More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Keys to resilience for PTSD and everyday stress
by Margaret Haglund, Nicole Cooper, Steven Southwick, Dennis Charney, and Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz

Most persons experience trauma during their lives1... Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychopathologies are not inevitable or even common, however, developing in 8% to 12% of trauma survivors.2 Why are some individuals more resilient to trauma than others?

Resilience to stress is associated consistently with at least 6 psychosocial factors: active coping styles, regular physical exercise, a positive outlook, a moral compass, social support, and cognitive flexibility.

Active coping style
Resilience is the process of adapting well to stress or trauma.3-5 Learning to manage stressful situations requires active coping, which can be conceptualized as 2 types:

  • ?problem-focused? (working to solve the problem)
  • ?emotion-focused? (accepting and dealing with emotions caused by the stressor).
Many studies have correlated active coping with emotional well-being. A 2003 study of first-year medical students found that using problem-focused or emotion-focused coping techniques helped preserve physical and mental health during 1 year of medical school.6 In contrast, depressed persons tend to use passive coping styles, including denial and avoiding problems, substance abuse, and resignation.7

Undertaking and mastering difficult tasks appears to be effective in increasing resilience to stress. The ?stress inoculation? hypothesis8-11 provides a plausible explanation for the observation that children who learn to cope with stress tend to become hardy adults. Successfully overcoming challenges improves self-confidence and also may alter the neurobiology of the stress response.

Prolonged-exposure therapy. PTSD development and maintenance depend in part on fear conditioning. By avoiding exposure to reminders of their trauma, survivors unwittingly solidify associations between traumatic triggers (people, places, or things that are reminders) and fear. Actively facing fears is necessary to break these associations.

Prolonged-exposure therapy was designed to help patients face their fears.12 As part of therapy, participants retell their trauma stories and engage in avoided activities in a safe environment. This treatment has been found to be highly effective in reducing PTSD symptoms, and its benefits often last longer than those conferred by pharmacologic interventions.13

Physical exercise
Exercise is a type of active coping that diminishes negative emotions caused by stress. Regular exercisers report less-frequent depression,14 and exercise has been shown to improve clinical depression in adults.15 Exercise builds physical and emotional hardiness, lifts mood, and improves memory. It produces these health benefits by:

  • releasing endorphins and serotonin precursors
  • attenuating basal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity
  • promoting expression of neurotrophic and neuroprotective factors.16
Exercise-induced neurotrophic factors include nerve growth factor, galanin (a neuropeptide released under stress that has anxiolytic effects), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is important because it stimulates neurogenesis in the hippocampus and appears to improve learning and memorization.17 Thus, exercise appears to increase brain plasticity and enhance ability to learn from and adapt to stressful situations.

Resilience: Preventive medicine for posttraumatic stress?

Resilience is the ability to maintain normal functioning despite adversity. It can be viewed as the successful operation of ?basic human adaptational systems.? Conversely, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be understood, in part, as failure to adapt to stress.

Risk factors for PTSD. Traumas with the highest risk for psychopathology are severe, unpredictable, or uncontrollable and those that involve loss of property or (especially) a loved one, danger to self, or physical injury. PTSD risk also is increased by the cumulative effect of multiple, severe, uncontrollable traumas and personal factors such as3-5:

  • history of childhood abuse
  • personal or family history of psychiatric illness
  • limited social support
  • passive coping mechanisms
  • neurotic or introverted personality style.
A Positive outlook
Depressed individuals tend to view their problems as permanent and pervasive, whereas those who are resilient see adversity as temporary and limited in scope.

Positive emotions decrease autonomic activity and symptoms of stress, broaden one?s focus, and allow negative events to be put into perspective.18 Like exercise, humor decreases tension and makes it possible to see the lighter side of difficult situations.19 Humor can also draw social support.

Role of dopamine. Humor and positive emotions have been linked to the dopaminergic reward mechanism in the mesolimbic circuitry. Dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area fire when a reward is received; firing increases when a reward is unexpected or greater than expected. These same neurons release less dopamine when rewards are smaller than expected or not received at all.

Optimists are thought to have a robust dopaminergic response to reward, which is either hypersensitive to rewards and/or resistant to dysregulation under stressful (unrewarding) conditions.20

Mastering childhood adversity may ?inoculate? against future stress

Undertaking and mastering difficult tasks appears to be an effective way to increase resilience to stress. The ?stress inoculation? hypothesis provides a plausible explanation for the observation that children who learn to cope with stress become hardy adults.

Men and women who successfully managed stressful situations in childhood?including death or illness of a parent or sibling, family relocation, and loss of friendship?are more resistant to adulthood stressors, such as divorce, death or major illness of a loved one, and job loss.8 Conversely, individuals who experienced extreme childhood stress that they could not control or master?such as physical and/or sexual abuse?may be more vulnerable to future stressors.

Like vaccination? Organisms develop immunity after exposure to a pathogen?s attenuated form; similarly, they may develop resistance to stress after being exposed to and overcoming mild stressors.9 Immunity to stress is not specific to the type of stressor first encountered; early exposure to manageable stress appears to enhance resilience to many adverse experiences.

