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Down But Not Out: Staying Mentally Stable in Tough Times


Dr. George Bonano

Dr. George Bonano

Just as loss itself comes in different flavors, from the bittersweetness of divorce to the acid tang of public condemnation, so too do people’s responses to loss differ, sometimes wildly. There are people who fall hard and do not find their feet for a long time, if ever — a condition some psychiatrists call complicated grief. And the depth of this economic collapse has unceremoniously stripped thousands of far more than money: reputations have reversed; friendships have turned sour; families have fractured.
Yet experts say that the recent spate of suicides, while undeniably sad, amounts to no more than anecdotal, personal tragedy. The vast majority of people can and sometimes do weather stinging humiliation and loss without suffering any psychological wounds, and they do it by drawing on resources which they barely know they have.
“The fundamental point is that most people are extremely resilient, and we have shown this in studies of a wide variety of events — losing a spouse, a marriage, even a bodily function,” said George Bonanno, a professor of psychology at Columbia University.
In a recently completed study of 16,000 people, tracked for much of their lives, Dr. Bonanno, along with Anthony Mancini of Columbia and Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics, found that some 60 percent of people whose spouse died showed no change in self-reported well-being. Among people who’d been divorced, more than 70 percent showed no change in mental health. 
Many of those in the study who suffered serious distress — depending on the loss — rebounded psychologically, with time.
In a country where reinvention is considered a birthright, a certain type of loss — perhaps especially a “paper” loss, of net worth rather than irreplaceable life — may even seem an invitation to something better.
Or in the case of those who, like Mr. Madoff, had been living a treacherous, secret life, it could bring something even more precious: relief. 
“You’d think someone in that position,” Dr. Bonanno said, “would be almost delighted to be free of living that way.”
The article "The Loss Response: Down and Out — or Up" was published on January 11, 2009 in the New York Times
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