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Building Resilience at Any Age

  • May 15, 2020
  • Patients and Families, Trauma

Resilience is the ability to adapt well to stress, trauma, tragedy or threats; to bounce back from difficult experiences and to overcome adversity. Resilience is a complex and active process, influenced by both genetics and environment with the potential to change over time. It is also clearly a useful and desirable quality as people across the globe cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Everyone has resilience, but some people cope more effectively and bounce back more quickly from adversity, and our resilience changes as we age.

Many years of research have identified a range of risk and protective factors in the face of stress and trauma. More recently, research is providing a better understanding of the biology underlying these factors such as stress response systems, neural circuitry function, and immune responses, in interaction with genetic factors. A recent review of research led by Adriana Feder, M.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, looks at protective factors and promising interventions to boost resilience at various life stages.

For example, a brief intervention for families incorporating problem-solving, social support and meaning-making (the process of making sense of life events) was found to improve children’s social interactions and decrease distress in both parents and children. Childhood is a critical period for  developing a strong stress response system. A solid bond with caregiver, a supportive environment and family stability are key in promoting resilience in children.

Although adolescence is a time of transition and growing independence, family support is still important, the researchers note, along with school and community support. In adolescence, school- and community-based interventions that focused on positive peer relationships and positive social behaviors have shown promising results.

Among the protective factors for resilience in adults are a generally optimistic personality, engaging in active coping (planning and taking steps to meet challenges), social support (family, friends, community) and a sense of purpose. Interventions that increase a person’s sense of control and build coping skills have been found helpful. Good communication skills and problem-solving skills, which can be improved through counseling, are also important for resilience.

Although there is less research on resilience among older adults, one study looked at the effects of a group intervention program, Raise Your Resilience, incorporating engagement in activities and gratitude. After implementing the program with older adults in a senior housing setting the study found improvements in stress, wisdom and resilience.

Feder and colleagues found a body of knowledge is gradually accumulating on the biological basis of resilience across the lifespan that is supporting development of innovative interventions to help build resilience. One example is a computer-based approach, attentional bias modification, to help prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Attention bias modification training is repeated training to help a person attend to a specific target and ignore others.

“It is becoming clear that resilience involves active and unique biological processes that buffer the organism against the impact of stress,” Feder and colleagues conclude. A better understanding of the systems will help lead to better interventions to strengthen and build resilience.


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