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Armoring the psyche: A brain’s resilience

Studies indicate that people whose brains are “wired” for resilience can also receive training that further fortifies them against psychiatric trauma.

What makes one human predisposed to suffer from stress and another comparatively immune? Doctors, researchers, and philosophers have wrestled with this question for decades. Answers have been hard to come by, and are anecdotal at best.

Rajita Sinha, PhD ’92, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, professor in the Yale Child Study Center, and professor of neuroscience, has long been fascinated by the fickle nature of mental fortitude. Her studies focus on the characteristics of the brain that determine resilience.

Sinha believes she has found the answer. Working with colleagues, she assessed the brains of 30 subjects who presented no prior physical or emotional issues. The subjects were exposed to horrific images for a few minutes, then to photos unlikely to provoke an emotive response.

Her study revealed how the brain reacts under stress, and what it does to adapt and be resilient in response. Findings show brains have a specific resilient coping circuit involving a key medial prefrontal region tucked behind the forehead, which slowly activates during stress (such as exposure to grotesque visual images) and helps calm other stress responses. Brains that demonstrated this signal during testing exhibited resilient coping behaviors. Those without the signal tended to engage in nonresilient behaviors for coping, such as avoidance (deferring or evading an unpleasant task or event that evokes previous trauma).

This finding provided an explanation as to why some people may exhibit greater innate resiliency. Those people may be wired to respond effectively to stress, while some others aren’t. The benefits extend to training: These brain regions can learn and be trained to increase that capacity.

“There are certain basic things we know that work for the brain, if you think about resilience. We know that having warm, loving parents is absolutely necessary for a developing brain,” says Sinha. “Studies have shown that trauma and neglect, both emotional and physical, are not good for the brain.”

Resilience is one’s ability to recover from a horrible injury, tragedy, or exposure to stressors. Those who are resilient are better able to endure hardship. Those without this characteristic are more likely to develop such stress-related illnesses as depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, addiction, and even some types of cancers.

Psychological resilience correlates with positivity, and training oneself to think positively increases one’s innate resistance to anxiety and depression.