Andrew McIntosh, Director of CCACE, reflects on what resilience means for our mental health
Look up the term resilience in a dictionary and you’ll see a definition along the lines of “the ability to recover quickly from difficulties”.
Here at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE), we often use the term “psychological resilience” when talking about our research into how people’s thinking skills, emotions, and brains change over time.
Bouncing back from stress
Did you ever do an experiment in school where you keep adding more and more weight on to the end of a spring to stretch it out? Eventually, there are so many weights added to the spring that it can no longer bounce back once the weights are removed. It has been permanently stretched out.
It can be helpful to think of our psychological resilience as being like one of these springs. We are all born with our “spring” slightly stretched; perhaps by our genetics, or because our mother experienced stress or famine during pregnancy.
As we go through life, additional weights are added to our spring – for example, disease, or different types of hardship. Finally, the weight can become so heavy that we tip from being ‘resilient’ and begin to experience impairment of our thinking skills or mood. That final load may be small by itself, but when it’s added to what we are already carrying, it can prevent us from ‘bouncing back’ and recovering.
Research into resilience is partly about researching this ability to “bounce back”; it’s also about finding ways to stay well and to reduce the impact of future stresses.
How do we study resilience?
Our centre deals with a very large volume of genetic and brain scan data. By creating new tools, we have been able to explore the relationships between genetics, personality and mood.
Much of the data we use comes from longitudinal cohort studies. This is where data is gathered from the same people over a long period of time, often for decades.
This allows us to identify risk and psychological resilience factors, many years before the individual develops difficulties.
Some of our research participants haven’t even been born yet! Using scanning technologies, we can now examine changes in the brain that occur before birth.
Our researchers are helping us build towards a clearer understanding of ‘life-long resilience’. The aim is to find ways to help people become more resilient and improve their lifelong mental health.
On Saturday 3 February 2018, you can find out more about research into resilience, meet some of our scientists, and have a good dance along the way. Join this free ceilidh exploring psychological resilience through dance, song, photography and poetry. Refreshments provided, with music from the award-winning Science Ceilidh band!
About Andrew McIntosh
Andrew McIntosh is Professor of Biological Psychiatry and Director of CCACE at the University of Edinburgh. His main research interest is in the identification of the causes and also consequences of depression.