Why do some people develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) after a trauma and others remain symptom free? We're not sure, but researchers are looking more deeply into this question.
The ability to bounce back from adversity has been referred to as "resilience." It is a key ingredient in good mental health. We have long known that some people handle stress better than others. Why are some Viet Nam combat veterans handicapped for life, while others become United States senators? Why do some adults raised in alcoholic families do well, while others have repeated problems in life? The characteristic of "resilience" is shared by those who cope well with stress.
Much of the research on resilience had looked at how adults react to the death of a spouse. Studies have found that many bereaved individuals exhibit few or no mental health symptoms and continue to function normally or almost normally. In most studies a minority of people do develop symptoms.
Resilience after the World Trade Center Attack
A more recent study looked at 2,752 New York City area residents who were living in the area at the time of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack. Some members of the sample were actually in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, while others were exposed to the trauma in less extreme ways. Two thirds of the sample had either no symptoms of PTSD or only a single symptom. Resilience was lowest in Staten Island residents (48%) and unmarried couples (39%). Resilience was less common among more highly exposed individuals, but the frequency of resilience never fell below one third.
This study adds to our understanding of resilience, but we have yet to identify all of the factors that increase resilience. The authors of the World Trade Center study suggest that there are many different ways to become resilient. Future research may help us bounce back more strongly in the face of future trauma.
How to become More Resilient
We do know that social support helps. Maintain good relationships with family and friends, and turn to them in a time of crisis. You may feel stronger "going it alone," but you will bounce back more quickly if you have help from supportive people who care about you.
Source: Bonanno, George, et. al. "Psychological Resilience After Disaster. New York City in the Aftermath of the September 11th Terrorist Attack" Psychological Science 17:3 (2006) 181-186.