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Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?

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Many people are exposed to loss or potentially traumatic events at some point in their lives, and yet they continue to have positive emotional experiences and show only minor and transient disruptions in their ability to function. Unfortunately, because much of psychology's knowledge about how adults cope with loss or trauma has come from individuals who sought treatment or exhibited great distress, loss and trauma theorists have often viewed this type of resilience as either rare or pathological. The author challenges these assumptions by reviewing evidence that resilience represents a distinct trajectory from the process of recovery, that resilience in the face of loss or potential trauma is more common than is often believed, and that there are multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience.
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Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience:
Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After
Extremely Aversive Events?
George A. Bonanno
Teachers College, Columbia University
Many people are exposed to loss or potentially traumatic events at some point in their
lives, and yet they continue to have positive emotional experiences and show only
minor and transient disruptions in their ability to function. Unfortunately, because
much of psychology’s knowledge about how adults cope with loss or trauma has come
from individuals who sought treatment or exhibited great distress, loss and trauma
theorists have often viewed this type of resilience as either rare or pathological. The
author challenges these assumptions by reviewing evidence that resilience represents a
distinct trajectory from the process of recovery, that resilience in the face of loss or
potential trauma is more common than is often believed, and that there are multiple and
sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience.
Most people are exposed to at least one vio-
lent or life-threatening situation during the
course of their lives (Ozer, Best, Lipsey, &
Weiss, 2003). As people progress through the
life cycle, they are also increasingly confronted
with the deaths of close friends and relatives.
Not everyone copes with these potentially dis-
turbing events in the same way. Some people
experience acute distress from which they are
unable to recover. Others suffer less intensely
and for a much shorter period of time. Some
people seem to recover quickly but then begin
to experience unexpected health problems or
difficulties concentrating or enjoying life the
way they used to. However, large numbers of
people manage to endure the temporary up-
heaval of loss or potentially traumatic events
remarkably well, with no apparent disruption in
their ability to function at work or in close
relationships, and seem to move on to new
challenges with apparent ease. This article is
devoted to the latter group and to the question of
resilience in the face of loss or potentially trau-
matic events.
The importance of protective psychological
factors in the prevention of illness is now well
established (Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, &
Gruenewald, 2000). Moreover, developmental
psychologists have shown that resilience is
common among children growing up in disad-
vantaged conditions (e.g., Masten, 2001). Un-
fortunately, because most of the psychological
knowledge base regarding the ways adults cope
with loss or potential trauma has been derived
from individuals who have experienced signif-
icant psychological problems or sought treat-
ment, theorists working in this area have often
underestimated and misunderstood resilience,
viewing it either as a pathological state or as
something seen only in rare and exceptionally
healthy individuals. In this article, I challenge
this view by reviewing evidence that resilience
in the face of loss or potential trauma represents
a distinct trajectory from that of recovery, that
resilience is more common than often believed,
and that there are multiple and sometimes un-
expected pathways to resilience.
Point 1: Resilience Is Different From
Recovery
A key feature of the concept of adult resil-
ience to loss and trauma, to be discussed in the
next two sections, is its distinction from the
process of recovery. The term recovery con-
notes a trajectory in which normal functioning
temporarily gives way to threshold or sub-
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to George A. Bonanno, Department of Counseling
and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia Uni-
versity, 525 West 120th Street, Box 218, New York, NY
10027. E-mail: gab38@columbia.edu
This article is reprinted from American Psychologist,
2004, Vol. 59, No. 1, 20 –28.
Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy Copyright 2008 by the American Psychological Association
2008, Vol. S, No. 1, 101–113 1942-9681/08/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1942-9681.S.1.101
101
threshold psychopathology (e.g., symptoms of
depression or posttraumatic stress disorder
[PTSD]), usually for a period of at least several
months, and then gradually returns to pre-event
levels. Full recovery may be relatively rapid or
may take as long as one or two years. By
contrast, resilience reflects the ability to main-
tain a stable equilibrium. In the developmental
literature, resilience is typically discussed in
terms of protective factors that foster the devel-
opment of positive outcomes and healthy per-
sonality characteristics among children exposed
to unfavorable or aversive life circumstances
(e.g., Garmezy, 1991; Luthar, Cicchetti, &
Becker, 2000; Masten, 2001; Rutter, 1999;
Werner, 1995). Resilience to loss and trauma, as
conceived in this article, pertains to the ability
of adults in otherwise normal circumstances
who are exposed to an isolated and potentially
highly disruptive event, such as the death of a
close relation or a violent or life-threatening
situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy
levels of psychological and physical function-
ing. A further distinction is that resilience is
more than the simple absence of psychopathol-
ogy. Recovering individuals often experience
subthreshold symptom levels. Resilient individ-
uals, by contrast, may experience transient per-
turbations in normal functioning (e.g., several
weeks of sporadic preoccupation or restless
sleep) but generally exhibit a stable trajectory of
healthy functioning across time, as well as the
capacity for generative experiences and positive
emotions (Bonanno, Papa, & O’Neill, 2001).
The prototypical resilience and recovery trajec-
tories, as well as chronic and delayed disrup-
tions in functioning, are illustrated in Figure 1.
In the loss and trauma literatures, researchers
have tended to assume a unidimensional re-
sponse with little variability in possible out-
come trajectory among adults exposed to poten-
tially traumatic events. Bereavement theorists
have tended to assume that coping with the
death of a close friend or relative is necessarily
an active process that can and in most cases
should be facilitated by clinical intervention.
Trauma theorists have focused their attentions
primarily on interventions for PTSD. Nonethe-
less, trauma theorists and practitioners have at
times assumed that virtually all individuals ex-
posed to violent or life-threatening events could
benefit from active coping and professional in-
tervention. In this section, I discuss how the
failure of the loss and trauma literatures to ad-
equately distinguish resilience from recovery
relates to current controversies about when and
for whom clinical intervention might be most
appropriate. This failure also helps explain why
in some cases clinical interventions with ex-
posed individuals are sometimes ineffective or
even harmful.
