither seals a person’s fate.
Although scientists use different definitions, resilience generally refers to the ability to deal with severe stress.
“It’s about behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone,” according to the American Psychological Association. This effort is harder for some people due to genetics, biology, and life circumstances, evidence suggests.
Pioneering US research in the mid-1990s linked negative childhood experiences to poor adult mental and physical health. It turned out that each additional adversity led to higher risks later.
Scientists have conducted numerous studies to answer why some children are more prone to these experiences than others.
California pediatrician and researcher Dr. Thomas Boyce decided to pursue this question because of his own family history. He and his sister, who was two years his junior, were very close amid sometimes turbulent family circumstances. As they grew up, Boyce’s life seemed to be blessed with fortune, while his sister was mired in destitution and insanity.
In laboratory tests, Boyce found that about 1 in 5 children have an increased biological response to stress. He found signs of hyperactivity in their brain’s fight-or-flight response and in their stress hormones. Real-world evidence has shown that children like these are more likely to suffer from physical and mental problems when they grow up in stressful family situations. But evidence also shows that these hypersensitive children can thrive with nurturing, supportive parenting, says Boyce.
Ananda Amstadter, who studies traumatic stress and genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, said her research suggests that stress resistance is about half influenced by genes and half by environmental factors. However, she stressed that many genes are likely involved; there is no single “resilience gene”.
In other studies, Duke University researchers Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi have linked variations in genes that help regulate mood to an increased risk of depression or antisocial behavior in children who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect .
But “genes are not destiny,” says Dr. Dennis Charney, president of academic affairs at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, who has explored ways to overcome adversity.
Trauma can affect the development of important brain systems that regulate anxiety and fear. Psychotherapy and psychiatric medication can sometimes help people who have experienced severe trauma and distress. And Charney said a loving family, a strong network of friends and positive experiences at school can help offset the negative effects.
With an early childhood in Haiti marred by poverty and other traumas, 19-year-old Steeve Biondolillo seems to have overcome all odds.
His desperate parents sent him to an orphanage at the age of 4, where he lived for three years.
“I didn’t really understand what happened,” he recalls. “I was just thrown into a big house full of other kids.” He recalls feeling scared and abandoned, sure he would live there forever.
An American couple visited the orphanage and planned to adopt him and a younger brother. But then came the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people and decimated Haiti’s capital and nearby cities.
“All the hope I had was suddenly gone,” Biondolillo said.
Ultimately, the adoption went through and the family eventually moved to Idaho. Biondolillo’s new life gave him opportunities he never dreamed of, but he says he’s still haunted by “the baggage and trauma I had from Haiti.”
His adoptive parents hired him into a local Boys & Girls Club, a place where he and his brother could go after school to just be kids and have fun. Biondolillo says the supportive adults there gave him space to talk about his life, which was so different from the other children, and helped him feel welcome and loved.
As a sophomore in college majoring in social work, he envisions a career working with those in need, helping to give back and empowering others.
It was a journey, he says, “from a scared little kid to me, a proud young man with big goals and a big future.”
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