Life's challenges — death, divorce and injury, to name just a few — can definitely cause a dip in mental health. The good news is that a study finds that we generally recover from most of these difficult life events pretty well.
Some research has shown that in the long run, traumatic events have an surprisingly small effect on psychological functioning — that is, some data suggest that people going through painful life events are mostly OK throughout them.
Other research — not to mention most people’s personal experience — says otherwise. Traumatic or difficult life events do take an emotional toll, even if people eventually recover.
The idea that people are unfazed by life traumas could be very damaging if it is inaccurate. They’d make people think something was wrong with them if they did experience pain during difficult times, making the event even more harmful. So researchers at Arizona State University decided to look at this seeming contradiction in the evidence to determine how it came about.
The authors had a hunch that the conflicting findings might be the result of problems in the way certain studies were analyzed. Study author Suniya Luthar and her team looked at data on people’s psychological functioning after life events from past studies. They re-ran statistical tests, using different assumptions — for instance, rather than assuming that all people responded in the same way, the researchers created a model that assumed that people's responses differed somewhat, showing a range of psychological disturbance.
The results should help to take the pressure off us to seek to recover from adversity immediately and appear to be “fine” through it. This is just not how people work.
The outcome changed notably when the team changed the models’ assumptions: It went from the flat line of previous studies (suggesting that people’s psychological function didn’t change much during times of adversity) to showing a dip in psychological function, followed by a rebound.
The findings are much more closely in line with research in children showing that after adversity, kids' mental health may suffer temporarily, but that they generally recover.
As most people who have been through a life crisis know, it does affect mental health. Not forever, but for a period. The new study supports this idea, and may take the pressure off us to seek to recover immediately from adversity and appear to be “fine” through it. This is just not how people work.
“It is very important for the public and for policy-makers to know what a normal or common response to adversity is,” Luthar said. “This…can help people avoid self-blame when they are hurting or have a set-back in the aftermath of a major loss or other traumatic event. And it can help clinicians and policy-makers continue to provide support resources that are often critical in helping adults overcome major life adversities.”
The study is published in Clinical Psychology Review.