Revised resilience research shows most people struggle and then recover after adversity.
Most previous research on how adults deal with major setbacks claimed the most common response is uninterrupted and stable psychological functioning, suggesting that most adults are essentially unfazed by adverse life events such as spousal loss or divorce. These studies have received widespread attention in the popular press and media.
What the researchers say: The idea that adults are minimally affected by adversity worries the researchers behind the latest study, because they say that’s not how adults actually respond. They closely examined the earlier studies and found problems with how they were designed and how the data were analyzed. The researchers summarize the problems and re-evaluate adult resilience research in the journal Clinical Psychology Review.
The authors of the study note that there is a discrepancy between studies on adult responses to adversity that contradict 80 years of research in child development.
“We must be careful about how research is conducted and communicated,” they said. “There has been a message percolating in the popular press that most people are unaffected by major life events like bereavement, but that is not the whole picture.”
The project started over two years ago, when the lead author downloaded publicly-available data for re-analysis. The data had been analyzed using “growth mixture modeling”—a statistical model that can classify how different people in a population respond to adversity. After classifying the study participants into groups based on their response to adversity, the model outputs the response patterns for each group.
The researchers noticed the results depended on how the model was set up in the software used for statistical analysis. Setting up a model for data analysis requires a researcher to make educated guesses about aspects of the model—like how the data are organized or how much error was included in the experimental measurements. The assumption identified as problematic by the team was that the psychological functioning of all participants in the studies changed at the same rate. This assumption also corresponded to the default settings in several software programs commonly used for statistical analysis. When the default software settings were used to run the growth mixture model, the most common response pattern was a flat line, which indicated stable and largely uninterrupted psychological functioning after adversity.
When the growth mixture models were set up with more appropriate assumptions, the researchers found the most common response pattern was a temporary decrease in coping followed by an increase. Such a response pattern indicates a decline in psychological functioning followed by a return to normal, which agrees with 80 years of resilience research in children. This response pattern also agrees with the conventional wisdom that in general, most people struggle to some degree after a major life event before eventually recovering.
“The idea that ‘it’s okay to not be okay’ following adversity is important,” said the lead researcher. “Sometimes it can take months or years to recover after a traumatic or upsetting event because resilience depends on the person and the resources they have available to them, their past experiences and the type of adverse event.”
How adults respond to adversity has typically been measured with longitudinal assessments, or surveys that are repeated over a time interval like once a year. Many research studies have tracked just one psychological outcome, such as life satisfaction, positive or negative emotions or general physical health.
“How do you define doing well?” he asked. “An individual’s response to adversity is multidimensional, so that success in one area can coexist with considerable trouble in others. Just because a person is effectively meeting deadlines at work does not mean she is not struggling at home, perhaps crying herself to sleep or estranged from her partner.”
The researchers recently examined how resilience depended on measures such as life satisfaction, negative or positive emotions, general health or physical health. When just one measure was considered, the percentage of people classified as resilient was high, ranging up to 66%, but when all measures were considered, only 8% of the adult participants were resilient.
Child development researchers have solved the problem of defining resilience by qualifying different types. For example, children who have lived through adversity and are functioning well in school are described as having “academic resilience.” Researchers are also careful not to generalize a child’s performance in school to how they might be functioning in other aspects of their lives.
“It is very important for the public and for policy-makers to know what a normal or common response to adversity is,” they said. “This knowledge can help people avoid self-blame when they are hurting or have a set-back in the aftermath of a major loss or other traumatic event. And it can help clinicians and policy-makers continue to provide support resources that are often critical in helping adults overcome major life adversities.”
So, what? This is an important piece of research. Too often people are expected to “cope” with adversity and go on with their lives—and especially their jobs—as normal. As the researchers say, almost nobody does, at least not in every area.
When we suffer from loss, any loss, our immune system declines, and the stress hormone cortisol causes various psychological reactions to take place—the famous stages of loss. If we have supportive people around us we recover much more quickly than we would otherwise. One of the purposes of the workplace—from a psychological perspective—is to provide that support.
What now? People suffering from loss (or depression for that matter) should not be “sent home to recover” as that will probably only exacerbate the problem. And yet that is what so often happens.