A quick scan of any recent headline would reveal that humans live in a highly stressed world, full of violence, terror and hate. Sometimes, it's a wonder we can go on with our lives at all. (If that feels like you, see this recent piece about How to Cope When the World Feels Like Total Chaos.)
“There is a drive to cope and to survive,” says Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center and lead author of a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Yet we all respond to stress differently, and some of us are more resilient than others.
But why? Sinha and her colleagues wanted to look inside people's brains during a stressful situation to see if anything special was happening to help people cope better with stress. They recruited 30 healthy people and put them in an fMRI scan session for six long minutes, during which they were shown either stressful or neutral images. “When you get stressed, it’s not brief—it goes on for a little bit,” Sinha says. "And that's the state in which the brain has to figure out what to do.” The stressed group was shown 60 scary, violent images, like people being shot, maimed, stabbed and chased. The control group saw neutral images like tables, chairs and lamps.
The researchers later asked people about some of the ways they cope with stress, including alcohol intake, eating behaviors, and how often they get into arguments.
During stress, the researchers saw something interesting happening in one particular area of the brain: the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, a region involved in emotional regulation and detecting one’s own internal state, like hunger, craving and wanting. People who had more neuroflexibility and neuroplasticity in this region were also less likely to be binge drinkers and emotional eaters, and they were less likely to respond to stress in an emotionally destructive way, Sinha says. “The greater the magnitude of the change in the neural signal, the more active copers they were,” she says. The results suggest that this part of the prefrontal cortex is involved in wresting back control during times of stress—a key aspect to resilience.
More research is needed to see how to increase flexibility in this region, but Sinha believes theirs is a first step in understanding resilience. “We have a natural circuitry to try to regain control and to be resilient,” Sinha says. “I think it’s tied to the survival processes that are hardwired, and this is what we’re tapping into.”