Coping with Trauma – Lessons from Resilient Individuals

Most individuals at some point of their life experience events that are stressful. While some people seem to crumble to the deleterious effects of stress, others sail through adverse situations. Chronic or acute stress is associated with a wide range of psychosocial disorders. So what are the factors and the possible neurobiological mechanisms associated with resilience?

Scientists have found several factors that maybe responsible for adaptive physical and psychological stress responses in individuals in the face of adversity. These adaptive responses are associated with the degree of behavioral control we have over stress. Resilience to stress is mediated by the changes that alter the functioning of the neural circuits that regulate reward, fear, emotion reactivity and social behavior.

The ability to face one’s fears might be facilitated by stress inoculation (exposure to tolerable levels of stress) during development. This early exposure to manageable stressors might be responsible for adaptations that down regulate negative emotions. Resilient individuals are better at down regulating negative emotions, a process known as ‘cognitive reappraisal’, with a resulting reduction in emotional responses. This is mediated through mechanisms that involve memory suppression, memory consolidation and cognitive control of emotion.

During development, a range of factors can offer potentially protective effects from stress. Research has shown that social competence and openness to social support promote resilience in children and adults. Mutual cooperation can activate the brain reward circuits. The capacity of adaptive systems to resist or recover from marked disturbances is more when they are healthy. Rodent studies have demonstrated that a positive, or more enriched, environment during development makes animals less vulnerable to drug abuse and to stress later in life. In particular, studies have shown that proximity to the primary caregiver is an important modulator of a child’s sense of safety when facing trauma. A close relationship with a caring adult and the capacity for self regulation promote resilience. A sense of purpose and an internal framework of beliefs about right and wrong are characteristics of resilient individuals.

Also, positive emotions might contribute to healthier cognitive responses. Moreover, physical exercise, which can be viewed as a form of active coping, has positive effects on mood, attenuates stress responses and is thought to promote neurogenesis.

So can people be trained to become more resilient? Scientists feel certain forms of psychotherapy to enhance optimism, reappraisal of traumatic events in a more positive light, preserving a person’s sense of purpose in the face of trauma can help maximize resilience. Ongoing research of healthy individuals who have recovered from traumatic experiences may further deepen our understanding of this process.


Feder, A., Nestler, E., & Charney, D. (2009). Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10 (6), 446-457 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2649

  • In the book “Human Givens” by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell there is some interesting research quoted with regards to the use of the NLP “fast-phobia” technique in cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The results indicate that this is a very powerful and successful way in which one can be trained to respond to stress in a far more positive manner.

  • All these finding seem to be so qualified as to render them useless.

  • Zach Teribabto

    Coping with almost anything is what makes us move on and not let anything negative in our lives play a major role.

  • In our research on the nature, history, causes, impacts, incidence and healing of trauma, we found many ways that resilience can be enhanced throughout development. Healing of trauma and a consequent increase in resilience is possible even in adulthood through the release of energy of arousal trapped by the experience. These issues are discussed in depth on our website and in our book “Hope for humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis.”

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Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.

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