Girl plays guitar while leaning against a wall.


It’s remarkable how some other people (and animals, too, including pets) seem to be resistant to stress more than others. There are folks who don’t get sick and some who don’t crumble under stress–and others who fall apart, maybe even die. The differences begin with genes. In fact it has become popular to refer to kids as dandelions who are resistant to stress or orchids who are more vulnerable.

From the pediatric clinic to the Army to the Marines and the Navy (or here*) and the civilian job world, stress resilience has become a hot topic. Twenty years ago, Seligman’s happiness was hot; then Langer’s mindfulness; now resilience. The scope of the military resilience effort is shown in this PBS video and this RAND free ebook (host page for the ebook is here). You can also find tips for increasing your own resilience in this mini med school lecture.

Genetically, differences in resilience are a question of differing susceptibility to stress. Our brain architecture is largely the same from one person to another, but we vary in some of the ways that neurons are connected, in myelination, and in the health of our immune systems (which include behavior, maybe even xenophobia).

But as Meg Jay of the University of Virginia reminds us, “It’s a myth that resilient people don’t need help. Seeking support is what resilient people do.” Employers who don’t know this may blame individuals for their job-caused stress.

Incidentally, resilience may not be a single, unitary trait. To some extent, it’s learnable, and the Guardian newspaper has been featuring a number of articles about what this means for raising children. Other approaches, ranging from pedantic to loopy, use the resilience scale to make the same point.

A hardy dandelion thrives in poor soil.

BIO: Adrenaline and cortisol are both secreted from the adrenal glands under fear and stress. Is clear how they differ?

The hormones are sometimes distinguished by labels: adrenaline as the “fight-or-flight” or “alarm” hormone, and cortisol as the “stress” or “vigilance” hormone. It’s the corticosteroid you referred to.

Historically, Americans used the term epinephrine and the British used adrenaline*. A 19th-century fight was the reason: After “adrenalin” had been patented in the U.S., English physiologist Henry Dale wrote of it as adrenaline. Americans decided to use the name epinephrine as the generic term. Dale was steadfast in his defense of adrenaline and became a certified Sir after winning the Nobel prize, while the American Walter Cannon, who coined the phrase fight-or-flight, insisted evermore on epinephrine. The Brits are still arguing for adrenaline. By either name, it’s the hormone behind flop sweat, while cortisol is associated with exercise sweat. There are several kinds of sweat.

Stressors may be physical, like a burn, or mental, like anxiety. A surprising discovery was that any of those stressors might trigger inflammation, which evolved to help heal wounds. But chronic stress promotes chronic inflammation, which the body cannot tolerate well. It can occur anywhere, including the brain.

Stress causes the release of molecules called cytokines that may promote inflammation (or here’s a long account). Inflammation evolved to help us to fight off infection, but in the brain, chronic inflammation may lead to mental illness. So now we have so-called “cytokine hypotheses” to explain both schizophrenia and depression. A chain of cause and effect has appeared from our genes to inflammation to schizophrenia and depression.  

The concept of inflammation involves more than the redness of a scratch or a sunburn. It’s a complex response, in fact.

The cytokines might have been called stress hormones if that term had not already been in use for epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. There are at least dozens, and maybe hundreds, of them. They regulate our response to threats both both physical and psychological. They can have different effects. Some are pro-inflammatory–causing inflammation–and others are anti-inflammatory–fighting inflammation.

You know how we feel sick when we get sick? ☺  It’s because of cytokines. It’s part of sickness behavior (explained here and there), which we have all experienced…**

*As this website put it, no one wanted to call it dihydroxyphenol methylaminoethanol.

**There’s more, as always: Charles Raison discussing this in human terms; and very technical videos and articles in which humans are barely mentioned.

PSYCHO: Whatever we’re not prepared for, and whatever pushes us out of our homeostatic comfort zone, is stress. We’re born with a set of genes that produce a body prepared for a stone-age world, and all the adjustments that guide our development toward an adaptive self are stressful.

If you guessed that repeated episodes of moderate stress strengthen our stress responses, you’re entirely right. Trying to walk, playing on a team, studying for an exam, bearing a child, healing from a broken bone, trudging through snow after the car breaks down–they all build us up for more (not suggesting those events are equivalent). That’s if we look at them as growth** rather than just hazards.

Stress isn’t feeling bad or a dead end for ambition. Evolution didn’t care for human feelings when it tested human traits against natural selection. One’s own wedding might feel wonderful, but it’s stressful; so is winning a promotion.

But everyone seems to have made of stress what they want, until it is in danger of being robbed of meaning.

Think of stress as jumping into ice water***. Like any stressor, this will evoke the general adaptation syndrome, which gets better organized with repetition. It is an adaptive, strengthening response if it’s acute. (Note that acute stress may have long-term effects. That doesn’t turn it into chronic stress.) In the end, you might think of moderate stress as giving you options you didn’t have before.

*If the stress he wants to stop is chronic stress, that’s another story.

**This notion also pops up in the child development literature.

***It’s a fascinating video. One quibble: Raynaud’s syndrome does not affect the smooth muscles on veins, but the smooth muscles on arteries. Veins lack muscles.

SOCIAL: Friends and other forms of social support play an important role in stress resilience. While a person’s social connections can be important in many ways, an infant’s attachment to caregivers is particularly important, though it is itself vulnerable to stress.

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