How to Be More Resilient

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Richard A. Friedman for The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and learn more about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.

Credit: Ariel Davis

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As a psychiatrist, I’ve long wondered why some people get ill in the face of stress and adversity — either mentally or physically — while others rarely succumb.

We know, for example, that not everyone gets PTSD after exposure to extreme trauma, while some people get disabling depression with minimal or no stress. Likewise, we know that chronic stress can contribute to physical conditions like heart disease and stroke in some people, while others emerge unscathed. What makes people resilient, and is it something they are born with or can it be acquired later in life?

New research suggests that one possible answer can be found in the brain’s so-called central executive network, which helps regulate emotions, thinking and behavior. In a study published last month, Gregory Miller, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and colleagues there and elsewhere used M.R.I. to study the brains of a racially diverse group of 218 people, ages 12 to 14, living in violent neighborhoods in Chicago. They reported that the youths who had higher levels of functional connectivity in the central executive network had better cardiac and metabolic health than their peers with lower levels of connectivity.

What Dr. Miller and his colleagues discovered was that when neighborhood homicide rates went up, the young people’s cardiometabolic risk — as measured by obesity, blood-pressure and insulin levels, among other variables — also increased, but only in youths who showed lower activity in this brain network. This was true even when the researchers controlled for other factors, like psychological distress, economic status, race or ethnicity. No link was found between brain connectivity and cardiometabolic health for youths in neighborhoods with low levels of violence.

One plausible explanation is that greater activity in this network increases self-control, which most likely reduces some unhealthy behaviors people often use to cope with stress, like eating junk food or smoking.

What’s curious is that the more medically hardy young people were no less anxious or depressed than their less fortunate peers, which suggests that while being more resilient makes you less vulnerable to adversity, it doesn’t guarantee happiness — or even an awareness of being resilient.

Of course, this is an observational study, so it cannot prove that the correlation between brain connectivity and health is causal. (It is possible, for example, that baseline cardiometabolic status affected brain connectivity, but it would be hard to understand why this would be observed only in high-violence areas.)

Still, there is good reason to believe the link may be causal because other studies have found that we can change the activity in the self-control network, and increase healthy behaviors, with simple behavioral interventions. For example, mindfulness training, which involves attention control, emotion regulation and increased self-awareness, can increase connectivity within this network and help people to quit smoking.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dr. Friedman is a psychiatrist and a contributing opinion writer.


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