Mental Resilience: How People Overcome Tsunamis, Meltdowns and other Disasters

The world is full of people suffering.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, epidemics and other natural disasters are obvious stressors.  Acts of war and terrorism can be traumatic for the perpetrators, victims, medical personnel and bystanders.  On a family level, divorce, loss of a spouse, disease, loss of a child and even loss of a pet can be overbearing.

Stress by itself can make one sick.  Hans Selye was one of the first to report that as awful as these events are, it is actually the number of minor stressors (how often you lose your keys and cell phone when you need to go to work immediately) that correlate most highly with rates of illness.

Conventional thinking mandates that "survivors" of traumatic events are inherently at risk of stress-related illness, including mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety and depressive disorders.  Grief and trauma counseling are industries, and it's practitioners are called in after events almost as a knee-jerk reflex.  Public policy in some cases dictates that such professionals arrive at disaster and other catastrophic scenes as soon as possible to speed "the healing process."

But is it necessary?  Or even a good idea?  In other words, is this belief about the inherent frailty of humans scientifically valid?

George Bonanno, a leading researcher at Columbia University who studies grief, bereavement and resilience, thinks not.  Quite the opposite, Bonanno's  research indicates that the grief counselors and near-mandatory traumatic crisis interventions can do more harm than good.  Published in "Weighing the Costs of Disaster:  Consequences, Risks and Resilience in Individuals, Families and Communities", there is evidence across multiple studies that psychological  resilience is common.

This is not meant to ignore the negative consequences people can experience following traumatic incidents.  Post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, substance abuse as a maladaptive coping strategy and damaged social relationships do happen.  The more psychological and social resources available reduce the likelihood, severity and duration of adverse consequences such that only a minority of individuals are extremely affected.  In other words, the majority of people are inherently resilient and thus resistant through potentially traumatic events.

Some individuals even show little or no grief after significant losses.  Bonanno's work shows that these people are not cold sociopaths, but are essentially "immunized" by virtue of their psychological resilience.  So, if resiliency can provide resistance, can people be trained in becoming resilient?  Given that awful  things do happen to everybody at some point in time, resilience training might be a wonderful psychological and physical investment.

The U.S. Army believes there is a significant payoff in assessing positive coping traits and teaching resilience skills to it's soldiers.  Among other events, war veterans are at greater risk of homelessness than other members of society.  The organization launched a five-year, $125 million program involving 800,000 troops.  Soldiers participate in psychological assessments and each months 150 participate in a University of Pennsylvania program to learn how to teach resiliency to others.  The long-term hope is that a significant database will exist that can be tapped by civilian researchers to better understand factors that cultivate and impede the development of psychological resilience.

Bonanno, however, remains skeptical.  Given that most intervention programs either do no good or actually do harm, what will the Army program accomplish?  Will resilience improve across the board, or would otherwise normal, healthy, resilient soldiers be rendered more susceptible to negative outcomes?  Will this become $125 million well-spent, or $125 million worth of harm?  Without even meaningful pilot data, there is no current scientifically valid answer.

Image courtesy of U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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