Opinion: Our resilience to stress is influenced by psychosocial, external and biological factors

Stress is a fact of life. Rarely does a day go by that you are completely free from it, from the relatively simple things, like whether you are going to be on time for work, to the more serious events like unemployment, debt or the loss of a loved one.

Each of these causes a physiological response that is the result of a complex process largely driven by the brain but, as evidence is starting to show, also by the bacteria that reside in your gut. Some people react negatively and may go on to develop psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. But the majority of us do not respond this way. We recover from stressful situations, learn from them and are better prepared for the future.

This divergence in the response to stress raises an obvious question: Why do some people respond better to stress than others? An even more important question with health implications is what can we do to promote resilience to stress? Finding answers to these questions is the focus of research groups around the world, including labs here in Ireland.

"The multitudes of bacteria in your gut can influence your response to stress"

Evidence suggests resilience to stress is influenced by psychosocial, external and biological factors.

Psychosocial factors are those which can affect your perspective of a stressful situation and include having a sense of purpose, being emotionally flexible and having the ability to put strategies in place help you cope with stress.

These might include talking to people who could give you support or taking up hobbies which help you relax and put you in a better frame of mind to deal with the stress.

External factors are those which are primarily defined by the environment and they include features of the stress itself - i.e., the type of stress - the duration and the context in which it is experienced.

For example, the death of a loved one can cause significant stress and it typically has more of an impact on children and adolescents as compared to adults. Importantly, they can also influence how the young respond to similarly stressful situations later on in life.

Your socioeconomic status is another important external factor that can determine stress resilience. Those who are less fortunate and who have grown up in hardship are generally more resilient than those with affluent backgrounds.

The biological factors include age and gender: we tend to become more resilient with age and females are generally more resilient than males. They also include how sensitive or reactive the stress-response/recovery mechanisms are in the brain. These two systems are linked and so if one is disrupted, the other is affected.

The majority of us recover from stressful situations, learn from them and are better prepared for the future

One of the most interesting findings has been the discovery of small genetic sequences, once thought to have been "junk DNA", that have critical roles in regulating the activity of these stress-response/recovery mechanisms. Recent work from our lab shows that some of these sequences, known as microRNAs, promote stress-resilience whereas others lead to stress-susceptibility.

But perhaps the most important discovery of the last few decades is that the multitudes of bacteria (or microbes) in your gut can influence behaviour and also your response to stress. This link between the gut microbes and the brain is called the gut-brain axis and is a major research theme at the APC Microbiome Institute at UCC.

Our work has shown that some probiotics can facilitate resilience to stress and these findings have led to the concept of psychobiotics, formulations or cocktails of probiotics which confer a positive mental health benefit on the individual.

One of the most exciting yet controversial areas of stress resilience research is the evidence which suggests that resilience and susceptibility to stress are traits which can be passed from parents to their children. This means that if you are born to stress susceptible parents, the odds are you will end up being susceptible too. I find this theory way too deterministic and neglects the important role that external factors might have in shaping your stress response.

Even if you are born to parents who are susceptible to stress, with the right kind of environment you are likely to end up being a healthy individual that can handle stress well.

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From RTÉ 2fm, Marguerite Kiely Clinical Director with Pieta House talked to Dave Fanning about their Resilience Academy which aims to help Irish teenagers deal with stress

So knowing what we know about the factors that can influence your stress response, what can we do to become resilient to stress? Firstly, we should try to have a good supportive network of peers (friends or family members) who we can turn to for help and support. Secondly, we need to be willing to ask for help and support. This can be difficult and will require checking your pride but one would do well to remember John Donne’s famous quote that "no man is an island unto himself". 

Thirdly, it is essential that you maintain a healthy lifestyle. Have a hobby that helps you unwind. Maintain a good and balanced diet. Recent studies suggest that Mediterranean-based diets are particularly beneficial to your gut microbiome. Lots of fruits and vegetables as well as legumes and nuts, use herbs instead of salt for flavouring, cut back on the red meat to maybe once or twice a month and eat more poultry or fish. Drink in moderation and get plenty of exercise.

Collectively, all these steps will influence the biological factors that mediate stress resilience. For example, they might enhance the mechanisms in your brain which regulate stress recovery.

There is no better time to start taking these steps than the start of a new year. So here’s to 2018, the year when you learn to be stress resilient.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