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A Battle of Two Resiliences

The battle of biological resilience against psychological resilience.

Key points

  • Psychological resilience is the ability to use mental processes and behaviors in protecting oneself from threats.
  • Emotions often interfere with our ability to employ the necessary tools that make us resilient.
  • Biological resilience is a non-conscious process that involves protecting a being from existential threats.
  • While we may choose to change our outlook to adapt to a stressor, a viral mutation is not a deliberate attempt to cope.

By Robert Goldman, JD, Psy.D, and Richard Bryan, MD, PhD.

Why has the COVID virus been able to overcome all of the challenges that have stood in its way? Humanity is doing all it can to withstand the obstacles COVID has presented. If this was a Marvel Movie, it would be called, “The Battle of the Resiliencies.” As the story unfolds, a new variant called Omicron is spreading fear and panic throughout the world.

To win the war, it is important to know the similarities and differences between the human race and the virus that make them both resilient. Both appear to have a drive to survive and yet employ different strategies when faced with stressors. Resiliency is defined as the capacity to overcome obstacles. It has become a catchphrase since COVID first hit in March of 2020.

Psychological resilience is the ability to use mental processes and behaviors in promoting personal assets and protecting the self from the potential negative effects of stressors. There are many components to being psychologically resilient. Research has demonstrated that qualities such as being optimistic, mentally agile, being connected to a community, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle make one more resilient. These are purposeful and intentional activities that can be utilized when faced with a stressor.

Biological resilience is a non-conscious process predicated on the ability to respond to an existential threat. Clearly, the virus has demonstrated the ability to withstand the threats presented to it by the vaccine and other environmental factors. Our own immune response to an infection is an example of biological resilience. Interestingly, our immune response can be compromised when faced with external stress, such as divorce, poverty, conflict, or the fear of getting COVID. Chronic stress weakens our immune response and thus makes us more susceptible to getting sick and less biologically resilient.

How can a brainless infectious agent pose a threat to our species? Viral resiliency is dependent on its ability to change, or mutate. Whereas mental agility is measured by one's ability to respond to events in a flexible way, the viral mutation is not a deliberate, thoughtful attempt at coping with a stressor. It is completely random and leads to a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" response. Some viruses are more biologically resilient than others. For example, the measles virus does not mutate to the extent that the original vaccine is rendered ineffective. It is not because the measles virus lacks effort in changing. It is merely by chance.

Emotions can compromise our psychological resilience, proving once again that wellness is an effort. For example, when we are in a state of panic, the automatic response of fight, flight, or freeze takes over and the thinking part of our brain can go offline. Emotions can interfere with the logical brain and lead to automatic negative thoughts such as catastrophizing. Hence, we are not able to employ strategies, such as mental agility, that make us psychologically resilient.

All we have left is our biological resilience — which is compromised by chronic stress and our irrational thoughts against a virus that mutates with reckless abandon, devoid of emotion or thought. This makes our enemy a formidable opponent. For the good guys to win, we need to control the emotional part of the brain so that we can utilize psychologically resilient strategies. Our brain has great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Richard Bryan is a Retina Specialist at Janigian Retina Associates in Providence Rhode Island. He also has a Ph.D in Immunology.

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