Don’t stress: The scientific secrets of people who keep cool heads

YOU know that person. The one who uses a delayed train as an excuse to get stuck into a good book. The one who can make a joke 10 seconds after breaking their ankle. The one who loves giving presentations and never falters under pressure. They seem to float through life unfazed by the stress that can overwhelm the rest of us. What’s their secret?

Are they blessed with stress-resistant genes? Did their upbringing make them exceptionally resilient? Have they learned specific ways of coping with life’s challenges? Or do they just know how to avoid stress altogether? To answer these questions, researchers have been examining how humans and animals react and adapt to adversity, identifying those who are particularly resilient to stress and teasing apart the factors that contribute to this ability. It is a journey that has taken them from orphanages in Romania and interrogation chambers in North Carolina to fire stations in Indianapolis and humour classes in Austria.

This work is helping the military recruit candidates for high-stress jobs. It has also led to the first human trial of a “stress vaccine”, with the potential to inoculate us against its devastating effects, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to depression. But there is a bigger pay-off to understanding the secret of stress-free living. Knowing why some people handle stress better than others, and the things we might all do to improve our resilience, won’t just help all of us manage life’s daily struggles better, it might also teach us how to use stress to our advantage.

One thing is for certain: whether you are running late for…

Article amended on 27 February 2020

                We clarified when people suffered negative effects of stress.


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