Putting Resilience Interventions to the Test

I recently read a very lengthy fascinating article on how science in the Middle East is being used to document teens stress levels using hair analysis. Here is my summary.

In 2015 more than 800 teenage boys and girls in northern Jordan each allowed 100 strands of hair to be snipped from their heads. Half the teens were Syrian refugees, the other half Jordanians living in the area.

The study was carried out by molecular biologist Rana Dajani from the Hashemite University in Az-Zarqa, Jordan. She was eager to study the physiological effects of conflict and she partnered with medical anthropologist Catherine Panter-Brick from Yale University.

The program they use teaches stress management and relationship skills to at-risk 11 to 18 -year-olds to enhance the resilience of children affected by war and other disasters.

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That’s where the hair collection came in. Panter-Brick and Dajani hired professional hairdressers, who collected the strands while offering the teens stylish hairdos. The samples were then shipped to a lab at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. While the Canadian scientists ground up the strands and measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol, research assistants interviewed the teens about past traumas and current stress.

On average, just 16 sessions of psychological coaching, had the power to deliver on the boosting resilience by alleviating stress, strengthening relationships, and “healing the scars of conflict.”

Before answering that question, social scientists and psychologists had to consider what, exactly, resilience is. They have yet to agree. Some believe resilience means restoring mental health after a traumatic event. Others consider it a conscious determination to persevere under difficult circumstances. Still others describe it as a child’s ability to benefit from external resources, such as a caring adult. To complicate matters, humanitarian groups use the term resilience to describe any or all these positive outcomes.

Despite the cacophony of definitions, most studies of resilience interventions in children ask one of two questions: Does a program promote existing mental health by helping children cope with war and displacement? Or does it prevent mental health complications for which children are now at higher risk?

Despite the mixed results of resilience training, the program head said… “I think the research is showing that it is possible to teach resilience” to conflict-affected children.

Panter-Brick believe that for children, resilience has three dimensions: individual strengths, relationships with family and peers, and community support.

The intensive program Panter-Brick and Dajani evaluated in Jordan lasted 2 months. In it, teenagers gathered at a youth centre twice a week to participate in group activities of their choosing, including soccer, sewing, and computer repair. Those activities were meant to foster social bonds and build confidence and competence. Participants also learned how chronic stress can affect the brain—for example, by impairing impulse control. Coaches practiced relationship-building skills with the teenagers, such as expressing affection and empathy.

the team reported in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in October 2017. Findings from the hair strands suggested a benefit: Average cortisol levels in the intervention group dropped by a third, the researchers reported.

Resilience “isn’t simply in the child, but embedded in their family, caregivers, and community,” the researchers stated.

The Stress Management Institute® conducts training for those individuals who wish to become a qualified Stress Management Practitioner or Stress Management Facilitator and in 2018 we are launching a new short course, the Stress to Strength System Advocate. We invite you to embark on one of these exciting career courses for supporting people who are struggling to cope with stress. If you are looking for a career change, or you wish to add a Stress Management and Emotional Resilience specialty to your current career, please call us on +61 1 300 663 979 or email info@stressmanagementinstitute.org

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