Resilience is the ability to endure stress and bounce back to effectively function and carry on with our lives. We read a lot about the possible causes of mental illness, but much less about the resilience that might forestall mental illness. In researching resilience in the past, psychologists have focused on trauma in childhood, such as divorce, and the need for a responsive and warm caregiver-child relationship to foster in the child a belief that he/she can handle controllable stressors and be protected by those more powerful from uncontrollable ones.
As described in my memoir Examined Lives, I experienced trauma during my childhood and it was my Aunt Christine, who gave up her career to come to take care of my brother and me, who provided the sense of stability and being cared for that we so desperately needed. I still remember that wonderful warm feeling I got sitting next to her in an armchair while she read books to me. That built up a resilience in me that lasted much of my life. But there came a time when the stressors were too much for the coping mechanisms I had developed and I encountered depression head on, at times unable even to imagine getting out of bed.
Here is where the most recent research on resilience plays a role in my understanding of my mental illness. In 2015 researchers at Duke University discovered a genetic marker on the glucocorticoid receptor gene NR3C1 that affects the activity of this receptor in binding to cortisol, the stress hormone. Children born with this marker are “orchid” children, more susceptible to stress compared to “dandelion” children. I suspect I am an “orchid” child. I can feel stress build up in me. The good news of course is that genetics is not necessarily determinative. In a longitudinal study following first graders with the gene until they reached their early twenties, he found that lo and behold those “orchid” children who were given the type of support and care earlier researchers had found so important for traumatized children led to significantly fewer psychological problems later in life (18%). Seventy-five percent of those “orchid” children not so nurtured went on to have psychological problems. His research was only carried out on white children of European descent so he does not know if the genetic marker is present among other ethnic groups and of course there are serious ethical issues surrounding genetic testing.
The picture, however, is not that simple. Research is showing that resilience or the lack thereof is affected by more than a single gene and scientists are exploring the actual biological processes involved in the neurochemical, neuroendocrine and neural systems, There is an excellent, highly detailed article on this attempt at an integrative approach to understanding resilience referenced below if you care to delve into the subject. As we know so little about the biological processes involved in drugs treating mental illness, perhaps coming at the issue from this perspective will prove fruitful.
Knowing that I am probably an “orchid” child means to me that I now as an adult must carry on my aunt’s work. I engage and rely more on the support around me, including my analyst. Talk therapy indeed helps to make the world and myself in it more understandable and predictable. My family and friends help me feel good about myself and encourage my talents. Writing has given meaning to my life in sharing with others whatever wisdom I have garnered.
Sometimes I feel envy for the woman researchers have discovered who, because of a gene mutation, feels no pain or anxiety. But she has never felt an adrenaline rush either. I will live with the genes I inherited