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Latest take: Is resilience learned or innate?

Resilienter Mann mit Kind

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For a long time, when asked "is resilience an innate trait", people agreed that it is. Indeed, most thought of resilience as an innate trait that someone either has or doesn't have. But then studies showed that people's resilience can fluctuate significantly over the course of their lives. Resilience should therefore be understood as a dynamic or gradual trait and distinguished from personality traits that are stable over time, such as extraversion, conscientiousness or agreeableness. In this context, researchers continue to ask about the innateness of resilience. Can the statement that resilience is innate be revised, too? This article explores this question in more detail.

What is resilience?

The term "resilience" was first used in construction science, where it described the pliability of materials: A fabric was said to be resilient if it returned to its original state after being bent, depressed, stressed, etc. A rubber can be used as an example.

This definition of resilience in construction science vividly reflects the origin of the term: "resilire" is Latin and means "to bounce back" or "to rebound".

Later, the term "resilience" was taken up by social psychology. There it is used to describe people who actively confront difficult and traumatizing situations and also master them successfully.

Diese Definition von Resilienz in der Bauwissenschaft spiegelt anschaulich den Ursprung des Begriffs wider: "resilire" ist lateinisch und bedeutet "zurückfedern" oder "abprallen".
This definition of resilience in construction science vividly reflects the origin of the term: "resilire" is Latin and means "to bounce back" or "to rebound".

Nowadays, the term "resilience" is used quite inflationarily, with many magazines and guidebooks giving the impression that resilience is an immunizing quality against any form of stress.

However, the optimism that resonates here should be treated with caution. According to current research, resilience is not a universal "invulnerability" to all stressors. For example, someone who bravely carries on after a sudden dismissal and develops new strategies does not necessarily have to cope well with serious illness or physical violence. Resilience is therefore rather to be understood as a gradual or dynamic and time-limited resistance or coping capacity.

The role of the environment: A case for learned resilience

The "starting signal" for resilience research was given, among others, by the researcher Emmy Werner with her longitudinal study on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, which began in 1955. The purpose of her study was to investigate protective factors, i.e. those factors that prevent mental illness following stressful situations.

Den "Startschuss" für die Resilienzforschung gab unter anderem die Forscherin Emmy Werner mit ihrer Längsschnittstudie auf der Insel Kauai in Hawaii, die 1955 begann.
The "starting signal" for resilience research was given, among others, by the researcher Emmy Werner with her longitudinal study on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, which began in 1955.

Werner accompanied and studied 689 people over a period of 40 years. She was particularly interested in those people who, despite adverse social conditions in childhood, developed into capable, caring and confident adults. In fact, according to the prevailing view at the time, this was a "matter of impossibility." It was said that "people with poor social starting conditions will fail in life."

Not only did Werner expose this view as erroneous, but she was also able to conclude from her study that resilience is not innate, but can be learned. One factor that plays a significant role in learning resilience is that of relationships. For example, the children examined in Werner's study formed a strong relationship with at least one person, usually outside the family. Many scientists today agree with the view that social bonding offers relevant protection against mental illness.

The children examined in Werner's study formed a strong relationship with at least one person, usually outside the family.
The children examined in Werner's study formed a strong relationship with at least one person, usually outside the family.

The role of genetics: A case for innate resilience

So by now it's clear that resilience is not innate. There is no "resilience gene" that you either have or don't have. Instead, resilience is acquired throughout life, but especially during childhood. But this is not to say that a person's genetic makeup has no influence at all on the development of resilience. On the contrary, researchers now know that a person's biology or genetics can favor or disadvantage resilience. Here are some concrete examples:

Es gibt kein "Resilienz-Gen", das man entweder hat oder nicht hat.
There is no "resilience gene" that you either have or don't have.
  • A well-functioning HPA axis: How resilient a person is can be seen, among other things, in his or her (physical) response to stress. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis for short, plays a central role in the stress response. More resilient people have a well-functioning HPA axis. For them, cortisol, the most important stress hormone, is quickly activated and then effectively deactivated. In contrast, a dysfunctional HPA axis can result in excessive, uncontrolled and sustained cortisol release and eventually lead to health problems. People who are burdened with this tend to be less resilient.

  • Genetic risk variant: Certain genes are responsible for the regulation of stress hormones in the body. One, for example, is called FKBP5. Research on resilience has shown that people with a special variant of this gene become mentally ill more easily than others after a traumatic experience. They have difficulty dealing with stress because their stress hormone system is permanently misregulated. However, this does not mean that all people with this gene variant necessarily become mentally ill. This is only more likely compared to others if trauma is also experienced in childhood.

So, is resilience learned or innate?

A person does not come into the world being either resilient or not resilient. Instead, resilience is acquired throughout life, and the social environment plays a central role in this process. If a strong relationship is established with at least one person, then the development of resilience is favored. The question of whether resilience is innate can therefore be answered in the negative.

Nevertheless, genetic or biological factors are not insignificant with regard to the acquisition of resilience. It is not possible to speak of a "resilience gene" that a person either has or does not have in his or her genetic makeup. However, genetic predispositions define the individual framework within which resilience can develop. Important in this context are the HPA axis and the genetic risk variant FKBP5.

Resilience Coaching

Since we now know that resilience is not innate but learnable, the question remains: How can resilience be learned and strengthened?

Resilience research is still in its infancy. In the coming years, many more uncertainties must be uncovered before therapeutic approaches can be developed that specifically address overcoming trauma. Nevertheless, there are already initial coaching approaches, developed by researchers, that seek to strengthen individual resilience and the resilience of entire work groups in companies.

Researchers at the University of Freiburg and Erlangen-Nuremberg, for example, have launched a collaborative project called ”Resilire – Altersübergreifendes Resilienz-Management” Initial results of the study show that individual resilience can be strengthened by training personal resources such as mindfulness, self-efficacy and positive thinking. For employees in companies, it is also helpful to create a balance to work with fixed appointments for sports, music, appointments, etc. Managers should also make sure to establish an open error culture in which criticism is dealt with constructively. We recommend you to read this article if you are interested in more practical tips on how to strengthen your resilience.