Harnessing the Neurobiology of Resilience to Protect the Mental Well-Being of Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Front Psychol. 2021 Mar 18:12:621853. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.621853. eCollection 2021.


Healthcare workers are at a high risk of psychological morbidity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is significant variability in the impact of this crisis on individual healthcare workers, which can be best explained through an appreciation of the construct of resilience. Broadly speaking, resilience refers to the ability to successfully adapt to stressful or traumatic events, and thus plays a key role in determining mental health outcomes following exposure to such events. A proper understanding of resilience is vital in enabling a shift from a reactive to a proactive approach for protecting and promoting the mental well-being of healthcare workers. Research in the past decade has identified six areas that provide promising leads in understanding the biological basis of individual variations in resilience. These are: (1) the key role played by the monoamines noradrenaline and serotonin, (2) the centrality of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in influencing stress vulnerability and resilience, (3) the intimate links between the immune system and stress sensitivity, (4) the role of epigenetic modulation of gene expression in influencing the stress response, (5) the role played by certain neuropeptides as a natural "brake" mechanism in the face of stress, and (6) the neurobiological mechanisms by which environmental factors, such as exercise, diet, and social support, influence resilience to subsequent life events. Though much of this research is still in its early stages, it has already provided valuable information on which strategies - including dietary changes, lifestyle modification, environmental modification, psychosocial interventions, and even pharmacological treatments - may prove to be useful in fostering resilience in individuals and groups. This paper examines the above evidence more closely, with a specific focus on the challenges faced by healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provides suggestions regarding how it may be translated into real-world interventions, as well as how the more tentative hypotheses advanced in this field may be tested during this critical period.

Keywords: coronavirus disease 2019; cortisol; epigenetics; neurobiology; neuroendocrinology; neuropeptides; resilience; stress.

Publication types

  • Review