PRINCETON, N.J. — Stressful events can make us more resilient, according to a new study. Scientists at Princeton say people can actually learn to be more resilient, which could help them cope better when facing new threats such as a 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 larger, 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, was intrigued by the small minority of mice who would defend themselves tenaciously when faced with an aggressor.
“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,” Willmore says in a media release. “I thought, wow, there’s something going on in these guys’ brains that’s super interesting and could be the key to resilience.”
Dopamine helps build resilience when we actively fight stress
The team monitored how mice behaved over 10 days when they were attacked by more aggressive mice. Specifically, 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 was not just getting beaten up but also living behind a barrier with the mouse that attacked them on the other side 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 levels 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.
While the stance the mice took on whether to fight back or become avoidant or not was important for whether they became resilient, dopamine levels were even more important for developing resilience.
The authors say 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 the future, their work can be applied to human health. The team adds that 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, smart watches could give people feedback about good habits that can promote resilience.
The findings are published in the journal Nature.
South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.