Sometimes, just when life seems to be going well, something pulls the rug out from under you and sends you spinning. Life changes an enormous amount in a short period, and we have to learn to adapt in order to survive and thrive.
These sorts of changes can be due to negative circumstances (bereavements, redundancy, having an accident or illness affect you, etc). They can also be due to positive events which cause significant change (moving to university, having children etc). Sometimes, life stays the same, but throws problem after problem your way.
Why is it that some people psychologically cope with such challenges and life transitions more easily than others?
One explanation is that some people are simply mentally tougher. The argument is that, much like people are physically weaker or stronger, some are also more or less resilient to challenges. Highly resilient individuals are hit less hard by negative events, and bounce back quicker. These qualities can be developed over time, but in a short period (say a few weeks or months) your basic levels of resilience will stay more or less the same.
These ideas around having psychological ‘grit’ or psychological resilience are well tested, and a number of questionnaire based scales have been developed to measure it. People with higher levels of resilience typically show reduced stress responses captured via self-report, and also physiological measures such as cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) and immune system responses. They also typically achieve better mental and physical health outcomes after facing difficult problems.
But, I don’t think that is the whole story. Two people with similar levels of ‘grit’ won’t always respond to problems as well or in the same way, which suggest other factors are at play…
…or a little help from my friends?
Another way of looking with how people cope under stress is looking at the social environment they inhabit. Research around social identities (the identities we have which are linked to groups we affiliate to) suggests that the groups we are in can act as a psychological resource. In other words, we can draw on the identities we have to manage when times are tough. The more groups we affiliate with meaningfully, the more resilient we seem to be.
Work from my own lab group at LSBU supports this notion – individuals who have to be fitted with a stoma (a valve allowing you to drain waste from your digestive system to a bag, obviously a life-changing event, with lots of negative impacts) often experience depression post-operation. We tracked a number of individuals going through the procedure from before the op to a few weeks after, asking questions about their mental health but, also, how they managed to maintain group identities.
What we observed was that those individuals who managed to maintain good ties with groups they associated with pre-op typically had better outcomes than those that did not. The more identities patients held, the better they did. Similar effects of multiple group memberships have been observed by many other researchers in a variety of contexts. These include psychological responses to limb amputation, addiction recovery, moving jobs and performing stressful tasks in the lab. In each case, having more group identities leads to better psychological (and, often, physical) outcomes.
We’ve also seen evidence of the flip side of identity – when social identities in one sphere of our lives (for instance, our cultural heritage, clash with another (for instance, our occupation) our ability to thrive and survive drops.
What mechanisms underpin this effect? The truth is, we don’t yet know for sure (but we are working on it!). One possibility is that if you see your group as ‘tough’ you may see yourself (as a group member) as ‘tough’ also. It may be that simply knowing you can reach out to others for help (without actually doing it) makes you feel better, and the more groups you have the more you feel this is possible. It could be that being in more groups makes more examples of people being able to cope come to mind, or just groups makes you generally busier which keeps your mind off your troubles.
The chances are it is probably many of these explanations (and some we haven’t begun to test yet!) in combination. However, no matter what the underlying mechanism, the evidence is now quite clear – being in a group is (usually!) good for you. Being in a good few is even better!