Winter 2021 Newsletter

Resiliency and recovery from trauma

two friends with arms around each other

The study of resilience is prevalent in current scientific research, as experts are intrigued by humans’ capacity for positive adaptation even in the face of extreme adversity. Resilience could be defined as having the ability to move forward, “bounce back”, or even experience personal growth after undergoing hardship or trauma. But as more studies are conducted on this subject, different ways to interpret resilience are being revealed. Researchers are finding individual differences in the cognitive processes that are exhibited in resilient people, including how people manage stress and emotions, and what coping strategies may work best for certain individuals.

Maria Galano
Maria Galano

UMass Amherst Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor Maria Galano studies how the mental health of children who have experienced early-life trauma varies depending on family processes and social environment. She tracks individual pathways to the development of a disorder as well as resilient outcomes following exposure to violence.

In a past research project, Galano found differences in the types of cognitions (thoughts, mental images) that occurred in children who had witnessed intimate partner violence (IPV). Latinx children reported feeling significantly less threatened by the violence they had experienced, and they saw it first-hand less often than Black and White children. How kids process the events they observe and potentially blame themselves for what has happened can impact their risk of developing a mental health issue such as PTSD or depression.

In a related study, Galano is currently exploring the capabilities of preschoolers who have witnessed violence in terms of how they regulate their emotions and show pro-social behavior. Galano relates, “resilience is more of a capacity for growth or change, or a capacity to adapt positively…so for a young child it's about saying, ‘what are their developmental competencies, what are the functional things that for example, a five-year-old is supposed to be able to do.’”

Resiliency in young children could be revealed as being an adept student at school, interacting with peers, and making positive social connections despite having a risky or traumatic family context at home. For young adults in a similar situation, showing resiliency could be as simple as performing their daily work and responsibilities.

Certain coping strategies have been described in people who display more resiliency. ‘Problem-focused coping’ is when a person is making attempts to take control of life stress, change a troubling set of circumstances, or seek help. Making efforts to cognitively reframe a distressing situation, having hope for the future, and building determination to overcome hardship are also strategies used by resilient people. 

Graduate student Minji Lee, advised by Galano, is currently analyzing differential effects of campus climate on health outcomes for marginalized groups. She has also begun to examine group differences in the effectiveness of various coping behaviors students utilize.

“One important thing to keep in mind about resilience is that it isn't necessarily an end point, and I think that's sometimes hard to imagine but you don't achieve resilience and then you're done. You can have moments and at times be more resilient in different aspects of your life and you can have supports in your life that promote resilience,” explains Galano. She adds that healing from trauma is a complex process and a person doesn’t lose their ability to be resilient even if they start to struggle more at a certain point in their life. An individual can be resilient and have mental health problems they’re working through at the same time.

“The most robust predictor of resiliency tends to be social support…good parent-child relationships, relationships with siblings, support from peers, support from schools and teachers, and other kinds of social institutions. That's what really helps to promote resilience in people,” says Galano.

A study on the efficacy of the Mom’s Empowerment Program (MEP), an intervention addressing trauma symptoms resulting from IPV, found that when both a child and their mother participated in the program, rather than just the child, children’s mental health improved more. Resources like this are very important for recovery, and yet there are disparities in the types of family networks that exist and the availability of public supports when comparing different communities.

“I think [this study] speaks to the importance of providing support to families and whole communities particularly in the wake of traumatic events…building that support, providing those resources across multiple systems is going to help people recover,” says Galano. She went on to conduct further studies on the effectiveness of MEP and how it can improve the health of Latinas and reduce IPV.

Can people become emotionally stronger or more resilient after experiencing trauma? The term ‘post-traumatic growth’ is used to describe ways in which people change after troubling events. An individual could become more determined to improve their life, show greater independence, or begin to rely more on others and develop deeper relationships in the process.

Even with this capacity for growth, research has shown that the need to be resilient can be taxing on a person’s physical health, an effect known as the ‘cost of resilience.’ Galano expresses, “we can't take our eyes off of the prevention of trauma and violence because even when people are able to be resilient or grow from those experiences, that comes with potential costs.”