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How stress makes some more resilient and others crumble

“I thought, wow, there’s something going on in these guys’ brains that’s super interesting and could be the key to resilience.”

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bullying, friendship and people concept - two teenagers having a fight
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

By Gwyn Wright via SWNS

Stressful events can make us more resilient, according to a new study from Princeton University.

Scientists say resilience can in fact be learned, which could help people cope better when faced with new threats such as the pandemic.

Dopamine is also released when we are exposed to stress, which in turn teaches us to become more thick-skinned.

For the study, researchers put small mice next to large, aggressive mice and found mice that coped well with stress by fighting back became more resilient.

By contrast, those that retreated into a cocoon did not.

They also found that by activating dopamine when the creatures fought back, they could trigger greater resilience in them.

The study’s lead author Dr. Lindsay Willmore from Princeton University was intrigued by the small minority of mice who would defend themselves tenaciously when faced with an aggressor.

She explained: “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.

“I thought, wow, there’s something going on in these guys’ brains that’s super interesting and could be the key to resilience.”

The team monitored how mice behaved over 10 days when they were attacked by more aggressive mice.

Female scientist looking at laboratory mice in tank
In the Princeton lab study, the mice that fought back became more resilient. (Altrendo Images via Shutterstock)

They put a small mouse in a cage with a larger, more aggressive mouse that tended to attack its smaller cage mate.

They then put a wall between them so they could not attack each other physically.

The stressful experience for the small mice getting beaten up and also living behind a barrier with the mouse that had just beaten them up for the rest of the day.

The mice that did not defend themselves tended to become depressed and tried to avoid other mice after.

Meanwhile, mice that fought back became more resilient.

When the team stimulated dopamine as the mice fought back, they made the creatures even more resilient.

On the other hand, stimulating dopamine when the mice were avoidant and shy did not make them more resilient.

Eight drivers of resilience for humans. (Shift drive via SWNS)

Dopamine levels were found to be even more important for developing resilience than the animals' decision to either fight back or become avoidant.

The authors said the findings suggest resilience can, at least to some degree, be taught as mice could be nudged into becoming more resilient.

They hope that, in future, their work can be applied to human health.

The team said the pandemic has highlighted the need to help people become more resilient and cope with the stresses that the world can throw at them

For example, smartwatches could give people feedback about good habits that can promote resilience.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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