Our resilient minds / by Callum Lamont

You’ve come to a fork in the road. Both routes lead home, though you’re in no hurry, with it being a sunny day and the whole afternoon clear. In one universe, you swing left, along the bustling high street, taking the view of the shop fronts in your stride. Your good mood and optimism catches you off guard and, the figure noticed for this week’s Lotto winnings encourages you to splurge on a ticket. (If the reader could kindly suspend their disbelief for the remaining paragraph) Against all odds, you win the $6 million jackpot. However, in another universe, oblivious to the potential future gains tied to the decision before you, you swing right. Your good mood, optimism and blaring earphones have left you unmindful of the surrounding terrain, causing you to misstep and careen down a small, yet significant, stairwell. A fracture to the femur and hip, a permanent limp and prolonged rehabilitation follows.

An evident, yet obligatory, question is how happy are you in the immediate fallout of these scenarios? Very and not at all, respectively, would be a natural answer. To probe this introspection further, consider a year later. The consequences of either event still reverberates through your daily life, in similarly positive and negative directions. However, in spite of what one could rationally argue, it seems that these two versions of yourself are, more or less, as content as you are right now. Known as the hedonic treadmill theory, initial support was grounded in a 1978 study, which analysed two groups of people, having either recently won the lottery or become disabled.1 While the concept is still somewhat contentious, the findings of this study (and many since) suggested that the overall quality of life reported by either group tended to recalibrate to near former levels, despite the initial polarising forces affecting their conditions. The results, while surprising in the current context, actually touches on a not so surprising core principle of life; it adapts. Almost by its very definition evolution enforces and optimises for an ability to adapt. Over time, physical constraints and changing environments place an urgency on organisms to develop appendages to overcome such burdens. But it should be no less evident to consider a psychological flexibility for change, equally necessary in countering such scenarios. We may not often fit a psychological model within evolution because we arrogantly consider this at odds with our assumption of animal cognisance. However, we cannot deny that animals may possess varying temperaments, from skittish or aggressive, to cooperative and empathetic, and that such behavioural traits have a direct effect on their genetic fitness. Therefore, a capability to regain an equilibrium and composure in the face of adverse events, despite any presence of consciousness, is in the end unsurprising.

A fascinating aspect is how the hard-coded biology and the more nebulous psychology of an individual both clearly play a role, which provides a tool to sharpen our blurred distinction between these two disciplines. To date, much understanding has been achieved relating to the psychosocial, physiological and genetic processes underlying this cognitive mailability. A more descriptive term of what were are discussing is stress inoculation and resilience. Stress isn’t just a 20th century byproduct of the office space. It is a cascade of primal responses and reflexes, coursing through your body and mind, triggered by what your body perceives as danger. The hypothalamus-pituitary-axis (HPA) is a significant promoter of this effect, driving up noradrenaline and cortisol levels, resulting in increased heart-rate, energy release and narrowed focus. While understandable when faced with a predator in the wild, such a response is antiquated for the emotional struggles more relevant for modern day life. Additionally, while the encounter in with the predator is fleeting (regardless of outcome), psychological trauma can be enduring. The stress response is unsustainable, and indeed, detrimental to our health.2 As such, mechanisms are in place for its moderation, allowing one to accept, adapt and move forward. For example, distinct molecular actions, such as the role of Neuropeptide Y, which opposes the HPA response, have clearly been associated with resilience. Following this, we can now understand how particular genetic alleles can predispose individuals to lack such an ability, making them more susceptible to anxiety disorders, such as PTSD. Despite sounding a bit “new agey”, similar beneficial effects are mediated simply through a general ability to maintain positive emotions, which can be extended to gratitude and humour.3 Recent research has demonstrated the significant neurobiological changes which can be induced by our behavioural and cognitive processes. Positive thoughts and can rewire neural circuitry, strengthening rewards pathways important in stress resilience.4 Notably, studies have found that primates exposed to moderately significant stress events early in life were able to overcome and showed a significantly reduced stress reaction to events prompted later in life.3

While important for clinical applications, this knowledge can be appreciated in less drastic circumstances also. Remember changing schools? Your first day at a new job? We are skilled in settling into new surroundings, and I believe it stems from a similar root. It serves on well to make the best of a situation, to view any and every hardship as a learning opportunity. If you willingly wade into the deep end now, it will likely serve you for when you're thrown in at another time. Somewhat paradoxically, when faced with hardship, our conscious awerness is likely to detriment our healing, as we ruminate over the sequence of decisions leading to the unfortunate precipice on which we stand. So if you feeling the stream of negative reflexes penetrating your thoughts, the best approach would be to divorce yourself from such compulsions and let your mind do what it does best, and look forward to being better for it in the near future.

1. P. Brickman, D. Coates and R. Janoff-Bulman, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 1978, 36, 917–927.
2. I. N. Karatsoreos and B. S. McEwen, J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry, 2013, 54, 337–347.
3. A. Feder, M. Haglund, G. Wu, S. M. Southwick and D. S. Charney, in Neurobiology of Mental Illness, eds. D. S. Charney, J. D. Buxbaum, P. Sklar and E. J. Nestler, Oxford University Press, 4th edn., 2013.
4. E. Garland and M. O. Howard, Health Soc. Work, 2009, 34, 191–199.