Resilient genes

Resilience may have a genetic component, writes Emily Bazelon, who worked with sexually abused children, in the New York Times Magazine. Some people can survive traumatic experiences and go on to productive lives; others are much more vulnerable to depression in response to extreme stress. It helps to have a long allele, she writes.

Study after study has shown that sexually-abused children — especially those who grow up in the sort of low-income, messy surroundings that the girls did — are more likely to develop a raft of emotional and health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. As adults, they are more likely to be unemployed, homeless, addicted to drugs or alcohol and alone. Now, at ages 26 and 24 respectively, La’Tanya and Tichelle are none of those things.

Both sisters were abused by their welfare mother’s boyfriend. The younger, who has two long (protective) alleles is doing the best; the older, with one long and one short allele, suffers from depression but still manages to hold down a job and live independently.

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  1. I think there’s something to this idea that people may have different biologically based levels of resiliency. Though I am not a geneticist, I am a teacher who has worked with hundreds of children. There is very little correlation between the magnitude of the stress in a child’s life and the child’s response to it. As the author in the Times did, I’ve seen siblings with the same home life who had markedly different abilities to cope with the family’s adversity. I’ve also struggled with the fact that kids who seem to lead fairly privileged lives can suffer from anxiety disorders, depression, and stress in the absence of major external difficulties, while kids who are in foster homes or shelters due to abuse, mental illness, and neglect can be happy-go-lucky and optimistic. In the field of happiness research, they have found that most people have a ‘set point’ that fixes how happy they are at any given time, regardless of the external circumstances. In the presence of very positive life events, most people show a slight temporary elevation of self-reported happiness, but quickly return to their baselines. Advertisers count on this – because that tendency to become dissatisfied no matter how good we have it feeds the consumer market.

    I think it’s useful to know about the genetic evidence because it can lead to better treatments for those who are not naturally resilient. Knowing that you are at risk to interpret life in the worst way possible allows you to take protective steps, just as knowing that you have a family history of thyroid disease or diabetes or heart attacks allows you to take precautions with your health and get more frequent checkups about those risk factors.

  2. The monkey experiment cited in that article (starting about page 3) actually covered two factors: parenting by a mother or “peer parenting”, and different alleles of the gene. From the description, it sure sounds like “peer parenting” did damage that the fortunate version of the gene can ameliorate but not overcome.

    What kind of parenting happens at school?