The Grief Work Assumption
Traditionally, mental health professionals in
the industrialized West have understood grief
Figure 1. Prototypical Patterns of Disruption in Normal Functioning Across Time Follow-
ing Interpersonal Loss or Potentially Traumatic Events.
102 BONANNO
and bereavement from a single dominant per-
spective characterized by the need for grief
work (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1991). The concep-
tion of grieving as work originated in Freud’s
(1917/1957) metaphoric use of the term to de-
scribe the idea that virtually every bereaved
individual needs to review “each single one of
the memories and hopes which bound the libido
. . . to the non-existent object” (p. 154). Theo-
rists following Freud emphasized even more
strongly the critical importance to all bereaved
individuals of working through the negative
thoughts, memories, and emotions about a loss
(see Bonanno & Field, 2001).
As researchers began to devote more atten-
tion to the bereavement process, however, it
became apparent that, despite the near unanim-
ity with which mental health professionals en-
dorsed the grief work perspective, there was a
surprising lack of empirical support for such a
view (Wortman & Silver, 1989). What’s more,
recent studies that have directly examined the
legitimacy of the grief work approach have not
only failed to support this approach but actually
suggest that it may be harmful for many be-
reaved individuals to engage in such practices
(see Bonanno & Kaltman, 1999). A more plau-
sible alternative would be that grief work pro-
cesses are appropriate for only a subset of be-
reaved individuals (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1991),
most likely those actively struggling with the
most severe levels of grief and distress (Bon-
anno et al., 2001).
The idea that grief work may characterize
only the more highly distressed bereaved indi-
viduals (i.e., those exhibiting either the recovery
or chronic symptom trajectories) is further sup-
ported by data indicating that the practice of
engaging a wide array of bereaved individuals
in grief counseling has proved remarkably inef-
fective. Grief-focused interventions typically
target both acute or prolonged grief reactions as
well as the absence of a grief reaction (e.g.,
Rando, 1992). Two recent meta-analyses inde-
pendently reached the conclusion that grief-
specific therapies tend to be relatively ineffica-
cious (Kato & Mann, 1999; Neimeyer, 2000). A
third meta-analytic study reported that grief
therapies can be effective but generally to a
lesser degree than usually observed for other
forms of psychotherapy (Allumbaugh & Hoyt,
1999). In one of these analyses, an alarming
38% of the individuals receiving grief treat-
ments actually got worse relative to no-
treatment controls, whereas the most clear ben-
efits were evidenced primarily with bereaved
individuals experiencing chronic grief (Neim-
eyer, 2000). In summarizing these findings,
Neimeyer (2000) concluded that “such inter-
ventions are typically ineffective, and perhaps
even deleterious, at least for persons experienc-
ing a normal bereavement” (p. 541).
Trauma Interventions and Critical
Incident Debriefing
Although for centuries practitioners have
linked violent or life-threatening events with
psychological and physiological dysfunction,
historically there also has been confusion and
controversy over the nature of traumatic events
and over whether to consider psychological re-
actions as malingering, weakness, or genuine
dysfunction (Lamprecht & Sack, 2002). The
inclusion of the PTSD category in the Diagnos-
tic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(3rd ed. [DSM–III]; American Psychiatric As-
sociation, 1980) resulted in a surge of research
and theory about clinically significant trauma
reactions. There is now considerable support for
the usefulness of interventions with individuals
meeting PTSD criteria. Cognitive– behavioral
treatments that aim to help traumatized individ-
uals understand and manage the anxiety and
fear associated with trauma-related stimuli have
proved the most effective (Resick, 2001). Al-
though outcome studies generally show few dif-
ferences between treatments, there is some ev-
idence for superior results with prolonged ex-
posure therapy (e.g., Foa et al., 1999). The
essential components of exposure treatment
usually involve repeated confrontations with
memories of the traumatic stressor (imaginal
exposure) and with situations that evoke unre-
alistic fears (in vivo exposure; Zoellner,
Fitzgibbons, & Foa, 2001).
Ironically, the effectiveness of reliving trau-
matic experiences for individuals with PTSD
may have helped blur the distinction between
recovery and resilience. Researchers have made
remarkably few attempts to distinguish sub-
groups within the broad category of individuals
not showing PTSD. Resilient and recovering
individuals are often lumped into a single cate-
gory (e.g., King, King, Foy, Keane, & Fairbank,
1999; McFarlane & Yehuda, 1996). As with
103LOSS, TRAUMA, AND HUMAN RESILIENCE AFTER ADVERSE EVENTS
bereavement, however, when researchers do not
address this distinction, they risk making the
faulty assumption that resilient people must en-
gage in the same coping processes as do ex-
posed individuals who struggle with but even-
tually recover from more intense trauma
symptoms.
The possible untoward nature of this assump-
tion is evidenced keenly in the often contentious
debate about the appropriateness of psycholog-
ical debriefing. Whereas genuinely traumatized
individuals were once doubted as malingerers,
the pendulum has recently swung so far in the
opposite direction that many practitioners be-
lieve that virtually all individuals exposed to
violent or life-threatening events should be of-
fered and would benefit from at least some form
of brief intervention. Critical incident stress de-
briefing was originally developed for relatively
limited use as a brief group intervention to help
mitigate psychological distress among emer-
gency response personnel (Mitchell, 1983).
Over time, however, debriefing has been ap-
plied individually and broadly (Mitchell & Ev-
erly, 2000) and sometimes, as after the recent
September 11th terrorist attacks on the World
Trade Center (Miller, 2002), as a blanket inter-
vention for virtually all exposed individuals.
Critics of psychological debriefing argue, how-
ever, that such a broad application may patholo-
gize normal reactions to adversity and thus may
undermine natural resilience processes. Indeed,
growing evidence shows that global applica-
tions of psychological debriefing are ineffective
(Rose, Brewin, Andrews, & Kirk, 1999) and can
impede natural recovery processes (Bisson, Jen-
kins, Alexander, & Bannister, 1997; Mayou,
Ehlers, & Hobbs, 2000).
