Can A Devastating Incident Help Press The Reset Button For Your Mind?

Experiencing a disaster could jolt you out of your mental prison.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 20, 2022

A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin informs that the aftermath of a mass trauma or natural disaster could benefit an individual's mental health because of 'psychosocial gains from adversity.' The study suggests that these benefits could be a direct result of a spike in perceived social support and social resources.

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

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

After realizing that this wasn't an uncommon phenomenon and formulating the 'psychosocial gain from adversity' theory, Mancini got the rare opportunity to test it out in real time: using the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Mancini and his colleagues were conducting a study on adaptation to college in students, which placed them in the unique position of having an assessment of the student body before and after the hurricane hit. The team went a step further and studied another cohort of students two semesters later, which did not have any hurricane exposure.

"Both comparisons showed that the hurricane cohort was doing better," explains Mancini. "When we compared their functioning before and after, the hurricane cohort experienced reduced distress, negative emotion, and attachment avoidance."

The students also reported 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 off as a result of the hurricane.

Mancini explains that our instinct to affiliate with others after disaster exposure most likely has evolutionary roots, is related to the attachment system, and helps us cope with adversity generally.

"Because social behavior and relationships are critical to mental health, stress can then 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 weathered a natural disaster or faced a similar stressor in their life recently, Mancini has the following advice:

"Obey the instinct to affiliate with others after stressful experiences," he explains. "They will likely be receptive and you may find that you have forged a new relationship or strengthened an existing one, both of which will be to your benefit in the future."

Mancini mentions, however, that acute stressors can have negative consequences, too. For instance, if the natural disaster causes you to flee your home, then the stressful consequences for your mental health will obviously outweigh the favorable effects.

"The point of the paper was to suggest a potential sweet spot for disaster and to reorient our understanding of these events," he clarifies.

Limitations notwithstanding, Mancini believes that his research and the psychosocial gains theory has merit because of three fundamental reasons:

  1. It does not require one to be traumatized, as opposed to the post-traumatic growth perspective which can only benefit someone once the individual has undergone serious trauma and rumination
  2. It involves automatic processes of social behavior (not ruminative reconstructive processes)
  3. It 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 aftermath of a fatal disaster could save you