How the brain copes with extreme stress


In January 1987, Terry Waite was abducted while negotiating the release of hostages in the Middle East. He was held captive for five years – for much of that time he was in solitary confinement.

Terry Waite’s story is a powerful testament to the ability of the mind to cope with extreme stress.

On Wednesday 22 November, he will give his own insight into what captivity taught him about the resilience of the human brain in Brain Power – a public lecture at the University.

He will be joined by neuroscientists who will describe the latest understanding of how the brain is able to motivate people through the most difficult of circumstances.

The way people experience failure can have a big impact on their psychological wellbeing ... failure is linked with elevated feelings of depression and guilt.

Dr Judith Johnson

Resilience is a capability that everyone has, and it works by buffering the effects of psychological stress. Some people are very resilient – others less so – and psychological stress can plunge them into depression, wider mental ill-health and even suicide.

Research at the University of Leeds is identifying the psychological factors that give rise to effective resilience.

What is it that makes some people more able to cope than others? And can people be trained to be more resilient?

Resilience and the mind

Leading researcher Dr Judith Johnson is a clinical psychologist in the University's School of Psychology and at the Bradford Institute for Health Research. 

Her focus has been on the way failure can have a marked emotional and psychological impact on people.

She said: "The way that people experience failure can have a big impact on their psychological wellbeing. Among athletes, failure is linked to with elevated feelings of depression and guilt.

“Among adolescents, failure at school or college increases the risk of depression in later life.

“With healthcare professionals, being involved in a mistake or a failure in patient safety results in feelings of shame, depression and anxiety."

Working with colleagues, Dr Johnson has conducted a major review of 46 relevant scientific studies to identify the personality characteristics or traits linked to effective resilience.

The review found that people with high self-esteem, positive attributional style and a higher level of mental flexibility tended to be more resilient.

Training people to be resilient 

These more resilient people have an honest opinion of themselves, know their strengths and weaknesses and have a rational interpretation or events.

Through that understanding of what contributes to an individual’s resilience, Dr Johnson is looking to see if people can be trained to fine tune their own character traits, to view the world differently, as a way of strengthening their resilience.

She said: “People do have a natural level of resilience, but a lot of it is probably down to upbringing and temperament. And the work I and colleagues are doing is around trying to see if by getting people to understand what shapes their resilience, they can take control and work on boosting those traits that may strengthen their ability to cope.”

Dr Johnson is involved in a pilot study to see if healthcare workers can be trained to be more resilient. They face burnout, depression and anxiety because their training is about performing to the very highest standards and when things go wrong, they can regard themselves as a failure.

Not only does that cause anxiety, it makes them less effective practitioners.

Dr Johnson said: “We devised a three and a half hour training programme which gives people the understanding and skills to build positive moods if they are feeling engulfed by a negative experience.”

“Stress narrows the cognitive processes – and that can be helpful in a real emergency but if the stress is there all the time, then it is counter-productive – it restricts people’s thinking.”

She added that an evaluation has now started to see if the intervention has changed the key personality traits that bolster effective resilience. The pilot project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research.

Researching the human brain

The University is undertaking a wide range of research into functioning of the brain including:

More information

The public lecture - Brain Power

6pm - welcome, registration in Parkinson Court in the Parkinson Building

6:30pm - introduction to the evening followed by talks and Q&A in the Great Hall

8:15pm - networking reception, including displays of some of the University’s research in Parkinson Court

9pm - event closes.

The public lecture is fully booked, but will be recorded. If you would like to be contacted when the video is available, please email David Pickering via with ‘Brain Power video’ in the subject line.

There will be a Facebook Live broadcast at approximately 5.45pm on Wednesday 22 November, examining some of the research projects in more detail. Visit the University’s Facebook page.