Overcoming Crises

Why are some people better at coping with emotional stress than others? This is what resilience research wants to find out. An international group of psychologists has now come together to establish common principles for this fledgling field of research.

Valeria Heintges

Letting the sun back in: Researchers are investigating how people cope with emotional stress. (Picture: angieconscious /
Letting the sun back in: Researchers are investigating how people cope with emotional stress. (Picture: angieconscious /
Letting the sun back in: Researchers are investigating how people cope with emotional stress. (Picture: angieconscious / (Image: angieconscious /


People react very differently to dramatic events in their lives. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, or after major accidents or terrorist attacks such as the ones in the USA, in Israel, France, or the UK, some people become afflicted by severe mental health illnesses, for example so-called posttraumatic stress disorders. Others, however, are able to quickly return to going about their daily business, and some even emerge stronger than before. In psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as resilience or psychological resistance.

Resilience research is a relatively young psychological research field, as past efforts have mainly been focused on investigating and treating disorders that occur in the wake of crises. If the mechanisms that protect us from disorders are known, this information can be put to good use in preventive efforts and therapy. At UZH, which has an excellent international standing in the field of stress research, resilience is being examined from a wide range of perspectives.

A joint strategy

This is why Birgit Kleim, professor of experimental psychopathology and psychotherapy at UZH and Head of the Division of Clinical Psychology at the Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich, joined forces with other psychologists to write a position paper. The paper is called “The resilience framework as a strategy to combat stress-related disorders” and was published in the specialist journal Nature Human Behaviour on 16 October. With this paper, 38 researchers from the USA, Israel, and Europe aim to strengthen the research in this field and put it on a common basis. “We want to come up with a joint strategy and joint guidelines on how we can investigate resilience as an individual process of adapting to stress. To achieve this, we want to connect with each other, exchange views at conferences, and raise awareness of the topic among the research community,” explains Birgit Kleim.

World Trade Center attacks

While there are already many studies on resilience, they are often difficult to compare or combine because they are based on different preconditions. In particular, longitudinal studies spanning several weeks or months have delivered excellent results in the past. For example, George Bonnano of Columbia University, had the opportunity to observe test subjects in New York before and after the attacks on the World Trade Center over a long period of time. Many of his subjects were resilient and able to process what they had experienced – but not all of them. Some people developed, either sooner or later, clear symptoms of psychological disorder.

Birgit Kleim
Birgit Kleim
Psychologist Birgit Kleim carries out research in the fledgling field of resilience: “It is important that we now approach the topic in an interdisciplinary manner.” (Image: Frank Brüderli)

Social and biological factors

Many of the studies about resilience published so far have revealed that both biological and social factors are at play when it comes to resilience to stress. If, for example, you have a healthy social network, you are more likely to get back onto your own two feet.

“It is important that we now approach the topic in an interdisciplinary manner,” says Birgit Kleim. “But this is only possible if the research community does so together.” Questions that still need to be investigated include what role genetic factors play in determining resilience, which regions of the brain are involved and in what capacity, how to explain processes of coping, and the effects of social support. And above all, how all these factors interrelate. An EU project called DynaMORE, which was recently approved and in which the University of Zurich is also involved, aims to find answers to all of these questions. In addition to UZH, the universities of Mainz, Berlin, Freiburg, Löwen, Nimwegen, Tel Aviv and Warsaw as well as the Belgian-Dutch research hub IMEC are also involved in the project.

For this major project, Birgit Kleim will work closely together with the developmental psychologist Lilly Shanahan and the sociologist Michael Shanahan, who are both researchers at UZH. The aim of the project is to develop mathematical models that describe the psycho-biological processes that take place when processing stress. These models will use individual data to determine how and to what extent someone is susceptible to stress, and which protective mechanisms they have. “Our task at UZH will be to use these models to develop personalized training programs that will allow vulnerable people to strengthen their psychological resistance,” explains Birgit Kleim.


Kalisch, R., Baker, D.B.., Basten, U., Boks, M.P., Bonanno, G.A., Brummelman, E.B., Chmitorz, A., Fernàndez, G., Fiebach, C., Galatzer-Levy, I.G., Geuze, E., Gropp, S., Helmreich, I., Hendler, T., Hermans, T., Jovanovic, T., Kubiak, T., Lieb, K., Lutz, B., Müller, M.B., Murray, R.Y., Nievergelt, C:, Reif. A., Roloefs, K., Rutten, B., Sander, D., Schick, A., Tücher, O., van Diest, I., van Harmelen, A.L., Veer, I., Vermetten, E., Vinkers, C.H., Wager, T.D., Walter, H., Wessa, M., Wibral., M. & Kleim, B. and INTRESA (2017). The resilience framework as a strategy to combat stress-related disorders. Nature Human Behavior.

Valeria Heintges is a freelance journalist.