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We all experience different forms of adversity in our lives, some more severe than others. But why do some people seem to crumble when faced with those challenges, while others remain optimistic and persevere? Do genetics play a role? Scientists are looking at the biological underpinnings of resilience for answers.
Diving into this subject, the Rubin Museum of Art welcomed three experts to the stage for the latest 2019 Brainwave program, “The Power to Overcome Challenges.” Heather Berlin, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist who spoke at the Rubin for a past Brainwave event and worked with her husband on a theatrical show about consciousness, sat between Sharlee Jeter, president of the Turn 2 Foundation, which was founded by her brother, baseball legend Derek Jeter, and Sampson Davis, M.D., an emergency room physician and co-founder of the Three Doctors Foundation. Together, Sampson and Jeter co-authored a book all about “the stuff”—two words that came up often as the group discussed trauma and resilience throughout the evening.
So, what exactly is “the stuff?” It’s a term they created to describe the resilience they encountered while investigating stories of people who have tried to overcome obstacles in life, such as toxic relationships, career-move blocks, racism, and violence. Moderator and museum director Tim McHenry defined it for audience members as “the necessary mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual outlook and actions that any one of us can use to face—and overcome—difficulty, adversity, temptation, and even lethal danger.”
Jeter was diagnosed with lymphoma, an often-deadly form of blood cancer, when she was just 20 years old and living in California. She traveled back and forth to New York’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center every week to receive chemotherapy treatment and then quickly flew back to continue living her life as a college student. Despite the demanding routine and her declining physical health, Jeter said that she refused to acknowledge she had cancer. “It was like a mental blip,” she said.
Davis said he is amazed by the resilience of individuals who can “look death in the face” and still power through their circumstance. Being on the front lines in the emergency room, he regularly witnesses people who muster the strength to persevere. At the same time, he also sees others give up. “If they’re told ‘six months’ or ‘four months’ or ’90 days,’ they really meet that bar,” he said. This got him thinking that there might be a genetic factor, or common element, that allows some people to persevere more than others.
Taking a neurobiological perspective, Berlin responded that while we all have different brains and vulnerabilities, that does not mean we cannot feel the same power—it may just come more easily to some. She referred to a series of studies on happiness that showed the effects of trauma on someone who has an optimistic disposition, which can usually be determined in childhood. When something horrible happens to this personality type, there is a small dip in happiness levels, but it’s not long before their normal level of optimism resumes. Conversely, for someone with a pessimistic outlook on life, when something positive happens (winning the lottery, for example), there’s a small increase in happiness before it goes back to its baseline state. We all have different baselines, or genetic predispositions, she said.
While those moments of joy and happiness are wonderful, they are just as fleeting as moments of sadness, Berlin said. “It’s all about getting equanimity—being able to have the emotional ups and downs and get to a place of balance again.”
Having a positive social support network, even if it’s just one or two close people, often leads to a higher level of resilience as well. It does something psychologically and strengthens our immune system, Berlin said. Davis added that it’s important to grab hold of the fact that you are not alone when dealing with a personal battle. “I can promise you from hearing these stories that, whatever you’re going through, someone is going through something similar,” he said.
All three speakers opened up about how they’ve faced trauma in their lives, some during childhood and others in adulthood; and while it seemingly altered the course of their lives, they agreed it was ultimately for the better. Little doses of trauma train that muscle and teach you how to overcome adversity when a big thing happens in your life, Berlin said. “Bad things are going to happen, and it’s how you respond to them that’s in your control.”