An alternative form of early trauma interven-
tion, recently proposed by Litz, Gray, Bryant,
and Adler (2002), resonates with the distinction
proposed here between resilience and recovery.
Litz et al. argued that, while offering debriefing
to all individuals exposed to a potentially trau-
matic event is misguided, some individuals
would indeed benefit from early intervention.
They proposed the development of initial
screening practices for intervention with indi-
viduals who show possible risk factors (e.g.,
prior trauma, low social support, hyperarousal)
for developing chronic PTSD. Implicit in this
approach is the idea, central to the current arti-
cle, that many individuals exposed to violent or
life-threatening events will show a genuine re-
silience that should not be interfered with or
undermined by clinical intervention.
Point 2: Resilience Is Common
Because research on acute and chronic grief
and PTSD historically has dominated the liter-
ature on how adults cope with aversive life
events, such reactions have generally come to
be viewed as the norm. As I discuss below,
bereavement theorists have been highly skepti-
cal about individuals who do not show pro-
nounced distress reactions or who display pos-
itive emotions following loss, assuming that
such individuals are rare and suffer from patho-
logical or dysfunctional forms of absent grief.
Trauma theorists have been less suspicious
about the absence of PTSD but have often ig-
nored and underestimated resilience. A review
of the available research on loss and violent or
life-threatening events clearly indicates that the
vast majority of individuals exposed to such
events do not exhibit chronic symptom profiles
and that many and, in some cases, the majority
show the type of healthy functioning suggestive
of the resilience trajectory.
Resilience to Loss
Bereavement theorists have typically viewed
the absence of prolonged distress or depression
following the death of an important friend or
relative, often termed absent grief, as a rare and
pathological response that results from denial or
avoidance of the emotional realities of the loss.
Bowlby (1980), for example, described the
“prolonged absence of conscious grieving” (p.
138) as a type of disordered mourning and
viewed the experience or expression of positive
emotions during the early stages of bereave-
ment as a form of defensive denial. Summariz-
ing the first wave of bereavement research, Os-
terweis, Solomon, and Green (1984) concluded
“that the absence of grieving phenomena fol-
lowing bereavement represents some form of
personality pathology” (p. 18). More recently,
in a survey of self-identified bereavement ex-
perts, the majority (65%) endorsed beliefs that
absent grief exists, that it usually stems from
denial or inhibition, and that it is generally
maladaptive in the long run (Middleton, Moy-
lan, Raphael, Burnett, & Martinek, 1993).
104 BONANNO
These same bereavement experts (76%) also
endorsed the compatible assumption that absent
grief eventually surfaces in the form of delayed
grief reactions.
The available empirical literature, however,
suggests a very different story: Resilience to the
unsettling effects of interpersonal loss is not
rare but relatively common, does not appear to
indicate pathology but rather healthy adjust-
ment, and does not lead to delayed grief reac-
tions. Over a decade ago, Wortman and Silver
(1989) first drew attention to the somewhat star-
tling fact that there was no empirical basis for
either the assumption that the absence of dis-
tress during bereavement is pathological or that
it is always followed by delayed manifestations
of grief. Unfortunately, at the time their article
was published, there were relatively few longi-
tudinal bereavement studies from which to fully
evaluate their claim.
More recent prospective studies have now
begun to shed greater light on individual differ-
ences in grief reactions (for a review, see Bon-
anno & Kaltman, 2001). Although the DSM has
not specified a unique category for acute or
complicated grief reactions, the available re-
search generally shows that chronic depression
and distress tend to occur in 10% to 15% of
bereaved individuals. Considerable numbers of
bereaved individuals also tend to show more
time-limited disruptions in functioning (e.g.,
cognitive disorganization, dysphoria, health
deficits, disrupted social and occupational func-
tioning) lasting at least several months to one or
two years. Most important, in studies that report
aggregate data, bereaved individuals who ex-
hibited relatively low levels of depression or
distress have consistently approached or ex-
ceeded 50% of the sample. For example, in a
recent study that examined various levels of
depression among conjugally bereaved adults,
approximately half of a sample did not show
even mild depression (these individuals en-
dorsed fewer than two items from the DSM–IV
symptom list) following the loss (Zisook, Pau-
lus, Shuchter, & Judd, 1997). In addition, there
is now solid prospective evidence that associ-
ates resilience to loss with the experience and
expression of positive emotion (e.g., Bonanno
& Keltner, 1997).
How many of the bereaved individuals who
do not exhibit overt grief reactions will eventu-
ally develop delayed grief reactions? The evi-
dence is unequivocal on this point: No empirical
study has ever clearly demonstrated the exis-
tence of delayed grief. For example, Middleton,
Burnett, Raphael, and Martinek (1996) used
cluster analyses to examine longitudinal out-
come patterns among groups of bereaved
spouses, adult children, and parents. Despite
their conviction that delayed grief would
emerge, Middleton et al. concluded that “no
evidence was found for the pattern of response
which might be expected for delayed grief”
(Middleton et al., 1996, p. 169). Data from a
recent five-year longitudinal study indicated a
similar conclusion (Bonanno & Field, 2001).
This study contrasted the common assumption
that delayed grief is a robust phenomenon with
an alternative assumption that a few participants
might show delayed elevations but only on iso-
lated measures because of random measurement
error. The results were consistent with the mea-
surement-error explanation. In fact, when a psy-
chometrically more reliable, weighted compos-
ite measure was used, not a single participant
evidenced delayed grief.
