Good Trauma?

When a person goes through an acutely stressful or tragic experience, we generally assume it will have negative consequences. Yet, as Dyson Associate Professor ANTHONY MANCINI, PhD, has uncovered, the aftermath of that high-stress situation can often prove to be a different story. In fact, it can even strengthen and positively reinforce social bonds.

“Along with my collaborators, I did a study on the Virginia Tech shootings, in which students happened to have their depression and anxiety assessed before the shootings because of another ongoing study,” he says. “My collaborators then followed those students, collecting data two, six, and 12 months after. In our analyses, I was surprised to find a group of students who were doing quite poorly before and remarkably better after. This also tracked directly with their reports of social relationships. It seemed that the event mobilized those relationships—that it stitched them into a social network they were not stitched into before.”

Mancini, whose work has been published in Psychological Review, believes these results indicate the human species’ remarkable ability to demonstrate resiliency in even the direst of circumstances—and shows that responses to something horrible often can have unintended positive consequences. For example, natural disasters could end up strengthening family and community ties in the sense that a group might be forced to, literally, weather a storm together. This group-level phenomenon, as Mancini notes, can dramatically affect each individual. “I think it tells us something not just about the unexpected consequences of adversity, but about the nature of how we respond to stressors, and that the adaptive way we respond is to seek out other people. And when we fail to do that, people get into trouble.”

Mancini adds there is more research to be done—namely, because the findings are inconsistent with conventional wisdom and social norms.