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 like child abuse, gun violence or a pandemic, what explains why some people recover while others struggle to make it through? 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 endeavor is more difficult for some people, due to genetics, biology, and life circumstances, according to the evidence.
Historical American research from the mid-1990s linked negative childhood experiences to poor mental and physical health in adulthood. She found that any further adversity added up to greater risks later on.
Scientists have conducted many studies to try to understand why some children are more vulnerable to these experiences than others.
California pediatrician and researcher Dr. Thomas Boyce decided to investigate this question further due to his family history. He and his sister, who is two years younger, were extremely close in sometimes turbulent family circumstances. As they became adults, Boyce’s life seemed blessed with luck, while his sister plunged into difficulties and mental illness.
In laboratory tests, Boyce found that around 1 in 5 children had high biological responses to stress. She found signs of hyperactivity in their brain’s fight-or-flight response and their stress hormones. Hard evidence has shown that children like these have higher rates of physical and mental ailments when raised in stressful family situations. But the evidence also shows that these hypersensitive children can thrive on polite and supportive parenting, Boyce says.
Ananda Amstadter, who studies traumatic stress and genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, said her research suggests that resilience to stress is roughly half influenced by genes and half by environmental factors. But she pointed out that a lot of 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 victims of child 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 studied ways to overcome adversity.
Trauma can affect the development of the major brain systems that regulate anxiety and fear. Psychotherapy and psychiatric medications can sometimes help people who have experienced 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, 19-year-old Steeve Biondolillo appears 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 just got thrown into a big house full of other kids. He remembers being scared and abandoned, certain that 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 Haiti earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 100,000 people and decimated Haiti’s capital and neighboring cities.
“All the hope that I was suddenly gone,” said Biondolillo.
Eventually the adoption took place and the family moved to Idaho. Biondolillo’s new life offered him opportunities he never dreamed of, but he says he was still obsessed with “the baggage and trauma I got from Haiti”.
His adoptive parents entrusted 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 that the adults who support him there gave him a space to talk about his life, so different from other children ”, and helped him feel welcomed and loved.
Now in her second year of college with a major in social work, she envisions a career working with the needy, helping to give back and nurturing others.
It was a journey, he says, from “a scared kid for me, a proud young man with big goals and a big future”.
Follow Lindsey Tanner, AP Medical Editor, on @LindseyTanner.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Lindsey Tanner, Associated Press