The idea that the absence of grief is patho-
logical is rooted in the assumptions that be-
reaved individuals showing this pattern must
have had a superficial attachment to the de-
ceased or that they are cold and emotionally
distant people (Bowlby, 1980). Such explana-
tions are notoriously difficult to rule out be-
cause, for obvious reasons, most bereavement
studies take place after the death already has
occurred. When measured during bereavement,
factors such as the quality of the lost relation-
ship or the situational context of the loss are
confounded with current functioning and the
possible influence of memory biases (e.g.,
Safer, Bonanno, & Field, 2001).
However, a recent prospective study pro-
vided a rare opportunity to address this issue
using data gathered on average three years prior
to the death of a spouse (Bonanno, Wortman, et
al., 2002). This study provided strong evidence
in support of the idea that many bereaved indi-
viduals will exhibit little or no grief and that
these individuals are not cold and unfeeling or
lacking in attachment but, rather, are capable of
genuine resilience in the face of loss. Almost
half of the participants in this study (46% of the
sample) had low levels of depression, both prior
to the loss and through 18 months of bereave-
ment, and had relatively few grief symptoms
105LOSS, TRAUMA, AND HUMAN RESILIENCE AFTER ADVERSE EVENTS
(e.g., intense yearning for the spouse) during
bereavement. An examination of the pre-
bereavement functioning of this group revealed
no signs of maladjustment; these participants
were not rated as emotionally cold or distant by
the interviewers, did not report difficulties in
their marriages, and did not show dismissive
attachment. They did, however, have relatively
high scores on several prebereavement mea-
sures suggestive of the ability to adapt well to
loss (e.g., acceptance of death, belief in a just
world, instrumental support). As in previous
studies, no unequivocal evidence for delayed
grief was found. Finally, it is important to note
that even among these resilient individuals, the
majority reported experiencing at least some
yearning and emotional pangs, and virtually all
participants reported intrusive cognition and ru-
mination at some point early after the loss (Bo-
nanno, Wortman, & Nesse, in press). The dif-
ference between the resilient individuals and the
other participants, however, was that these ex-
periences were transient rather than enduring
and did not interfere with their ability to con-
tinue to function in other areas of their lives,
including the capacity for positive affect.
Resilience to Violent and Life-Threatening
Events
Epidemiological studies estimate that the ma-
jority of the U.S. population has been exposed
to at least one traumatic event, defined using the
DSM–III criteria of an event outside the range
of normal human experience, during the course
of their lives. Although grief and trauma symp-
toms are qualitatively different, the basic out-
come trajectories following trauma tend to form
patterns similar to those observed following be-
reavement (see Figure 1). Summarizing this re-
search, Ozer et al. (2003) recently noted that
“roughly 50%– 60% of the U.S. population is
exposed to traumatic stress but only 5%–10%
develop PTSD” (p. 54). However, because there
is greater variability in the types and levels of
exposure to stressor events, there also tends to
be greater variability in PTSD rates over time.
Estimates of chronic PTSD have ranged, for
example, from 6.6% and 9.9% for individuals
experiencing personally threatening and violent
events, respectively, during the 1992 Los An-
geles riots (Hanson, Kilpatrick, Freedy, &
Saunders, 1995), to 12.5% for Gulf War veter-
ans (Sutker, Davis, Uddo, & Ditta, 1995), to
16.5% for hospitalized survivors of motor vehi-
cle accidents (Ehlers, Mayou, & Bryant, 1998),
to 17.8% for victims of physical assault
(Resnick, Kilpatrick, Dansky, Saunders, &
Best, 1993).
Although chronic PTSD certainly warrants
great concern, the fact that the vast majority of
individuals exposed to violent or life-threaten-
ing events do not go on to develop the disorder
has not received adequate attention. It is well
established that many exposed individuals will
evidence short-lived PTSD or subclinical stress
reactions that abate over the course of several
months or longer (i.e., the recovery pattern). For
example, a population-based survey conducted
one month after the September 11th terrorist
attacks in New York City estimated that 7.5%
of Manhattan residents would meet criteria for
PTSD and that another 17.4% would meet the
criteria for subsyndromal PTSD (high symptom
levels that do not meet full diagnostic criteria;
Galea, Ahern, et al., 2002). As in other studies,
a subset eventually developed chronic PTSD,
and this was more likely if exposure was high.
However, most respondents evidenced a rapid
decline in symptoms over time: PTSD preva-
lence related to 9/11 dropped to only 1.7% at
four months and 0.6% at six months, whereas
subsyndromal PTSD dropped to 4.0% and
4.7%, respectively, at these times (Galea et al.,
2003).
What about exposed individuals who exhibit
relatively little distress? Trauma theorists are
sometimes surprised when exposed individuals
do not show more than a few PTSD symptoms.
For example, body handlers in the aftermath of
the Oklahoma City bombing have been de-
scribed as showing “unexpected resilience”
(Tucker et al., 2002). Indeed, whereas those
who cope well with bereavement are sometimes
viewed as cold and unfeeling, those who cope
well with violent or life-threatening events are
often viewed in terms of extreme heroism.
However justified, this practice tends to rein-
force the misperception that only rare individu-
als with “exceptional emotional strength” (e.g.,
Casella & Motta, 1990) are capable of
resilience.
The available evidence suggests that resil-
ience to violent and life-threatening events is far
more common. The vast majority of individuals
(78.2%) exposed to the 1992 Los Angeles riots
106 BONANNO
reported three or fewer PTSD symptoms (Han-
son et al., 1995). Similarly, among hospitalized
survivors of motor vehicle accidents (Bryant,
Harvey, Guthrie, & Moulds, 2000), the majority
(79%) did not meet criteria for PTSD and av-
eraged only 3.3 PTSD symptoms, indicating
that many participants must have shown little or
no PTSD. In a study of PTSD among Gulf War
veterans (Sutker et al., 1995), the majority
(62.5%) had no psychological distress when
examined within one year of their return to the
United States. In their post-9/11 survey, Galea,
Resnick, et al. (2002) reported that over 40% of
Manhattan residents did not report a single
PTSD symptom. Carden˜a et al. (1994) exam-
ined data on a wide range of cognitive, affec-
tive, and somatic symptoms (e.g., exaggerated
startle, recurrent distressing dreams, fatigue)
measured among survivors of five different di-
saster events within one to four weeks of each
event. Although they did not assess the type of
specific symptom trajectories that would allow
direct inferences about resilient individuals,
Carden˜a et al. did report that “even with such a
diverse series of events and forms of data col-
lection . . . the percentages we obtained for im-
mediate reactions to disaster were very similar”
(Carden˜a et al., 1994, p. 387). And their data
were consistent with the idea that resilience is
common: The vast majority of symptoms they
measured were apparent in only a minority of
respondents. Finally, although relatively little
research has been done on the experience or
expression of positive emotion following poten-
tially traumatic events, two recent studies have
provided important preliminary data linking
positive emotions in the context of trauma with
resilient functioning (Colak et al., 2003;
Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003).
