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Research: Acute Adversity and Well-Being

News Story

Dyson Associate Professor Anthony Mancini, PhD, investigates the human response to acute adversity—and how certain group responses can ultimately improve an individual’s psychological well-being.

When an individual goes through an acutely stressful experience, we generally assume it will have uniformly negative consequences. Yet, as Dyson Associate Professor Anthony Mancini, PhD, has uncovered through research, the aftermath of that high-stress situation can often prove to be a different story. In fact, Mancini’s research suggests that in some cases, exposure to acute adversity can even improve an individual’s psychological health over the long-term. In a recent paper published in Psychological Review, he outlines a theory of "psychosocial gains from adversity" that explains how acute adversity can improve psychological functioning. 

“I had become interested in different ways people respond to acute adversity,” says Mancini. “One of the things I noticed when I was working with data that included an assessment before an event happened, was a group people who were actually doing quite poorly before the adversity struck, and then were doing quite well after. This didn’t conform to any theoretical explanation, and in most of the studies that identified this pattern, researchers ignored it.”

In his own research, Mancini had discovered this response pattern, and proceeded to investigate further. He looked at all different scenarios—natural disasters, bereavement, military deployment, school shootings, life-threatening illness—and noticed that each of these events contained this group of individuals who were struggling before a potentially traumatic event, but proceeded to dramatically improve over time after the event—indicating that the improvement in their psychological health could be almost directly related to experiencing a very high-stress event.

“Along with my collaborators, I did a study on the Virginia Tech campus shootings, in which students happened to have their depression and anxiety assessed before the shootings because of another ongoing study. 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 their social relationships—that it stitched them into a social network they were not stitched into before.”

Mancini 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 bonds. This group-level phenomenon, as Mancini notes, can dramatically affect the individual.

“I think it tells us something not just about the unexpected consequences of adversity, it also tells us something 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, for a whole host of reasons, people get into trouble.”

While Mancini stresses that the while group that ends up improving their psychological well-being over time after exposure to acute adversity is a subset of the whole, he was surprised with how consistent psychological health improvements tracked over a wide variety of high-stress events. He notes, for example, that while studying military deployment, his data showed that although there is a significant group that experiences post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home from service, there is another group of similar size for which deployment has a much more positive outcome.

“There’s obvious and appropriate concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder. But in the data I worked with and in a number of other studies, there is a group of deployed military who actually improve during and after their deployment. This group is about equal in size and proportion to the group that shows a PTSD response. So that surprised me.”

While the study is examining individual improvement in psychological well-being, Mancini believes that just focusing on the individual arguably does a disservice to the phenomenon in general—namely, the research suggests that an individual is able to improve following acute adversity due to their involvement and interaction with groups.

“People influence each other; environments can be categorized by degrees of trust and cooperation; these group level phenomena influence the individual, and the individual contributes to the group level phenomena,” says Mancini. “The proper way to understand the response to acute adversity is not simply in terms of the individual. A lot is missed when you simply focus on the individual level of adaptation.”

All in all, Mancini believes there is much more research to be done regarding this topic—namely, because the findings are inconsistent with conventional wisdom and contemporary social norms.

“I think people have trouble wrapping their heads around this,” says Mancini. “It goes against our conventional understanding to such a degree, I think even researchers just tend to gloss over it.”