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Mental & Emotional Health

It's OK When You're Not OK: A Look at Emotional Resilience

Research on how adults deal with adversity has been dominated by studies claiming the most common response is uninterrupted, stable psychological functioning. In other words, this research suggests that most adults are essentially unfazed by major life events such as the loss of a loved one. These provocative findings have also received widespread attention in the popular press and media.

The idea that most adults are minimally affected by adversity prompted an exploration of the issue by Frank Infurna and Suniya Luthar, of the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, because it disagrees with other research on how adults respond to adversity and could negatively affect people living through bad times. Infurna and Luthar closely examined the research studies and found problems with how studies were designed and how the data were analyzed. The researchers summarize the problems and re-evaluate adult resilience research in Clinical Psychology Review.

Infurna and Luthar are an ideal team to tackle the discrepancy between studies on adult responses to adversity that contradict 80 years of research in child development. Infurna, an associate professor of psychology, is an expert on using complex statistical models to study health and well-being in adulthood and old age. Luthar, a Foundation Professor of Psychology, is an international expert on resilience in children, with 30 years of experience and highly influential publications on the concept of resilience and how best to study it.

“As experts, the onus is on us to be careful about how research is conducted and communicated,” Luthar said. “There has been a message percolating in the popular press that most people are unaffected by major life events like bereavement or a deployment, but that is not the whole picture.”

The project started over two years ago, when Infurna 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.

Infurna and Luthar noticed the results depended on how the model was set up in the software used for statistical analysis. The way that some researchers set up various details in the software led to the ost common response being a flat line, which indicated stable and largely uninterrupted psychological functioning after adversity.

But when more finely tuned details were used, researchers found the most common response pattern was a temporary decrease 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 and recover after a period of time.

“The idea that ‘it is okay to not be okay’ following adversity is important,” Infurna said. “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?” Luthar 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.”

Infurna and Luthar 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 from 19-66%, 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.

Infurna and Luthar made several recommendations to improve adult resilience research in the future, in addition to changing the assumptions used with growth mixture modeling. They also encourage researchers to assess more than one measure of psychological functioning and to administer longitudinal surveys at more frequent time intervals.

“It is very important for the public and for policy-makers to know what a normal or common response to adversity is,” Luthar 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.”

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