Positive emotion is revisited in the final section
of this article.
How many exposed individuals eventually
show delayed trauma reactions? In contrast to
the absence of evidence for delayed grief during
bereavement, delayed PTSD does appear to be a
genuine, empirically verifiable phenomenon.
Nonetheless, delayed PTSD is still relatively
infrequent, occurring in approximately 5% to
10% of exposed individuals (Buckley, Blan-
chard, & Hickling, 1996), and thus applies at
best only to a subset of the many individuals
who do not show initial PTSD reactions. It is
noteworthy, however, that exposed individuals
who eventually manifest delayed PTSD tend to
have had relatively high levels of symptoms in
the immediate aftermath of the stressor event
(e.g., Buckley et al., 1996). Thus, these individ-
uals appear to be immediately distinguishable
from more truly resilient individuals (see Fig-
ure 1).
Perhaps trauma reactions might manifest in-
directly through behavioral or health problems?
Although PTSD is frequently comorbid with
health and behavior problems, individuals ex-
posed to putative traumatic events sometimes
do evidence these problems in the absence of
PTSD. As was the case with delayed PTSD,
however, even when health and behavior prob-
lems are accounted for, many survivors do not
show such problems. This was evidenced, for
example, in a longitudinal study of survivors of
the North Sea oil rig disaster—by all accounts a
horrific and disturbing event (Holen, 1990). In
the first year following the disaster, 13.7% of
the survivors were assigned psychiatric diag-
noses (at the time of the study, PTSD was not a
well-established diagnosis), compared with
only 1.1% of a matched comparison sample. In
contrast, medical diagnoses were assigned to
31% of the survivors. Although these rates were
markedly higher than those found in the com-
parison sample (4.5%), they nonetheless under-
score the fact that most if not the majority of
survivors exhibited neither extreme distress nor
unusual health problems.
Point 3: There Are Multiple and
Sometimes Unexpected Pathways to
Resilience
If resilience and recovery represent distinct
trajectories that are informed by different cop-
ing habits, then what factors promote resil-
ience? Meta-analytic studies have consistently
revealed several clear predictors of PTSD reac-
tions, including lack of social support, low in-
telligence and lack of education, family back-
ground, prior psychiatric history, and aspects of
the trauma response itself, such as dissociative
reactions (Brewin, Andrews, & Valentine,
2000; Ozer et al., 2003). It seems likely that at
least some of these factors, if inverted, would
predict resilient functioning. However, rela-
tively little research has attempted to address
this question. What’s more, because so little
attention has been devoted to resilience, when
107LOSS, TRAUMA, AND HUMAN RESILIENCE AFTER ADVERSE EVENTS
loss and trauma theorists have looked for resil-
ience, they have tended to look in the wrong
places. Indeed, the assumption that all adults
exposed to loss or to potentially traumatic
events experience prolonged distress and dis-
ruptions in functioning goes hand in hand with
the belief that resilience must be rare and found
only in exceptionally healthy people (e.g., Ca-
sella & Motta, 1990).
Recent studies suggest a far more complex
picture; as developmental psychologists have
long asserted, there is no single means of main-
taining equilibrium following highly aversive
events, but rather there are multiple pathways to
resilience (e.g., Luthar, Doernberger, & Zigler,
1993; Rutter, 1987). This evidence further sug-
gests that, contrary to myths about unusually
healthy beings, adults resilient to loss or trauma
often appear to cope effectively in ways that,
under normal circumstances, may not always be
advantageous. For example, recall the bereave-
ment study by Bonanno, Wortman, et al.
(2002), discussed earlier, that identified a large
resilient group with a relatively healthy profile
prior to the loss. This study also revealed a
second, smaller group of resilient individuals
who had improved following the death of their
spouse. At prebereavement, members of the im-
proved group had spouses who were ill; were
highly depressed, neurotic, and introspective;
had more conflicted, ambivalent marriages; and
believed that they were treated less fairly in life
than other people. A recent follow-up study of
these individuals (Bonanno et al., in press) in-
dicated that they showed no adverse reactions
through 18 months of bereavement, gave little
indication of denial or avoidance, perceived
greater benefits to widowhood, gained increas-
ing comfort from positive memories of their
spouses over time, and reported that they too
were somewhat surprised by their own coping
efficacy. Thus, although dramatically different
from the larger resilient group at prebereave-
ment, the improved respondents also appeared to
exhibit genuine resilience during bereavement.
In this section, a number of distinct dimen-
sions suggestive of different types or pathways
of resilience to loss and trauma are considered.
Hardiness
A growing body of evidence suggests that the
personality trait of hardiness (Kobasa, Maddi,
& Kahn, 1982) helps to buffer exposure to
extreme stress. Hardiness consists of three di-
mensions: being committed to finding meaning-
ful purpose in life, the belief that one can influ-
ence one’s surroundings and the outcome of
events, and the belief that one can learn and
grow from both positive and negative life expe-
riences. Armed with this set of beliefs, hardy
individuals have been found to appraise poten-
tially stressful situations as less threatening,
thus minimizing the experience of distress.
