Getting through a potentially traumatic event

Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from BPS Conference 2021.

We know many of the correlates of resilience, but we still can’t predict who will be resilient to potentially traumatic events with much accuracy. That’s the ‘resilience paradox’, and Professor George Bonanno (Teachers College, Columbia University) has a solution. Speaking in the final keynote, he said it had been staring him in the face for a long time. 

Bonanno has spent his career trying to understand the diversity of responses and trajectories following a potentially traumatic event. Following events such as a mass shooting, spousal loss, or spinal cord injury, about two thirds of people show resilience – a stable trajectory of healthy functioning. Multiple unique predictors, including personality, social support, and economic resources, each have a small effect on whether someone is resilient. There are no known big factors, and even when all of these small factors are taken into account, most of the puzzle remains unexplained.

With Charles Burton, Bonanno has argued that it is a fallacy to see a trait as either adaptive or maladaptive. In practice, different situations present different challenges. A behaviour that is adaptive in one context on one day isn’t necessarily so in another context or on a different day. Bonanno now thinks it’s obvious that there is a complex and dynamic interplay of those predictors, rather than categories of good and bad traits or strategies. Psychological or regulatory flexibility is about working out what’s happening, what we can do, what we should do, selecting a response, and monitoring it.

Bonanno deliberately calls events ‘potentially’ traumatic – it all depends on this complex interplay. Similarly, although we think of people as resilient, they are potentially resilient, he said, because they may hold some characteristics that make them slightly more likely to be resilient in a given scenario. 

Bonanno believes that efforts to build resilience probably won’t work because they’re based on increasing very small effects. Instead, understanding psychological flexibility as a mechanism for coping with potentially traumatic events can encourage us to use whatever tools we have, including what he calls ‘coping ugly’ – using a strategy you rarely use or is unhealthy but gets you through the situation. ‘You use what you have at your disposal when it’s the right thing to do.’

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