Neurobiology of resilience. In a series of studies, Special Forces soldiers had higher blood levels of 2 stress-protective hormones?neuropeptide Y (NPY) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)?immediately after high-stress interrogations than did soldiers who received lessintensive training.10 These hormones also correlated with better performance under stress.

NPY and DHEA help keep the stress response in check by inhibiting release of norepinephrine, cortisol, and other stress-related hormones under high-stress conditions.11 To what degree genetics, development, and/or training enhance NPY and DHEA release is not clear.​

Neurobiology of resilience: Factors that influence physiologic stress response

Norepinephrine: Neurohormone and neurotransmitter released by the locus ceruleus in response to stress; sympathetic nervous system mediator; increases autonomic arousal (elevates blood pressure, heart rate); facilitates fear memory formation

Cortisol: Glucocorticoid released by adrenals in response to HPA axis activation by locus ceruleus; increases arousal, attention, and fear memory formation; initially adaptive, but prolonged/excess release has harmful systemic effects (hypertension, osteoporosis, immune suppression)

DHEA: Steroid released by adrenal cortex under stress; down-regulates stress response; has antiglucocorticoid activity; may protect against PTSD

NPY: Neuropeptide that counters locus ceruleus activity; blocks release of cortisol; anxiolytic

Galanin: Neuropeptide that counters locus ceruleus activity; anxiolytic

Dopamine: Optimal levels enable reward system functioning; excess or deficit linked to learned helplessness and stress

Serotonin: Mixed effects, but high activity at 5HT1A receptors is linked to resilience​
A moral compass
Religious faith is associated with lower rates of depression in many populations, including college students, bereaved adults, and elderly hospitalized patients.21 Religious faith is not essential to a strong moral compass, however.

Morality appears to have a neural basis?a hypothesis supported by the observation that brain injury can damage one?s moral sense. ?Acquired sociopathy? can result from trauma to certain brain areas, including the anterior prefrontal cortex and anterior temporal lobes.

?Required helpfulness.? Altruism?putting one?s moral compass into action?benefits the person who practices it and the person who receives it. Persons who help others perceive themselves as necessary and derive fulfillment. This phenomenon known as ?required helpfulness? was first described during World War II, when those who cared for others after bombardments suffered less posttraumatic psychopathology than those who did not.22

Some individuals find healing in a ?survivor mission? after personal tragedy, helping others cope with the same problem they faced. Mothers Against Drunk Driving?founded by mothers who lost children in car accidents?is one example.23

Social support
Individuals with strong social support tend to be more resilient than those without.24 Social support can reduce risk-taking behavior, encourage active coping, decrease loneliness, increase feelings of self-worth, and help a person put problems into perspective. A lack of social support correlates with depression, stress, and increased morbidity and mortality during medical illness.

Role models. People can learn to manage stress by mimicking the behavior of someone they respect. Many resilient adults credit a parent, grandparent, or other role model for teaching them to act honestly and inspiring them to be strong. In a study of 770 teenagers, those who had a strong nonparental mentor (such as a neighbor, teacher, or coach) reported less drug use and delinquency and a greater belief in the importance of school than those without such a mentor.25

Cognitive flexibility
Being able to positively reframe negative events (?cognitive reappraisal?) is crucial to resilience. Individuals who successfully overcome adverse events usually manage to find some meaning in their tragedy.

Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl26 wrote of the importance of ?meaning making.? Despite suffering for years in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl wrote that he gained the opportunity to exercise inner strength and be ?brave, dignified and unselfish.? He struggled to survive because he came to believe that his suffering had a purpose: to live to teach others about his experiences.

Neuroimaging studies indicate that individuals who use cognitive reappraisal to deal with adversity have strong ?top-down control? of emotions. They can modify their reaction to stress or trauma by activating the prefrontal cortex, which then modulates amygdalar response to the situation.27

Related resources

National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The road to resilience. American Psychological Association Help Center.

Positive Psychology Center. University of Pennsylvania.


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This is a really good article. I missed it somehow.

I especially like these parts:

Depressed individuals tend to view their problems as permanent and pervasive, whereas those who are resilient see adversity as temporary and limited in scope.

Positive emotions decrease autonomic activity and symptoms of stress, broaden one’s focus, and allow negative events to be put into perspective. Like exercise, humor decreases tension and makes it possible to see the lighter side of difficult situations. Humor can also draw social support.

Being able to positively reframe negative events (“cognitive reappraisal”) is crucial to resilience. Individuals who successfully overcome adverse events usually manage to find some meaning in their tragedy.

Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote of the importance of “meaning making.” Despite suffering for years in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl wrote that he gained the opportunity to exercise inner strength and be “brave, dignified and unselfish.” He struggled to survive because he came to believe that his suffering had a purpose: to live to teach others about his experiences.

And I agree about exercise. I feel better even when I just walk or ride my exercise bike for ten or twenty minutes a day. It's hard to do sometimes when you're depressed, but I KNOW I need to do lots of things I don't want to and think lots of things I don't want to and feel lots of things I don't want to feel to even have a bit of hope of getting well or healing a little.

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