Hardy individuals are also more confident and
better able to use active coping and social sup-
port, thus helping them deal with the distress
they do experience (e.g., Florian, Mikulincer, &
Taubman, 1995).
Self-Enhancement
Another dimension linked to resilience is self-
enhancement. Somewhat ironically, around the
time PTSD was formalized as a diagnostic cat-
egory, social psychologists had begun to chal-
lenge the traditional assumption that mental
health requires realistic acceptance of personal
limitations and negative characteristics (Green-
wald, 1980; Taylor & Brown, 1988). These
scholars argued instead that unrealistic or overly
positive biases in favor of the self, such as
self-enhancement, can be adaptive and promote
well-being. Although most people engage in
self-enhancing biases at least some of the time,
measurable individual differences are also
found. Trait self-enhancement has been associ-
ated with benefits, such as high self-esteem, but
also with costs: Self-enhancers score high on
measures of narcissism and tend to evoke neg-
ative impressions in others (Paulhus, 1998).
This trade-off may be less problematic, how-
ever, in the context of highly aversive events,
when threats to the self are most salient (Taylor
& Brown, 1988).
Support for this idea comes from a recent
study of individual differences in self-enhanc-
ing biases among bereaved individuals in the
United States and among Bosnian civilians liv-
ing in Sarajevo in the immediate aftermath of
the Balkan civil war (Bonanno, Field, Ko-
vacevic, & Kaltman, 2002). In both samples,
self-enhancers were rated by mental health pro-
fessionals as better adjusted. What’s more, self-
enhancement proved to be particularly adaptive
for bereaved individuals suffering from more
108 BONANNO
severe losses. In a similar study of individuals
who were in or near the World Trade Center
towers at the time of the September 11th attacks
(Bonanno, Rennicke, Dekel, & Rosen, 2003),
self-enhancers reported better adjustment and
more active social networks and were rated
more positively and as better adjusted by their
close friends. Further, self-enhancers’ salivary
cortisol levels exhibited a profile suggestive of
minimal stress responding.
Repressive Coping
Resilience to loss and trauma has also been
found among another perhaps less likely
group: repressive copers (Weinberger,
Schwartz, & Davidson, 1979). A considerable
body of literature documents that individuals
identified by either questionnaire or behav-
ioral measures as repressors tend to avoid
unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and memories
(Weinberger, 1990). In contrast to hardiness
and self-enhancement, which appear to oper-
ate primarily on the level of cognitive pro-
cesses, repressive coping appears to operate
primarily through emotion-focused mecha-
nisms, such as emotional dissociation. For
instance, repressors typically report relatively
little distress in stressful situations but exhibit
elevated distress on indirect measures, such
as autonomic arousal (Weinberger et al.,
1979). Emotional dissociation is generally
viewed as maladaptive and may be associated
with long-term health costs (Bonanno &
Singer, 1990). However, these same tenden-
cies also appear to foster adaptation to ex-
treme adversity. For example, repressors have
been found to show relatively little grief or
distress at any point across five years of be-
reavement (Bonanno & Field, 2001; Bon-
anno, Keltner, Holen, & Horowitz, 1995).
Further, although they initially reported in-
creased somatic complaints, over time repres-
sors did not show greater somatic or health
problems than other participants. Recently,
among a sample of young women with docu-
mented histories of childhood sexual abuse,
repressors were less likely to voluntarily dis-
close their abuse when provided the opportu-
nity to do so, but they also showed better
adjustment than other survivors (Bonanno,
Noll, Putnam, O’Neill, & Trickett, 2003).
Positive Emotion and Laughter
One of the ways repressors and others show-
ing resilience appear to cope well with adversity
is through the use of positive emotion and
laughter (Bonanno, Noll, et al., 2003; Keltner &
Bonanno, 1997). Historically, the possible use-
fulness of positive emotion in the context of
extremely aversive events was either ignored or
dismissed as a form of unhealthy denial (e.g.,
Bowlby, 1980). Recently, however, research
has shown that positive emotions can help re-
duce levels of distress following aversive events
both by quieting or undoing negative emotion
(Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Keltner & Bo-
nanno, 1997) and by “increasing continued con-
tact with and support from important people in
the . . . person’s social environment” (Bonanno
& Keltner, 1997, p. 134).
Several recent studies have supported these
ideas in the specific contexts of loss or trauma.
Bereaved individuals who exhibited genuine
laughs and smiles when speaking about a recent
loss had better adjustment over several years of
bereavement (Bonanno & Keltner, 1997) and
also evoked more favorable responses in ob-
servers (Keltner & Bonanno, 1997). Recently,
Fredrickson et al. (2003) demonstrated that the
links between personality measures of resil-
ience and adjustment following the September
11th attacks were mediated by the experience of
positive emotions (e.g., gratitude, interest,
love). Finally, the expression of positive emo-
tion among young adult survivors of childhood
sexual abuse predicted better adjustment and
better social relations over time (Colak et al.,
2003). The latter study also suggested, however,
that although laughter in the context of a so-
cially stigmatized event like childhood sexual
abuse predicts better adjustment, it may also
carry social costs (e.g., decreased social com-
petence). Clearly, this is an important area for
further research.
