There is an old saying that adversity makes you stronger. Real life shows that’s not always true, but the adage highlights an evolving debate among scientists about resilience.
After traumatic events and crises such as child abuse, gun violence, or a pandemic, what explains why some people bounce back, while others struggle to cope? Is it nature — genes and other inherent traits? Or nurture – life experiences and social interactions?
Decades of research suggest that both play a role, but neither seals a person’s fate.
Although scientists use different definitions, resilience generally refers to the ability to handle intense stress.
“It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone,” according to the American Psychological Association. This effort is more difficult for some people, due to genetics, biology and life circumstances, according to evidence.
Landmark American research from the mid-1990s linked negative childhood experiences to poor mental and physical health in adulthood. He found that each additional adversity added up to higher risks later on.
Scientists have conducted many studies to try to understand why some children are more vulnerable to these experiences than others.
Californian pediatrician and researcher Dr. Thomas Boyce decided to pursue this question further due to his own family history. He and his sister, who is two years younger, were extremely close in sometimes turbulent family circumstances. As they grew into adults, Boyce’s life seemed blessed with luck, while his sister sank into hardship and mental illness.
In lab tests, Boyce found that about 1 in 5 children had elevated biological responses to stress. He found signs of hyperactivity in their brain’s fight-or-flight response and in their stress hormones. Concrete evidence has shown that children like these have higher rates of physical and mental disorders when raised in stressful family situations. But evidence also shows that these hypersensitive children can thrive with nurturing and supportive parenting, Boyce says.
Ananda Amstadter, who studies traumatic stress and genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, said her research suggests resilience to stress is about half influenced by genes and half by environmental factors. But she pointed out 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 increased risks of depression or antisocial behavior in child abuse victims. or negligence.
But “genes are not fate,” says Dr. Dennis Charney, chair of academic affairs at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, who has studied ways to overcome adversity.
Trauma can affect the development of key brain systems that regulate anxiety and fear. Psychotherapy and psychiatric medications can sometimes help people who have suffered severe trauma and difficulties. And Charney said a loving family, a strong network of friends and positive experiences at school can help offset the harmful effects.
With an early childhood in Haiti marked by poverty and other trauma, Steeve Biondolillo, 19, seems to have broken all records.
His desperate parents sent him at the age of 4 to an orphanage, where he lived for three years.
“I didn’t really understand what was going on,” he recalls. “I have just been thrown into a big house full of other children. He remembers being scared and abandoned, certain he would live there forever.
An American couple visited the orphanage and made plans to adopt him and a younger brother. But then came the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 100,000 people and decimated Haiti’s capital and nearby towns.
“All the hope I had suddenly disappeared,” Biondolillo said.
Eventually the adoption took place and the family eventually moved to Idaho. Biondolillo’s new life gave him opportunities he never dreamed of, but he says he was still haunted by “the baggage and trauma I had from Haiti”.
His foster parents committed him to a local Boys and Girls Club, a place where he and his brother could go after school just to be kids and have fun. Biondolillo says the adults who support him there gave him a space to talk about his life, so different from other kids,” and helped him feel welcomed and loved.
Now a sophomore in college majoring in social work, he envisions a career working with the needy, helping to give back and nurturing others.
It has been a journey, he says, from “a scared little kid to me, a proud young man with big goals and a big future”.
Follow AP Medical Editor Lindsey Tanner on @LindseyTanner.
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