After disasters and crises such as child abuse, gun violence or disease, what explains why some people bounce back, while others struggle to cope? Is it nature – genetics and other human characteristics? Or upbringing – life experiences and social interactions?
Years of research suggests that both play a role, but it doesn’t determine a person’s fate.
Although scientists use different definitions, resilience generally refers to the ability to cope with severe stress.
“It includes behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone,” according to the American Psychological Association. That effort is more difficult for some people, because of genetics, biology and life circumstances, the evidence suggests.
A landmark US study in the mid-1990s linked childhood trauma to poor mental and physical health in adulthood. It was found that all additional stress added to subsequent high stress.
Scientists have done a lot of research to try to answer why some children are more vulnerable to those experiences than others.
California physician and researcher Dr. Thomas Boyce delves into that question because of his own family history. He and his sister, two years younger than him, were very close in times of family uncertainty. As they grew into adulthood, Boyce’s life seemed to be blessed with prosperity, while his sister was mired in hardship and mental illness.
In research studies, Boyce found that about 1 in 5 children have increased biological responses to stress. He found signs of hyperactivity in their brain’s fight-or-flight response and in their stress hormones. Real world evidence has shown that children like this have higher rates of physical and mental problems when they grow up in stressful family situations. But evidence also shows that these vulnerable children can thrive with nurturing, supportive parenting, Boyce said.
Ananda Amstadter, who studies stress and genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, said his research shows that stress is about half caused by genes and half by environmental factors. But he emphasized that many genes may be involved; no one is “stable.”
In other studies, Duke University researchers Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi have linked changes in genes that help regulate emotions and increased risk for depression or antisocial behavior in children who have been victims of abuse or neglect.
But “genes are not destiny,” said Dr. Dennis Charney, president of academic affairs at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, who studied ways to overcome the difficulties.
Stress can affect the development of key brain systems that regulate anxiety and fear. Psychotherapy and medication can sometimes help people who have experienced serious and difficult problems. And Charney says that a loving family, a strong network of friends and positive things at school can help counter negative influences.
With an early childhood in Haiti marked by poverty and other hardships, 19-year-old Steeve Biondolillo seems to have won.
His restless parents sent him at the age of 4 to an orphanage, where he stayed for three years.
“I didn’t really understand what happened,” he said. “I was thrown into a big house full of other kids.” He remembers the feeling of fear and abandonment, and the certainty that he will live there forever.
An American couple visited the orphanage and made plans to adopt him and a younger brother. Then came Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 100,000 and destroyed the Haitian capital and surrounding towns.
“All the hope I had suddenly disappeared,” said Biondolillo.
Eventually, the adoption took place, and the family eventually moved to Idaho. Biondolillo’s new life has given him opportunities he never dreamed of, but he says he is still troubled by the “baggage and pain I got from Haiti.”
His adoptive parents got him involved in a local Boys & Girls club, a place where he and his sister could go after school to just be kids and have fun. Biondolillo says the supportive adults there gave him the opportunity to talk about his life, which was very different from other children,’ and helped him feel accepted and loved.
Now a college sophomore specializing in social work, he envisioned a career working with the underprivileged, helping to restore and improve others.
It was a journey, he said, from “scared little me, proud young man with big goals and a big future.”