We all read stories about "extraordinary people" who are resilient when faced with tragedy. What we don't realize is that such resilience is not unusual.
In the face of loss or disaster, you will most likely be resilient too.
Take country music superstar Reba McEntire who has racked up more No. 1 songs than any other country female singer. She had the resilience to overcome "heaps of heartache," gushes a magazine story on her life.
Among other tragedies, a chartered plane carrying eight members of her road band crashed and all of them died.
The media features such stories of resilience as if they were rare.
But they are not, finds psychologist George Bonanno, who runs a laboratory at Columbia's Teacher's College dedicated to the study of trauma and loss.
"We underestimate the human capacity to thrive after extremely traumatic events," he finds.
Whether the loss is unemployment, divorce, or even the death of a spouse -- the event that tops the list of the worst sources of stress people experience -- the majority of us bounce back.
Yes, some people do experience devastating emotions and lose their ability to function after severe stress and loss. Some soldiers returning from combat do indeed experience post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some people who lose a spouse do suffer chronic grief.
But most do not.
Rigorous study of what actually happened to people who suffered in 9/11, who have experienced serious illness, who have even lost a beloved spouse, tells a different story.
"Typically, the most common outcome is a stable trajectory of healthy functioning or resilience," Bonanno writes in a 2011 article "Resilience to Loss and Potential Trauma" in The Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.
He identifies different patterns of reaction to traumatic events:
- Resilient: These people experience initial depression and disruption in their lives but these problems subside and they return quickly to normal functioning.
- Recovery: These people experience severe depression and disruption, far worse than the resilient group, but after awhile, a year or so, they recover.
- Delayed Reaction: These people not only suffer from the trauma ---their suffering climbs to higher and higher levels over time.
- Chronic Grief: These people suffer extremely severe initial reactions to the trauma and their suffering continues for many years.
Bonanno's most convincing study focuses on people who have undergone the most severe trauma of all -- the death of a spouse.
He was able to use a stellar source of information -- the German Socioeconomic Panel Study. This is a nationally representative sample of 16,795 people who took part in annual face-to-face interviews for many years covering a variety of topics, such as employment, life events, health, and income. Of these, 464 people who had suffered the loss of a spouse.
The huge advantage of this study was that Bonanno could measure people's well-being not only after the bereavement but also before.
Most studies just examine people's reactions after a tragedy so the researchers can't tell if the tragedy was the major cause of their problems or whether they were also doing poorly before.
The majority of people (58.7 percent) were resilient. They were doing well before they lost their spouse, their well-being dipped after the loss, but they went back to normal after about a year.
The second largest group (21.3 percent) were also doing well before their loss, suffered a very sharp dip in well-being after the loss, but recovered gradually over the next four years.
The third group (14.6 percent) were not doing well before their loss, experienced a sharp dip after the loss, but gradually recovered (to their earlier low levels of happiness) over the next four years.
This squares with common experience. I know many people for whom the death of their spouse hit hard but who later happily re-married or remained single and created a satisfying life.
"Bad things happen," says Bonanno. The good news is that the majority of us will be resilient and move on.
Judith Kleinfeld is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.