Toward a Broader Conceptualization of
Stress Responding
The evidence reviewed above presents an
important challenge to the view that adults who
do not show distress following a loss or violent
or life-threatening event are either pathological
or rare and exceptionally healthy. Rather, this
evidence suggests that resilience is common, is
109LOSS, TRAUMA, AND HUMAN RESILIENCE AFTER ADVERSE EVENTS
distinct from the process of recovery, and can
potentially be reached by a variety of different
pathways. What lessons might these points offer
for future understanding of human stress re-
sponding? Within a broader context, psycholo-
gists might try to understand why resilience in
the face of loss or trauma has so often been
misunderstood by considering the myriad errors
and biases in judgment that occur under condi-
tions of uncertainty (e.g., the availability heu-
ristic; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Others al-
ready have probed the limitations of clinical
inference from this perspective (e.g., Dawes,
1994). However, what might be particularly in-
teresting to explore is the frequent failure not
only to grasp the prevalence of resilience to loss
and trauma but also to comprehend its many
forms. Clearly, researchers and theorists need to
move beyond overly simplistic conceptions of
health and pathology to embrace the broader
costs and benefits of various dispositions and
adaptive mechanisms. Trade-offs of this sort
can be found everywhere in nature. Cheetahs,
for example, possess breath-taking speed but
have poor stamina and must catch their prey
quickly or starve. In a similar vein, people prone
to the use of self-enhancing biases enjoy high
self-esteem but tend to annoy those who do not
know them well (Paulhus, 1998). Overly sim-
plistic conceptions of self-enhancers as dys-
functional obfuscate the coping advantage these
individuals show when confronted with truly
aversive situations (Bonanno, Field, et al.,
2002).
It is imperative that future investigations of
loss and trauma include more detailed study of
the full range of possible outcomes; simply put,
dysfunction cannot be fully understood without
a deeper understanding of health and resilience.
By viewing resilient functioning through the
same empirical lens as chronic forms of dys-
function and more time-limited recovery pat-
terns, researchers will be able to examine and
contrast each of these patterns. Many questions
await investigation. A crucial issue pertains to
the commonalities and differences in resilient
functioning across the life span. Developmental
theorists have argued that resilience to aversive
childhood contexts results from a cumulative
and interactive mix of genetic (e.g., disposi-
tion), personal (e.g., family interaction), and
environmental (e.g., community support sys-
tems) risk and protective factors (Rutter, 1999;
Werner, 1995). Although in some ways adult
resilience to loss and trauma presents a simpler
problem (e.g., the aversive context is centered
on a single event, and the developmental issues
unfold at a more gradual pace), it is nonetheless
crucial to determine how resilience to loss or
trauma may vary across the life span, how adult
resilience relates to developmental experiences,
and whether the various factors that inform
adult resilience might also function in a cumu-
lative and interactive manner (McFarlane & Ye-
huda, 1996). Researchers might also ask
whether adults can learn to be more resilient to
aversive events by, for example, extending
some of the wellness-promotion factors devel-
oped for children (e.g., Cowen, 1991) or
whether different protective factors foster resil-
ience for different types of events, as has been
suggested by studies of risk factors for PTSD
(Brewin et al., 2000). As we move into the next
millennium, it will be imperative to address
these questions and to take a fresh look at the
various ways people adapt and even flourish in
the face of what otherwise would seem to be
potentially debilitating events.
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113LOSS, TRAUMA, AND HUMAN RESILIENCE AFTER ADVERSE EVENTS
... and 3) developing in the face of adversity (Bonanno, 2004(Bonanno, , 2005Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990). Therefore, resilient individuals are found to have high levels of ability to cope with adversity (Luthans, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000;Windle, 2011;Becker & Ferry, 2016). ...
... Gender can be confounded with many other factors, inclusive of occupations, culture-specific social roles, and expectations (Sulsky & Smith, 2005;Maslach & Leiter, 2008). Limited studies have explored gender differences on PsyCap (Rani, 2018;Caza, 2010;Singh & Garg, 2014;Parthi & Gupta, 2014;Barmola, 2013), with few studies highlighting the role of gender differences on resilience, for example showing that men are more resilient compared to women (Bonanno, 2004;Tantry & Singh, 2010). High PsyCap among males as compared to females was reported in a study by Khera & Singh (2010), a trend that was attributed to higher PsyCap values among males due to their cultural upbringing (i.e., raising males differently from females in the Indian context encourages a sense of superiority in males). ...
Article
Background: Over the last couple of decades, psychological wellbeing at work has increasingly received research attention, particularly in light of a rise in the prevalence of mental health issues in work sectors that present with high job demand levels. High levels of stress, anxiety and depression have been documented in the banking workforce too and have been associated with personal and organizational factors that can be detrimental to psychological wellbeing at work in various Western and Eastern countries. Within a positive psychology framework, the construct of Psychological Capital (PsyCap) has become pertinent to the study and reinforcement of mental wellbeing in the workplace in terms of its focus on the development of the four dimensions it comprises of, i.e., hope, optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy. While PsyCap as a personal resource has been found to improve psychological wellbeing at work, Perceived Organizational Support (POS) has also been shown to contribute to wellbeing at work as well as to work satisfaction and performance; however, the relationship among PsyCap, POS and psychological wellbeing in the banking sector in either Western or Eastern countries has been under-researched. Aim: This is the first study aimed to investigate the role of psychological wellbeing in the banking workforce in relation to a PsyCap framework that also considers the contributing role of POS in the relationship between PsyCap and psychological wellbeing. The study will also adopt a comparative approach, aiming to explore any cultural and/or gender differences in the nature of the relationship among PsyCap, psychological wellbeing and POS in bank employees at a Western, i.e., U.K. and an eastern, i.e., India, organization site. Method: Following a systematic narrative review into the literature on PsyCap, studied along with aspects of psychological wellbeing and POS in the occupational sector (inclusive of students) that informed the aims of the current investigation, a mixed methods approach was adopted to explore the nature of the relationship among PsyCap, psychological wellbeing and POS in the U.K. and the India banking sector. In the quantitative part, validated self-report scales were distributed through an online survey or manually for completion, i.e. psychological capital (PsyCap; Luthans, Avolio, Avey, & Norman, 2007), perceived organizational support (POS; Eisenberger, 1986) and psychological wellbeing (DASS; Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995); the qualitative exploration employed semi-structured interviews with a subsample of those who participated in the quantitative part to enquire in more depth into factors associated with PsyCap, wellbeing and POS as well as the nature of stressors at work and the coping strategies adopted to deal with these stressors. Results: Quantitative data findings showed PsyCap -and its dimensions to be negatively correlated with (poor) psychological wellbeing. POS was negatively correlated with (poor) psychological wellbeing and positively correlated to PsyCap & its dimensions. POS moderated the relationship between PsyCap and psychological wellbeing in the total combined sample of U.K and India based bank employees (n=475) and in the U.K. bank employee sample (n=230) per se but did not serve as a moderator in this relationship for the India bank employee sample (n=245). Further, significant gender differences were seen on the domains of hope and optimism of PsyCap as well as on POS and on the domains of stress and anxiety of psychological wellbeing, among the banking cohort at both sites. Qualitatively, emerged themes derived from thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke,2006) were common and/or site-specific and reflected: the importance of POS (e.g., support from colleagues/managers, recognition of work and well-defined work parameters) in effective work performance; the link between PsyCap (e.g., optimism) and work performance; the link between POS (e.g., recognition of work) and PsyCap (e.g., self-efficacy) in effective work performance; the link between POS (e.g., provision of wellbeing programs) and work performance as well as psychological wellbeing; the link between stressors and various coping strategies with psychological wellbeing; and the importance of positive psychology approaches in stress reduction and improved work performance. Notably, managerial support and wellbeing program provision were found lacking at the India bank site. Conclusion: The combined pattern of findings suggests that PsyCap can be a vital personal resource for improving wellbeing at work as well as work performance that can be further developed, along with take-up of organizational support. Future research needs to further investigate the synergistic contribution of PsyCap and POS as personal and organizational sources for improving psychological wellbeing at work while Western practice can potentially inform India bank sites on the implementation of beneficial organizational support sources at work.
