The Unintended Mental Health Benefits of Experiencing Mass Trauma

A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin informs that the effects of a mass trauma or natural disaster can benefit an individual’s mental health due to “psychosocial benefits of disaster”. The study suggests that these benefits may be a direct result of an increase in perceived social support and social resources.

Lead author and psychologist Anthony Mancini of Pace University in New York cites the example of the Virginia Tech campus shootings that inspired his research to illustrate this concept.

A study conducted at Virginia Tech on participants with anxiety and depression before the shooting revealed that nearly half of the group showed significant improvement in their mental state afterward.

After realizing that this was not an unusual phenomenon and formulating the theory of “psychosocial gain from disaster,” Mancini got a rare opportunity to test it in real time: using the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Mancini and his colleagues were conducting a study on college adjustment, which put them in the unique position of assessing the student body before and after the hurricane hit. The team went even further and studied another group of students two semesters later who were not exposed to a hurricane.

“Both comparisons showed that the hurricane cohort did better,” explains Mancini. “When we compared their functioning before and after, the hurricane cohort experienced reduced distress, negative emotions, and attachment avoidance.”

Students also report an increase in social support. The hurricane cohort, compared to the cohort one year later, had more social support, less attachment anxiety, and less attachment avoidance. This means that the hurricane cohort was actually better as a result of the hurricane.

Mancini explains that our instinct to connect with others after exposure to adversity likely has evolutionary roots, is linked to the attachment system, and helps us cope with adversity in general.

“Because social behavior and relationships are critical to mental health, stress can have surprising benefits on our level of distress, our concerns about our relationships, and the level of responsiveness we experience from others,” he explains.

For anyone who has recently experienced a natural disaster or is facing a similar stressor in their life, Mancini has this advice:

“Follow the instinct to connect with others after stressful experiences,” he explains. “They’ll likely be receptive, and you may find that you’ve made a new relationship or strengthened an existing one, both of which will benefit you in the future.”

However, Mancini mentions that acute stressors can also have negative consequences. For example, if a natural disaster forces you to leave your home, then the stressful effects on your mental health will obviously outweigh the beneficial effects.

“The point of the paper was to suggest a potentially favorable location for disaster and to reorient our understanding of these events,” he clarifies.

Despite the limitations, Mancini believes that his research and theory of psychosocial gains have merit for three main reasons:

  1. It does not require a person to be traumatized, unlike the post-traumatic growth perspective, which can only be beneficial after an individual has suffered a serious trauma and experience
  2. It involves automatic processes of social behavior rather than experiential reconstructive processes
  3. This happens immediately and does not require a long period of time

A full interview with psychologist Anthony Mancini discussing his research can be found here: The consequences of a fatal disaster can save you

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