Climb Onto The Bandwagon! But Does It Have Wheels?

Resilience is a term that is used more and more these days. In these times of recession, stress and adversity we are told that we must develop resilience and that we must ‘future-proof’ our businesses to weather the storm.

Today and next time, I talk about future-proofing ourselves. But am I just peddling more snake-oil or is there truth (or *evidence*) that we can indeed develop resilience and be better able to deal with the slings and arrows that the world throws at us?

Well, it is clearly the case that some people bounce back from adversity whilst others do not. This is often documented in extreme cases (such as post-traumatic growth) but we are all resilient to one degree or another. But what does it mean to be resilient? In essence, we think of it as the ability to bounce back after behind knocked back. To pick yourself up off the floor and to try again. So there’s a sense of perseverance but also of not being put off by failure or the fear of failure. It is a lot about attitude and also about how we deal with our own emotions.

Studies have shown that resilient children are those that have strong emotional attachments, optimism, altruism and engage active coping responses. In fact, these are the same factors that come out in adults (for example when studying adults in challenging careers such as in the armed forces, police, or other high-stress challenging environments). Resilience is not about having a ‘stiff upper lip’ but being able to roll with and accept emotions. When we fail, we are upset, angry and drained. To be resilient is to accept these emotions and then channel them into the energy that can enable a second attempt, perseverance and success. It is also about learning how to do things better, learning from mistakes, and learning how to cope with challenges and stress.

Much recent cognitive and neuroscience research has focused on resilience. Let’s look at some examples of research and then later some lessons in how to go about future-proofing ourselves…

An example of understanding resilience can be seen in work by Elliott et al., (1998) in which they got participants to play a computer game. They received feedback to let them how know how well they were doing in the game – much like we get feedback from family, friends and colleagues every day. However, the feedback was carefully manipulated so that some individuals always got positive feedback, others always negative and a final group received no feedback at all. People performed best when they were given positive feedback to help them along and worst when given negative feedback. That isn’t surprising, but it does emphasise that we should provide positive direction when we are supporting them in their work.

Interestingly, in the condition where no feedback was given, healthy individuals performed ‘as if’ they had been given positive feedback. In contrast, a group of depressed individuals behaved as if they had been given negative feedback. In other words, in the absence of someone telling us how we are doing, a healthy response is to believe we are doing the right thing, whereas the response of a depressed individual is to assume they are performing badly unless told otherwise. Here we see a cognitive basis for resilience – the way we interpret our own performance. If I think I am doing the right thing I will persevere. If not, I won’t.

An extension of this can be seen with cognitive re-appraisal (Ochsner and Gross, 2005). If I show you a gruesome picture of a battlefield you may experience shock and disgust (amongst other emotions). However, if I tell you it is a film set and no-one was actually hurt, that the blood was actually ketchup, then your emotions settle. Cognitive re-appraisal is the ability to actively change the perspective of a scene (or even a memory). So thinking about resilience (and depression), some people may actively lighten the scenes of their lives whilst others darken them.

So, taking the above two examples together, a potentially adverse or negative event may firstly be seen as a necessary step in the right direction and secondly be perceived and remembered more positively than it may have felt at the time.

A network of structures including the medial prefrontal cortex (including the ventral anterior cingulate) and the amygdala may play an important role in resilience by controlling the way we react to challenges.  Activity in the amygdala tracks the emotional arousal of an event and appears to show differences across individuals – the more anxious a person is, the more reactive the amygdala (or perhaps the other way around!). On top of this, the medial PFC appears to regulate this activity being produced in the amygdala. Differences between healthy individuals and those with depression have been observed in the way that the medial PFC responds to emotional stimuli (Elliott et al., 2002) and this same region appears to contribute to cognitive appraisal described above. So the PFC may provide the cognitive self-regulation that then determines how the amygdala reacts to emotional situations.

One aspect of resilience then, the way in which we interpret and challenge, can be seen as the result of cognitive-emotion interactions in prefrontal and amygdala brain regions. This helps us to understand why people differ in their resilience and also how changes in the cognitive or emotion system can result in either depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or at the other extreme resilience and healthy coping.

– Dr John –


Elliott, R., Sahakian, B.J., Michael,  A., Paykel, E.S. and Dolan, R.J. 1998.  Abnormal neural response to feedback on planning and guessing tasks in patients with unipolar depression. Psychological Medicine, 28:559-571

Elliott, R., Rubinsztein, J.S., Dolan, R.J. and Sahakian B.J. 2002.  The neural basis of mood congruent processing biases in depression.  Archives of General Psychiatry, 59:597-604

Ochsner, K.N. Gross, J. 2005 The cognitive control of emotion. Trends Cogn. Sci. 9, 242–249

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