... inversely related to both PTSD and PTG [51]. Resilience has been defined as an individual's ability to maintain equilibrium when experiencing aversive life circumstances [52], whereas PTG is an individual's capacity to use the process of distress to enable them to make improvements in their life following a trauma [43]. Bonanno, Wortman and Nesse [53] propose that resilience provides a stability that results in less struggle with the aftermath of trauma, resulting in less of a need to make sense of events. ...
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Both post-traumatic growth (PTG) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are associated with spirituality and different kinds of repetitive thinking, such as deliberate rumination (DR) and intrusive rumination (IR), respectively. This study aimed to examine if spirituality modifies the relationship between types of rumination and trauma outcomes. Ninety-six students completed an online survey of four questionnaires in a cross-sectional online survey: The Posttraumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale, the Event Related Rumination Inventory, the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory-Short form and the Expressions of Spirituality Inventory- Revised. Findings revealed that spirituality was related to DR and PTG, but not to IR or PTSD symptoms. Moderation analysis showed that spirituality significantly moderated the relationship between PTG and DR, but not the relationship between PTSD and IR. These findings indicate that while spirituality has no relationship with negative outcomes of trauma, it may help individuals to ruminate in a constructive manner in order to develop positive outcomes.
... Another defining feature of literature examining the psychological outcomes of Australian bushfires is the focus on measuring the development of psychopathology (e.g., PTSD, MDD, and anxietyrelated disorders). Less so does research examine adaptive psychological responses following such events (e.g., posttraumatic growth and coping; Harms et al., 2018;Hooper et al., 2018), despite growth and recovery being a 'typical' outcome of trauma (Bonanno, 2004;McFarlane et al., 1997). Indeed, adaptive responses have been observed following other natural disaster events (e.g., hurricane, Schneider et al., 2019;earthquake, Guo et al., 2017). ...
Article
Objective: We investigated how Australian community members (N = 318) indirectly and/or directly exposed to Australia's 2019/20 bushfire season differed in terms of psychological distress, posttraumatic growth, coping, physical health, and COVID-19 anxiety. Method: This was a cross-sectional study with a nonequivalent groups design. Participants were over 18 years old, English proficient, and Australian permanent residents or citizens living in Australia at some point between June 2019 and February 2020. Participants completed a 10-minute anonymous online survey 5 to 8 weeks following the bushfires. Results: A descriptive discriminant analysis revealed a statistically significant difference between bushfire exposure groups when considering our dependent variables of interest simultaneously and adjusting for prior mental health assistance and prior exposure to natural disasters: F(10, 624) = 2.83, p = .002; V = .087, partial η² = .043. The group centroid for the indirect-only exposure group (-.374) was substantially lower than that for the other 2 groups (direct only: .137; direct + indirect: .224), indicating that the indirect-only exposure group could be differentiated by the fact that they more frequently reported avoidant coping strategies and endorsed lower posttraumatic growth scores than the direct-only and direct + indirect exposure groups. The variance accounted for by these discriminant variables was 8.4%, indicating a very small effect. Conclusion: Our results point to a need to tailor and/or expand disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts such that they might benefit community members both directly and indirectly exposed to bushfire events in Australia. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2022 APA, all rights reserved).
... In addition, there were no changes to psychological resilience following the intervention program. This partly may be due to the sensitivity of Connor-Davidson scale or simply that firefighters already have high levels of resilience based on their current job performance, coping mechanisms and experience (Bonanno, 2004) leaving further improvements more difficult to obtain. Alternatively, there may exist avenues for more targeted strategies to boost this resiliency outside that of a physical training intervention (e.g., supported by psychologically targeted programs). ...
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Collective memories of trauma can have profound impact on the affected individuals and communities. In the context of intergroup conflict, in the present article, we propose a novel theoretical framework to understand the long-term impact of historical trauma on contemporary intergroup relations from both victim and perpetrator perspectives. Integrating past research on intergroup conflict and the biopsychosocial model of threat and challenge, we argue that people appraise their group’s past victimization and perpetration differently, either as a threat or as a challenge. Shaped by contextual factors and individual differences, these differential appraisals will subsequently influence how group members respond to contemporary intergroup conflict, with both adaptive and maladaptive consequences. This model contributes to unifying the previous research that has shown diverse effects of historical trauma on present-day intergroup dynamics. We present preliminary empirical evidence in support of the framework and discuss its theoretical and practical implications.
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