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Researchers have a new theory about how tragedies affect us

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After losing a spouse or a job, the conventional wisdom is that most people will find a way to cope. And for the last 15 to 20 years, research has echoed this idea. Psychologists have looked at events as diverse as heart attacks, cancer diagnoses, terrorist attacks, the death of a spouse, military deployment and mass shootings, and concluded that most people remain psychologically stable and high-functioning through such traumatic events.

Psychologists call this ability to remain stable and high-functioning, without any negative outcomes, “resilience.” The concept has been around for more than 60 years, since researchers observed that children have a natural ability to cope with adversity. In the last couple of decades, the term has been applied to adults as well.

Now, a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science is offering new findings to challenge the idea that people are generally resilient following traumatic events. Instead, the research finds that far more people follow a trajectory of "recovery," in which their happiness and life satisfaction dips around the time of the event, but then gradually and slowly recovers.

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Frank Infurna and Suniya Luthar of Arizona State University examined a longitudinal data set that covers roughly 50,000 people in Germany beginning in 1984. The researchers looked at spousal loss, divorce and unemployment, and compared those incidences with how people describe their life satisfaction over time.

Previous researchers had used this same data set to show that the majority of people are resilient, reporting stable and high satisfaction with their life, following traumatic experiences. But Infurna and Luthar applied different statistical methods, which gave them substantially different results.

The researchers relaxed some previous statistical assumptions, such as that all groups of people would have similar rates of recovery. Basically, this method allowed the researchers to see whether the population they were studying consisted of distinct subgroups of people, which change at different rates over time. When they applied these methods, they obtained the opposite result to previous studies -- that most people actually weren’t psychologically resilient.

“We found that, contrary to previous research, resilience is not the most common response. It’s more likely that the individual is going to show decline in well-being, but over time will be able to recover and return back to their previous level of functioning,” Infurna said.

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Using certain models, the researchers found that only 27 percent of people were resilient after the death of a spouse, for example, where previous studies had indicated the figure was 75 percent. For divorce, the numbers flipped to 36 percent of participants being resilient with the new statistical method -- from 85 percent previously.

When the researchers “relaxed the stringent assumptions applied in prior reports, we consistently found that resilience, stable good functioning, represented the least common trajectory,” they write. The more normal case seemed to be a “recovery” scenario, where someone experiences a dip in functioning around an event, and then eventually and gradually gets better.

These findings are important for one big reason. In the past, some people have used the idea of resilience to argue that people exposed to trauma don’t need much in the way of specialized resources or interventions, such as counseling. For example, previous studies that found that 85 percent of U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan display psychological resilience may give the impression that post-traumatic stress disorder is less common than it really is, and thus may lead to less resources for treatment.

“When something traumatic happens, and people are going through major life stressors, resources may need to be mobilized to help boost or increase the likelihood of individuals showing better outcomes,” Infurna said.

“[I]t is quite plausible that time does, in fact heal – for most people and given long enough periods of time,” the researcher write in the paper. However, psychologists still need to carefully consider the negative and diverse that serious adversity or trauma can prompt in people.

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