What resilience research teaches us about our ability to bounce back

TIME magazine featured an interesting story this month about resilience and the science of bouncing back.

We found it especially relevant to our work around Restorative Narrative — stories that show how people and communities are rebuilding and recovering in the aftermath or midst of difficult times.

Here are some highlights from the magazine piece:

  • “Resilience is essentially a set of skills — as opposed to a disposition or personality type — that make it possible for people not only to get through hard times but to thrive during and after them. Just as rubber rebounds after being squeezed or squished, so do resilient people.”
  • “Thanks to modern imaging, scientists can peer inside the brain in real time to see how, and to what extent, stressful situations change the structure and functions of the brain. They are also learning that training for resilience can change the brain to, well, make it more resilient. … ‘Resilience training can help people deal effectively with chronic disease and improve their quality of life. It helps people cope,’ says Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.”
  • “Most resilience research is still done on survivors of catastrophes — floods, fires, tsunamis, drought — as well as on soldiers. But while it’s tempting to think of resilience as a skill people won’t need until they’re locked in a cell or their home is sucked into a tornado, resilience experts say those extremes are a kind of psychological exaggeration of the things the rest of us go through.”
  • “It doesn’t take a predator to trigger a stress response in modern humans. Some research shows that even feelings of social pain — like rejection and loneliness — zoom along the same neural pathways as fear. ‘This notion that I’m going to be rejected or fail or won’t be accepted by the group activates the same circuits as if I saw a wolf,’ Southwick says. It’s an evolutionary hanger-on from when our ancestors survived only in groups. The problem is, even though we’re no longer bumping into wolves, we’re constantly activating the same neural pathways of fear with everyday stressors — worrying about the future, fretting about the past. The more we use this neuronal superhighway, the more efficient it grows, and this mode of thinking becomes our default. But new research shows humans can train their brains to build and strengthen different connections that don’t reinforce the fear circuit. Over time, if people use this new pathway enough, it can become the new response to stress.”

A growing body of research has shown that repeated exposure to the negative emotions expressed in traumatic news stories can cause people to become more stressed and withdrawn.

Research has also found, however, that when people experience positive emotions — like those expressed in Restorative Narratives — they feel more mobilized and engaged.

Given that resilience is an acquired skill, we believe the media industry can help people and communities learn what it means to be resilient by telling more Restorative Narratives. We hope to do research on this topic in the coming year and will share our findings on ivoh.org.


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