What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (And How To Make Sure It Does)


The Context: We don’t need to tell you that the world is a stressful place – and everyone will have to overcome extreme challenges at some point in their lives. What makes a difference is whether we’re able to pick ourselves up after a difficult situation and let it make us stronger rather than let ourselves get beaten down. Some people are better at this than others. Why? And can those of us who more easily succumb to stress teach ourselves to be more resilient? 

The Study: Resilience can be learned, and even reinforced, finds a new study in Nature by NYSCF – Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Annegret Falkner, PhD, of Princeton University in collaboration with NYSCF – Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Alumna Ilana Witten, PhD, also of Princeton.

The Importance: This study opens the door for new strategies that could help humans learn resilience, such as using smart watches or devices to give real-time feedback about constructive habits that promote healthy mechanisms underpinning resilience.

“I’m very interested in the question of whether we can teach resilience,” said Dr. Falkner, an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton in a press release. “We need to think about ways to help the people who seem to be more susceptible to cope with the stresses of the world.”

The idea for the study popped up when a member of Dr. Falkner’s lab observed a rare subset of mice who simply would not back down in a fight. It seemed these little Rockys couldn’t help but throw hands (or in this case – paws) in the face of a challenge, even when up against a bigger mouse.

“They’d turn back towards the aggressor, they’d throw their paws out, they’d jump on him, and they would just not give up,” said Lindsay Willmore, PhD. “I thought, wow, there’s something going on in these guys’ brains that’s super interesting and could be the key to resilience.”

Mice Take to the Ring

The researchers decided to observe mice who were faced with attacks from an aggressor over ten days. Those who didn’t defend themselves started to exhibit depressive behaviors, but those who stood up for themselves did not.

Then, the team started administering dopamine to the mice after the duels. Those who showed resilience became even more resilient – and those who were avoidant continued to be timid and depressed. 

“It’s a complicated environment where a mouse has to decide what to do around a bully mouse,” said Dr. Witten, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton. “What decision it makes has profound consequences in terms of how it ends up.”

“Strongly related to resilience was how much dopamine the animals had in their reward system during the time when they were starting to fight back,” noted Dr. Willmore. “That’s what was really cool to me — that an animal that is not just fighting back but is rewarded for fighting back is the one that becomes resilient.”

Fostering Resilience in Humans

So how do we apply these findings to ourselves? The researchers are starting to think about how wearable devices – think: a smartwatch – can help us monitor our responses to stress and reinforce resilience.

“Information about our dynamic interactions with the environment will be useful for tracking our habits that might be helpful or harmful,” said Dr. Willmore.

Journal Article:

Behavioural and dopaminergic signatures of resilience
Lindsay Willmore, Courtney Cameron, John Yang, Ilana B. Witten & Annegret L. Falkner. Nature. 2022. DOI: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05328-2

Image credit: Simons Foundation

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