As seen in Psychology Today.
Individuals all around the world undergo a variety of different situations in their lives that may result in undue stress and mental strain. Be it the loss of a loved one or the aftereffects of a natural disaster, human suffering is universal not in its form, but in its mere presence. An estimated 82.7% of the United States population will experience at least one severely traumatic event in their lives (Koenen et al, 2017).
Similarly, many coping mechanisms in response to traumatic events are universally employed across cultures, some holding a plethora of benefits if implemented, and some actually doing more harm than good. As individuals can display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after distressing events, it’s crucial to keep in mind possible coping mechanisms that can serve to assuage and minimize harmful symptoms.
The following explanations of some relevant coping mechanisms have been garnered from recent studies conducted by myself and my peers on the severity of PTSD symptoms in Pakistan among survivors of the devastating 2005 earthquake. Certain coping mechanisms correlated either with higher or lower depressive and PTSD symptoms, the combination of both being labeled total symptom severity complex (TSSC).
Faith- and Religious-Based Coping Practices
Most people subscribe to a certain faith or religion, with more than 8 out of 10 people identifying with a religious group worldwide, according to The Guardian. As such, an undeniable aspect of trauma response for many people is their perception of said events through a religious or faith-based lens.
In some cases, faith /religion can be a greatly beneficial coping mechanism to process and rationalize certain scenarios — beliefs that contextualize traumatic events in the scope of one’s perceived larger purpose in life tend to be especially beneficial. It is important to note that while generally positive religious coping has been associated with lower depression levels and healthier adjustments to stress (Ano and Vasconcelles, 2005; Koenig, 2009), its association with PTSD symptom levels has not been confirmed.
Conversely, certain religious beliefs that fixate on sin or wrongdoing can actually heighten negative responses. For example, sentiments associated with guilt and punishment tend to hold negative effects on one’s response to trauma if consistently dwelled upon, and can actually heighten symptoms of PTSD.
Secondly, specific mindsets proved to be particularly dangerous in propelling TSSC symptoms: “I express my anger with God” and “I feel God is punishing me for my sins or lack of faith.” Interestingly enough, even if one felt as though they had a purpose in life (a positive coping mechanism that will be discussed later), the negative religious coping mechanisms were enough to outweigh this positive one. Those who maintained these negative coping mechanisms were more likely to experience persistent depressive and PTSD symptoms.
While the benefits of the aforementioned coping practices overall depend on an individual’s religious perception, the following coping practices have been proven to be universally helpful.
Purpose in Life and Optimism
Many instances of positive responses to traumatic experiences involve integrating the traumatic event into one’s worldview, thus shifting while still maintaining a sense of purpose in life. Studies involving individuals from the African American community with frequent trauma exposure (Alim et. al, 2008) have found that a strong sense of purpose prior to traumatic situations can promote resilient outcomes and that regaining a sense of purpose can potentially be the basis for a strong recovery. These findings parallel what my colleagues and I have observed in Pakistani earthquake survivors, highlighting the fact that both the sheer power as well as a sense of purpose in life help in decreasing symptoms of psychological illness, as well as significantly improving recovery processes. Consequently, the importance of a sense of purpose in one’s life cannot be understated, as it clearly shows universal benefit.
Similarly, something as simple as an optimistic mindset can significantly lower symptoms of PTSD and depression among trauma survivors. Positive emotions have actually been found to promote better physical and mental health, efficient emotion regulation, and quicker physiological recovery from stress-related situations; this link has been confirmed in a myriad of studies (Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004; Cohn et al., 2009; Folkman, 2008[JF3] ).
Lastly, a network of social support can further aid in healthier responses to trauma. While our study did not directly find associations between perceived social support and PTSD symptoms, respondents did mark higher levels of self-reported positive emotions. Generally, when feelings of isolation and detachment are fended off by communal support, it follows that individuals can better cope with stressful situations. As such, many studies of earthquake survivors reported the associations between social support and adaptive coping strategies with a generally better quality of life (Ke et al., 2010; Tang, 2006; Wang et al., 2011). Thus, a society’s emphasis on community can serve to take the heavy weight of traumatic events off an individual going through a crisis.
Implementing Coping Mechanisms
As mentioned earlier, it is undeniable that most people will undergo events in their lives in which coping mechanisms will be necessary. Keeping in mind the beneficial aspects of a general positive outlook on life can help individuals cultivate purposeful mindsets, such as optimism and a sense of purpose. Conversely, identifying negative thought processes and perceptions of religious views is important to understand when certain aspects of spirituality may be doing more harm than good.
As we move forward from the recent events of mass stress and trauma secondary to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind which coping mechanisms have proven to be helpful, and which ones may not be the most beneficial for future wellness and mental health.