New research shows that natural resilience to the struggles of life may not be as common as once thought.
In fact, according to researchers at Arizona State University, many people can “struggle considerably and for longer periods of time” when confronted with a life-altering event.
The new findings question previous claims that resilience is the “usual” response to major life stressors, according to the researchers.
Published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the new study looked at longitudinal data in a more nuanced way, while making less generalization about the human response to such dramatic events, the researchers explained.
“We show that, contrary to an extensive body of research, when individuals are confronted with major life stressors, such as spousal loss, divorce, or unemployment, they are likely to show substantial declines in well-being and these declines can linger for several years,” said Dr. Frank Infurna, an assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the new study.
“Previous research largely claimed that individuals are typically resilient to major life stressors. Whereas when we test these assumptions more thoroughly, we find that most individuals are deeply affected and it can take several years for them to recover and get back to previous levels of functioning.”
Infurna and co-author Dr. Suniya Luthar, an Arizona State University Foundation Professor in psychology, were seeking to replicate previous work that showed among adults, resilience — which is described as stable healthy levels of well being, and the absence of negative outcomes during or following potentially harmful circumstances — is the typical trajectory after traumatic events.
Previous work by others involving people going through traumas ranging from bereavement and deployment in military service to spinal cord injury and natural disasters, have reported that resilience is the most common response following significant negative life events, the Arizona researchers noted.
“Our findings go against the grain and show there can be more to the picture than that,” Infurna said. “It may not be the case that most people are unperturbed and doing fine.”
The two used used existing longitudinal data from the German socioeconomic panel study, which is an ongoing survey that began in 1984 and annually assesses participants over a wide range of measures.
The outcome that they focused on was life satisfaction, which assesses how satisfied individuals are with their lives, all things considered.
The two researchers documented that “rates of resilience” vary substantially based on assumptions applied while running the statistical models. They explain that the question that was addressed in previous studies was not, “How many people are resilient?” But instead, “Assuming A and B, how many people are resilient?”
What were the A and B assumptions applied in previous studies?
One was about how much the two groups — resilient and others — differed. Previous studies assumed that while resilient and non-resilient groups differed in life satisfaction changes over time, trajectories of change were the same for all people within all of the groups.
This would mean that two people in the resilient group showed the same steady high life-satisfaction over time, while two people in the non-resilient group showed declines at exactly the same time, and then rebounded at exactly the same time.
Infurna and Luthar allowed for the possibility that one of those people might have recovered two years after the adverse event, while the other recovered immediately after the event. They used, as an example, how divorce can be traumatic for one person, but signals a release from a particularly unhappy marriage for another.
The second assumption in earlier studies was that “peaks and valleys” over time would be the same within the resilient and non-resilient groups.
This assumption means that in prior studies, life satisfaction scores across all 10 years ranged between four and eight — out of 10 — for resilient and for non-resilient groups.
By contrast, Infurna and Luthar allowed for the possibility that while resilient people may have stayed within the range of six to eight over 10 years — which is the definition of resilience, stable good functioning — people in the non-resilient group may be as low as two in one or two years, but as high as 10 in other years. That’s because, by definition, these people are “not stable,” the researchers explained.
Removing the restrictive assumptions applied in previous studies dramatically changed the percentage of people found to be resilient, according to the Arizona researchers.
Using exactly the same database, rates of resilience in the face of unemployment were reported to be 81 percent. With the restrictive assumptions removed, Infurna and Luthar found the rates to be much lower, around 48 percent.
“We used previous research as a basis and analyzed the data based on their specifications,” Infurna explained. “Then we used our own specifications that we feel are more in line with conceptual assumptions and we found contrasting results.”
“The previous research postulated that most people, anywhere from 50 to 70 percent, would show a trajectory characterized by no change,” he continued. “They are largely unperturbed by life’s major events. We found that it usually took people much longer — several years — to return to their previous levels of functioning.”
This finding means that giving a person time alone to deal with a stressor might not be the best approach to getting them back to full functionality, Infurna said.
“These are major qualitative shifts in a person’s life and it can have a lasting impact on their lives,” he said. “It provides some evidence that if most people are affected, then interventions certainly should be utilized in terms of helping these individuals in response to these events.”
The findings have implications not just for science, but for public policy, Infurna added.
Claims that “most people are resilient” carry dangers of blaming victims who do not rebound immediately, and more seriously, suggest that external interventions are not necessary to help people hit by traumatic events.
“Previously it was thought such interventions may not be a good utilization of resources or could be detrimental to the person,” he added. “But based on our findings, we may need to rethink that and to think after the event: What are the best ways that we can help individuals to move forward?”
Source: Arizona State University