The New Face of Trauma
Groundbreaking research indicates it’s not as ghastly as you might expect.
Can anything positive possibly come from an adverse event such as a flood, a mass shooting, or a catastrophic accident? The answer is yes, according to new work from trauma researcher Anthony Mancini, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Pace University, and founder of the Trauma, Social Processes, and Resilience Lab, established in 2015. In a paper entitled “When Acute Adversity Improves Psychological Health: A Social-Contextual Framework,” published recently in the journal Psychological Review, he describes what he calls “psychosocial gains from adversity.” The pioneering analysis upends the prevailing idea that trauma is uniformly harmful to our wellbeing, and offers new insight into how we handle such events.
“It questions the idea that trauma can’t actually have some real beneficial consequences,” Mancini says. “No one has ever put forth a theory to try and provide an overarching framework for this idea.”
Until now, any discussion of beneficial outcomes related to trauma has centered on post-traumatic growth, which is essentially the opposite of post-traumatic stress, and focuses on the individual’s mental capacity to “turn lemons into lemonade” following a negative experience.
Mancini’s work is the first to look at how trauma affects our relationships, and how the ways in which we’re able to connect with one another following a negative event can influence our response in a positive way.
“It’s looking at the human experience as a layered, multilevel phenomenon,” Mancini says. “The emphasis on the social context and on the potential of trauma to directly stimulate improved psychological functioning marks it as distinct from any other trauma theory.”
In his paper, Mancini suggests that adversity has the potential to encourage cooperation, promote deeper social interactions, and improve psychological functioning as a result of the shared experience. He found that there’s a tendency to come together after a disturbing event, and that human connection can help us access strength and resiliency. We experienced the phenomenon on a national level, after 9/11, and you can see it on a more specific level in your own social circles. For example, the death of a loved one may make you feel close to relatives you haven’t seen in years, and that could have beneficial consequences for you, and in turn, your other family members.
By providing an explanation of how our relationships with others can impact response to tragedy in positive ways, Mancini’s findings could better inform how we approach disaster management and offer new insight into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It demonstrates that keeping people in contact and close to each other after a disaster is an important priority,” he says.
For Mancini, the priority now is completing supporting research, including an analysis of data from Hurricane Sandy as well as individuals directly affected by 9/11. With support from students in his lab, he expects to have it done later this year.