STRESS
September 6, 2018

It's OK Not to Be OK

Yes, most of us recover from trauma in the long run. But that doesn't change how tough the immediate aftermath is.

Life's challenges — death, divorce and injury, to name just a few — can definitely cause a dip in mental health. The good news is that a study finds that we generally recover from most of these difficult life events pretty well.

Some research has shown that in the long run, traumatic events have an surprisingly small effect on psychological functioning — that is, some data suggest that people going through painful life events are mostly OK throughout them.

Other research — not to mention most people’s personal experience — says otherwise. Traumatic or difficult life events do take an emotional toll, even if people eventually recover.

The idea that people are unfazed by life traumas could be very damaging if it is inaccurate. They’d make people think something was wrong with them if they did experience pain during difficult times, making the event even more harmful. So researchers at Arizona State University decided to look at this seeming contradiction in the evidence to determine how it came about.

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

The results should help to take the pressure off us to seek to recover from adversity immediately and appear to be “fine” through it. This is just not how people work.

The authors had a hunch that the conflicting findings might be the result of problems in the way certain studies were analyzed. Study author Suniya Luthar and her team looked at data on people’s psychological functioning after life events from past studies. They re-ran statistical tests, using different assumptions — for instance, rather than assuming that all people responded in the same way, the researchers created a model that assumed that people's responses differed somewhat, showing a range of psychological disturbance.

The outcome changed notably when the team changed the models’ assumptions: It went from the flat line of previous studies (suggesting that people’s psychological function didn’t change much during times of adversity) to showing a dip in psychological function, followed by a rebound.

The findings are much more closely in line with research in children showing that after adversity, kids' mental health may suffer temporarily, but that they generally recover.

The team had found that resilience depends on what aspects of a person's experience are taken into account. For instance, when only one variable — life satisfaction, negative or positive emotions, general health or physical health — is considered, people may appear to bounce back from difficulties pretty well. But when a broader range of variables is reviewed, which may be a more accurate predictor of how people respond to, and recover from, adversity, the rate of people's resilience looks much slower.

As most people who have been through a life crisis know, it does affect mental health. Not forever, but for a period. The new study supports this idea, and may take the pressure off us to seek to recover immediately from adversity and appear to be “fine” through it. This is just not how people work.

“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…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.”

The study is published in Clinical Psychology Review.

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